If someone close to you has ever lost a child, you know how devastating that type of loss can be — and how utterly helpless it can feel to those who love them and can’t ease their pain. While there is no “fixing” this deep of a loss, there are things that friends and family can do to support them as they grieve.
Author Kimberly Calabrese, who lost her daughter Paris at six months old, wrote the book What Do I Do? A Step by Step Guide for Friends and Family to Support Anyone Who Has Lost a Child to help loved ones navigate this tragic time — from the moment you receive the message that their child has died and well into the future.
Get there right away
One of the most important things a close friend can do in the immediate aftermath of the loss of a child is show up, Calabrese says. Don’t assume someone else is taking the reins to help with funeral arrangements, arrange meals at the home, make phone calls and provide rides from the airport. Even if your loved one has a large family, they still need you.
“When we lose a child, we lose our immediate family for support at the beginning because they’re grieving, too,” she says. “But our friends think we have all this family support around us.”
The parents’ close friends should band together and divide up the tasks — and at the top of the list should be assigning someone to be with the parents at all times, particularly to take notes about funeral arrangements and make sure that all necessary details are being addressed.
But Calabrese stresses to also make sure someone is always with any living siblings of the child who died, to play with them, talk to them and get them out of the house for breaks as needed.
“Imagine finding out that your sibling died, and you don’t even know what that means,” she says. “And everyone is crying around them and people forget about them because everyone is so focused on their parents.”
Don’t ask what they need
It’s easy to feel helpless when someone you love is experiencing something as awful and unfixable as the loss of a child. You want to help, but you don’t know how to help. One thing you shouldn’t do? Is ask them how you can help. They have no idea what they need, Calabrese says.
“They ask us (what we need) but we’re looking at you like you have 10 eyes because we don’t even understand what just happened,” she says.
Instead, make a list of everything you do in a given day, week or month. You do laundry and make lunches for your living children, you go grocery shopping and take the trash out. These are the things they need, particularly if a certain task or errand is one in which they may see a lot of children.
Check in once a week
Once the funeral is over and most of the extended family and friends have left town, physically check in once a week for at least the first year. Be consistent and be relentless. Bring them a salad, take them out for coffee or just stop by to run the vacuum cleaner and make a list to take to the grocery store.
“Especially if there are siblings involved,” Calabrese says. “How do we know they’re even getting out of bed? You don’t know unless you show up.”
If you’re a long-distance friend, call at least once a week and be in contact with their local friends or family to ensure that someone is physically showing up frequently to check on them and offer support.
Remember the important dates
Reach out to them on the important dates. Their child’s birthday and the anniversary of their death are obvious ones, but also remember to acknowledge them on Mother’s Day or Father’s Day. Check in on other holidays, too, particularly in the first year, Calabrese says—and especially if they have other children. It may be a struggle for them to want to celebrate anything, and friends can step in to help make the holidays special for the other kids.
Also, continue to invite them to your own celebrations. They might not make it to your wedding shower or your kid’s birthday party (and do not take it personally if they don’t), but Calabrese says you should continue to include them. They will come when they’re ready.
Don’t forget the dads
A grieving father’s friends may sometimes have more work to do than a mother’s friends, Calabrese says, in terms of getting them to open up about their loss.
“The parents do both need equal support, but what I’ve noticed (in parent support groups) is that men were joining by themselves 7-10 years after the loss of their child,” Calabrese says. “Men are taught you don’t cry, you don’t grieve, you say everything is ok, and then it catches up to them.”
Show up frequently and consistently, even if one parent outwardly seems to be doing better than the other.
Be a good listener
You don’t have to have an answer or explanation for why your loved one is going through something so devastating. And if you feel the urge to come up with one, fight it hard. When they are ready or need to talk about it, your role is only to listen. They talk, you listen.
If there’s a pause in the conversation and you’re not sure what to say, Calabrese suggests you simply try, “I’m so glad I can be here to listen.”
“We need to tell our story over and over and over again,” she says. “We get something new out of it by being able to replay what happened … and you’re giving us that permission to keep speaking.”