There are no easy answers to comfort those who have suffered such a big loss, there are no magic formulas that will make the pain disappear. It is natural to feel useless when the child of a friend or relative dies; remember that showing your loving concern can be a comfort to a grieving family. Do not avoid them because you feel inadequate. A family is more likely to achieve a healthy and positive resolution of its pain if it receives support and understanding.
The following suggestions can help you provide that support:
- Do not try to find the magic words that will remove the pain. They do not exist. A hug, a touch and a simple "I'm so sorry" can offer support and warmth.
- Do not be afraid to cry. Your tears are related to both the child and the parents. They will cry with you, and their tears will be a healthy way to deal with pain.
- Avoid saying "I know how you feel". It is very difficult to understand the depth of loss when a child dies and you can not really understand it if you have not.
- Avoid saying "it was God's will" and other clichés that attempt to minimize or explain death. Do not try to find something positive in the child's death, such as "at least you have other children" or "it was better this way". There are no words that can make it acceptable for parents that their child is gone.
- Listen! Let the parents express the anger, the questions, the pain, and the guilt that they are experiencing. Try to understand that parents often need to repeatedly talk about their child and the circumstances of death. It may be helpful to encourage them to communicate by asking a delicate question such as "do you want to tell me about it?"
- Avoid judgments of any kind. "You should ..." or "you should not ..." are not appropriate or useful.
Decisions about showing or removing photographs, reliving the event, the idealization of the child, or the expression of anger, depression or guilt may seem extreme in many cases. These patterns of behavior are normal, especially during the first few years following the child's death, and they should not be repressed without addressing them.
- Be aware that, for parents with religious beliefs, the death of their child can raise serious questions about the role of God in this case. Do not try to offer answers. If parents raise the subject, it would be better to listen and allow them to explore their feelings. They need to arrive alone for an answer.
- Be present. Help the family at home, give a hand in whatever is necessary. Do not say "Tell me if there is anything I can do". They probably will not call you on their own even in case of need. Inquire about what needs to be done and offer to do something specific.
- Pay special attention to siblings or little sisters. They are damaged, confused and often ignore what is happening. Do not think that they are not suffering just because they do not show it. Many brothers suppress their pain to avoid adding more to their parents. Communicate with them and help them express their loss.
- Say the name of the child who died. Do not be afraid that talking about the child will cause parents extra pain. The opposite is usually true. Using the child's name, let parents know that they are not the only ones to remember their child.
- Be patient. Remember that every family responds differently to their pain. Some verbalise, others may seem incapable or unwilling to communicate, some withdraw, others react angrily or still pretend nothing, but all suffer very much.
- Share the child's memory. "I remember when he ..." can reassure parents that you appreciate their child and that you are aware of their sense of loss. Do not be afraid to laugh with happy memories.
- There is no standard time for recovery. The pain usually lasts longer than a person can think. Advise the family to be very patient and take all the time necessary. You often hear "life goes on, it's time for you to turn the page!" These requests are unjust and unrealistic. When parents express a concern about being tired, depressed, angry, irritable, unable to concentrate or unwilling to follow the normal daily tasks, reassure them that the process of mourning takes time and that they should not expect too much and too soon to themselves.
- Be sensitive to changes in family experience. Family members will adopt new behaviors and roles as they learn to live without the child. This process is long and painful. Do not think that sooner or later your friends will return to be the same after this experience, and do not even think of them.
- Suggest external help. Often the family could benefit greatly from contacting a psychologist or support groups. Do not just suggest it generically, find out if there is something specific in your city and provide precise references.
- Continue your contact with the family. The pain does not end at the funeral or the first anniversary. Stay in touch often.