Dying Matters Week: Helping a friend whose child has died

10 May 2017

Writing in our Autumn 2015 Newsletter, and updated for this year's Dying Matters Awareness Week, Martin House Chaplain Mark Clayton offers practical advice on helping a friend whose child has died.

A child’s death is one of the most heart-breaking experiences that a family can ever go through; but with time, and sometimes with different forms of help, most of those we accompany on the journey of bereavement are able to find new ways of integrating their grief into daily life. 

The rarity of child bereavement in our society and sometimes the sensationalising of it in the media mean that it is often misunderstood, and this can make it a very isolating experience for families. This isolation is often compounded by the strength of the feelings that well up at this time, which often make bereaved parents feel like they are ‘losing it’ or ‘going mad’, particularly when their feelings fluctuate greatly from one day to another.

In all this, friends and neighbours can be a great source of support and comfort, but they can also feel unsure how best to go about it. Overwhelmed by the enormity of what has happened, they can feel powerless to help, and ask themselves, “what is there that I can say or do that could make any difference?” or “how will my friend feel if I say the wrong thing?”

Be open and accepting

One thing that we are constantly learning in our work at Martin House is just how important it is to meet families, whose child has died, with an open mind and an open heart. When bereaved families say, “you’ll have to take me as you find me”, they are not asking that we already understand their feelings, but that we bring a willingness to listen and at least begin to understand them and the individuality of their grief.

Our openness and acceptance can make a difference because they allow emotions to begin to be expressed, whereas assumptions or expectations can very quickly close them down, and in turn put a strain on our relationship. The fear of saying the ‘wrong thing’ can be overcome by sensitively checking out whether certain words or actions are helpful or not, and this in itself can reduce a grieving person’s sense of isolation and be an expression of friendship towards them.

Don’t assume that time will heal

It is easy to assume that grief is time-limited and will ‘get better’ after a certain length of time (usually when we would like it to!), whereas in fact this is different for each family. They tell us that their grief never goes away, but they discover ways of living with it.  They also say that this journey is not so much like walking in a straight line as on a spiral staircase. A glimpse of another child who resembles theirs or the unexpected sound of some music that he or she loved can so easily touch a raw nerve and bring a torrent of emotions flooding back.

Just be there

Merely by their presence, as much as their words, friends can bring great reassurance to grieving families. Friendships are very precious, as they provide safety, companionship, and continuity at a time when the world feels very unsafe. Many friends are rightly wary of intruding, but may find ways of staying in touch with families after their child has died simply by letting them know that they are available when the time is right, or asking them if there is anything practical that they need.   

Don’t be afraid to ask for help

Organisations such as Child Bereavement UK, Winston’s Wish, and Care for the Family, as well as other children’s hospices, are increasingly developing resources to help friends and neighbours support families at this time. They endorse the importance of listening in a non-judgemental way and finding ordinary ways of expressing your friendship and care. They also emphasise other valuable aspects of responding to childhood bereavement, such as being sensitive to the different ways in which women and men grieve, offering support for siblings, and finding ways in which parents can remember and tell the story of the life of their beloved child.

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