Do you know anyone who has lost a child?
Did you know what to say or do?
Do you work where you have to deal with that kind of loss?
Death is not a topic many like to discuss, especially not he death of young people. Many of us know families who have lost a child, grandchild or sibling. We may work in hospitals, funeral homes, hospice, emergency response or other organizations that support the families through that horrible trauma.
Losing a child at any age from any cause is NOT like losing your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends or pets. It is unnatural. If you are a parent, you are programmed your whole life to protect your children. When you can no longer take care of them because they’ve passed on – no matter what the reason – it is extraordinarily devastating. These families need special consideration, patience and TLC. They are truly in shock, even after a long illness. Their short-term cognitive abilities and emotions suffer greatly.
However, from others’ point of view — talking to these families is scary too. “Could that happen to my family? Is it contagious? Will it hurt them for me to bring it up?” These are questions I’m sure many who have not lost a child think, even if only unconsciously. They want to help but do not know how, as they are at a loss for what to say or do. People at organizations, like hospitals, that deal with this type of loss may even get desensitized over time — to protect themselves.
You cannot make those in pain any worse by brining up the loss – it is always “in their face.”
Know that most of these families want you to acknowledge their loss and it is even better if you can use their child’s name. A simple “I’m so sorry for your loss. Is there anything I can do for you?” helps. Then get ready to LISTEN… really listen, not while distracted or getting ready-to-run. A bereaved parent can tell if you are truly present or not. He or she also knows when you are avoiding them. Look in their eyes or reach out to them, if that is comfortable for you both. Having someone listen and NOT judge them or try to fix them is a gift to them.
What usually happens is that these families may get great support when the loss occurs, as well as through the wake and funeral. But then people understandably get on with their lives. The bereaved families cannot move on. Their world has been rocked, and it will take a long time to heal. Everyone is unique and they should not be expected to heal on someone else’s timetable. Most wonder how the world can keep moving on without their child. Having someone care is invaluable to them.
For professional organizations, one key is to communicate with these families clearly, completely and compassionately. It is important to be empathetic and flexible, not placing hospital procedures or bureaucracy ahead of the emotional needs of the family, whenever possible. I incurred issues in the handling of my older son’s death in Arizona, described in my book. Now, I would like to help raise awareness and help improve treatment of families during the intense trauma from the loss of a child.
As a start, I met this week with Boston Medical Center. They were very open to discussing ways that I might work with their teams to help improve care. I help families struggling with grief after the loss of a child to find hope and happiness again; the most important work of my life.
I hope that these Tips for Those Who Support Bereaved Families are useful.
Thank you for caring,