Supporting someone who is bereaved can be incredibly challenging—a different kind of challenging from managing the grief. Most people feel ill-equiped to be around someone else that is grieving. It makes them feel awkward and helpless (two feelings that human beings don’t do particularly well with). Automatically, their nurturing instinct kicks in with the drive to “fix”. After all, that is what we do for others in pain. For example, if a child falls, we soothe them with words and the all-magical band aid. This enables everyone to feel better—the adult who was able to take actionable steps for a result and the child whose pain has lessened.
Grief is something that we cannot see, like an injury. Yet it is a pervasive injury. Similar to a virus, it needs time to heal, though traces will be left behind. Our good intentions might have us offering up platitudes or using religious parlance. Though the bereft in our midst might smile or absently thank us, most often, such phrases come across in a very opposite way from which we intend—they are received as hollow and empty. Often times, what a grieving person needs is something that is really difficult for someone that isn’t grieving.
Bereaved parents need others to show up.
Showing up might not involve a whole lot of talking or doing. There might be a lot of awkward silences. There are lots of ways to show up that might be within your comfort zone: send a card (more than just after the loss); bring food (again, not just immediately after the loss); text; call; or email. Showing up is about repetition.
Grief needs a place where the sadness can be held. If you want to help someone grieve, allow them to do so in your presence. It might make you cry as well. That’s OK. This is a great time to listen. You can be empathic without having shared the exact same experience. You can also say that you can’t imagine what this is like and wish you could do something more to help. You can own how you want to ease their pain, and recognize that you (or anyone) can’t.
There are certain times in the year that are harder than other times for grieving parents.
Holidays can be challenging as it is a time where the expectation is for family to be together. Holidays might be a flash point where the bereaved think about how the holiday was supposed to go—perhaps it was when the news of the upcoming arrival was going to be shared or it was going to be the baby’s first holiday season. They can feel empty and inauthentic. If it’s OK with the person or people bereaved, ask if you can incorporate their child into the celebration or family rituals performed during the holiday. Birthdays or due dates can be challenging as well. The time of year when the loss occurred (the anniversary) is another date that can be extremely challenging. Mark these dates in your calendar so that you can reach out in subsequent years. With holidays or milestones, remember the child lost.
Everyone has nuances in which they need others to help them with grief. Supporting someone who is grieving requires a kind of patience and mindfulness, as grief has no exact time line. It requires allowances for all emotions to be shared, including ones that are hard to tolerate, like sadness and anger. Since people are individuals, know that this is not nearly an exhaustive list.