Providing Grief Support After the Death of a Child
"The Compassionate Friends is about transforming the pain of grief into the elixir of hope. It takes
people out of the isolation society imposes on the bereaved and lets them express their grief naturally. With the shedding
of tears, healing comes. And the newly bereaved get to see people who have survived and are learning to live and love again."
–Simon Stephens, founder of The Compassionate Friends
"I think that one of the most challenging parts of coping with a huge loss is feeling like
we are walking in unchartered territory without a map. We feel completey lost. While it can certainly help to be around and
speak with those who have walked a similar path, ultimately it is we who need to take the next uncertain step into the unknown
and then another ever so gently, patiently, with the smallest amount of trust while breathing as deeply as we can (which isn't
often too deeply in the beginning) and slowly make our own way on the trail. One step at
One day we may turn around and look how far we have traveled and be amazed. Perhaps even wondering how we
made it through those first days, weeks and months and even years of that difficult journey. And other days it may feel
like we have not traveled much at all since the beginning. Grieving is one of the toughest challenges we experience. It
takes a lot of courage, patience, self-compassion and kindness.
~ Lisa Athan, Executive Director of
It is not fair for a child to
die. It is not right and it is out of the natural order. Loss of a child is one of the most painful losses imaginable. Since
I do encourage support for those who have had any type of loss, I will start by mentioning an international support program, The Compassionate Friends. Their website, which is: www.compassionatefriends.org
They are an amazing resource all over the world for families who have lost a child of any age to any circumstance.
Meetings, newsletters, conferences and support will be found with Compassionate Friends. Many attend there meetings
for a long time and others for a shorter time. Just meeting others who have experienced the loss of a child can be healing.
You do not have to talk if you attend a meeting. To find a chapter near you visit there site.
To help someone after a loss of a child:
The following suggestions may help you provide that support:
- Don’t try to find magic words that will take away the pain. There aren’t
any. A hug, a touch, and a simple, “I’m so sorry,” offer real comfort and support.
- Don’t be afraid to cry. Your tears are a tribute to both child
and parents. Yes, the parents may cry with you, but their tears can be a healthy release.
- Avoid saying, “I know how you feel.” It is very difficult to comprehend
the depth of the loss when a child dies, and to say you do may seem presumptuous to the parents.
- Avoid using “It was God’s will” and other clichés that attempt
to minimize or explain the death. Don’t try to find something positive in the child’s death, such as, “At
least you have other children.” There are no words that make it all right that their child has died.
- Listen! Let them express the anger, the questions, the pain, the disbelief,
and the guilt they may be experiencing. Understand that parents often have a need to talk about their child and the circumstances
of the death over and over again. It may be helpful to encourage them to talk by asking a gentle question such as, “Can
you tell me about it?”
- Avoid judgments of
any kind. “You should . . .” or “You shouldn’t . . .” is not appropriate or helpful. Decisions
and behaviors related to displaying or removing photographs, reliving the death, idealizing the child, or expressing anger,
depression, or guilt may appear extreme in many cases. These behavior patterns are normal, particularly in the first years
following the child’s death.
- Be aware that,
for parents with religious convictions, their child’s death may raise serious questions about God’s role in this
event. Do not presume to offer answers. If the parents raise the issue, it would be better to listen and allow them to explore
their own feelings. They will need to arrive at an individual philosophy about this.
- Be there. Run errands, help with household chores, provide child care, and help in whatever
way is needed. Don’t say, “Call me if there is anything I can do.” That call will probably never come. Be
aware of what needs to be done and offer to do specific tasks.
- Give special attention to surviving children. They are hurt, confused, and often ignored. Don’t assume they
are not hurting because they do not express their feelings. Many times siblings will suppress their grief to avoid adding
to their parents’ pain. Talk to them and acknowledge their loss.
- Mention the name of the child who has died. Don’t fear that talking about the child will cause
the parents additional pain. The opposite is usually true. Using the child’s name lets parents know that they are not
alone in remembering their child.
- Be patient. Understand
that grieving family members respond differently to their pain. Some verbalize, others may seem unable or unwilling to talk,
some withdraw, and others strike out angrily.
fond memories of the child through statements such as “I remember when she . . .” or “He had a wonderful
gift for . . .” can be reassuring to parents and show that you appreciated their child and are aware of their sense
of loss. Relate amusing anecdotes about the child. Don’t be afraid of laughter. It helps to heal the hurt.
- Remember the family on important days such as the child’s birthday
and death anniversaries. Send a card, call, or visit. Let them know you remember, too.
- Gently encourage a return to outside activities. Suggest a lunch or movie as relief
from the isolation of grief. If your invitation is declined, don’t give up! Ask again and again, if necessary. The third
or fourth time you call may be just the day that an outing would be welcome if someone took the initiative.
- There is no standard timetable for recovery. Grief usually lasts far
longer than anyone expects. Encourage bereaved families to be patient with themselves. They often hear, “Get on with
your life; it’s time you got over this!” Those demands are unfair and unrealistic. When parents express concernabout
being tired, depressed, angry, tearful, unable to concentrate, or are unwilling to get back into life’s routines, reassure
them that grief work takes time and that they may be expecting too much of themselves too soon.
- Be sensitive to the changes a bereaved family experiences. Family members will adopt
new behaviors and roles as they learn to live without the child. This is a painful and lengthy process. Don’t expect
your friends to be unchanged by this experience.
a grieving family to The Compassionate Friends. Many types of support are available, both online (www.compassionatefriends.org)
and through the nearly 600 TCF chapters in the United States which are ready to offer friendship, understanding, and hope
to bereaved families. Call the TCF National Office toll-free at 877-969-0010 for chapter referral information and to request
a no-charge customized bereavement packet.
your contact with the family. Grief does not end at the funeral or on the first anniversary. Stay in touch often, and in conversation,
as easily as you would mention any other member of the family, don’t forget to mention the name of the child who died.
On behalf of all families involved
in The Compassionate Friends, we thank you for caring enough to want to help. Your loving concern makes YOU a compassionate
The following guidelines will help you help the ones you love.
DO let your friend know you are there for her, in any form she needs. Whether you take her shopping, to a movie, for a long
walk, or just have a good long conversation, be her shoulder to cry on.
• DO NOT assume that she wants to
be left alone or surrounded by people in her sorrow. Everyone grieves differently, so ask her what she prefers.
• DO let
her know when you are reminded of the lost loved one. If the red of a cardinal brings to mind a little boy’s baseball
cap, let her know. She’ll appreciate the fact that you have not forgotten him.
• DO NOT assume that she knows how
much you miss him or what a hole has been left in your life. Many people, when grieving, come to believe that since the rest
of the world still turns their loss has been forgotten.
Links to helpful articles on coping with loss of a
A Journey Through Grief by Ann Hood. A moving and remarkable memoir about the sudden death of a daughter,
surviving grief, and learning to love again. Ann Hood's 5 year old daughter Grace died suddenly from a virulent form of strep
throat. Stunned and devastated, the family searched for comfort in a time when none seemed possible.
The Worst Loss: How Families Heal From the Loss of a Child by Barbara Rosof
Hannah's Gift by Maria
Housden Hannah's Gift tells
the story of Hannah Catherine Martell, a young girl who was diagnosed with a Rhabdoid tumor of the kidney, a rare and aggressive
form of cancer, at age two and died at age three. The author, Maria Housden, is Hannah's mother, and the book documents her
struggle to come to terms with her daughter's sickness and inevitable death while making changes in her own life.