How to help parents coping with child loss.
There is so little talk in India about helping someone coping with child loss that most people who want to help have no idea what to do. Many well-meaning friends and relatives try to offer solutions; trying with best of intentions, to ‘fix’ something that cannot be fixed.
Some people insist ‘cry’, some suggest ‘be strong’, some say ‘move on’, some say ‘smile for your spouse/other children’, some say, ‘you have to accept’. Some warn that the crying would hurt the child they are grieving for. Some claim the child is in a better place.
None of this is helpful.
Platitudes are used often because those who want to reach out are helpless in the face of a loss of such magnitude. They have no idea what to say. And they have no idea how much they can help simply by listening empathetically.
Understand that the bereaved parent has, especially in the earliest years after the loss, no control over whether they are crying or not. They don’t choose to cry, talk, be stoic or break down – that’s just the way they are experiencing the grieving process.
They know they have other children and spouse. They know they need to be strong. If they could, they would ‘accept’ the loss and would ‘stop thinking about’ the loss. In fact, being able to control their thoughts is a part of the healing process, but it takes a long, sometimes very long, time.
This lack of understanding from those who are trying to help leaves the grieving parent feeling alone at a time when they need support.
So how can you help a grieving parent?
Acknowledge that you cannot even begin to understand what the grieving parent is going through. Avoid saying, “I know what you are going through.” You can’t.
Understand that acute emotional pain is a normal reaction to loss; that there is no right or wrong way to grieve, and there is no ‘normal’ timetable for grieving.
Some grieving parents cry, some become numb, many may appear ‘normal’.
Some grieving parents need to talk, some find sharing painful. Some parents actively seek support, some find spiritualism helpful, some read, many find their careers very helpful, and some try to connect with other parents. Some need distraction; some focus all their energies on the loss.
Almost all love to hear their child’s name. They can’t hold their children any more, but they are parents still. So if you remember something beautiful about their child, do share it with them, but in a rare case that a parent does not want this – respect that too.
If there are bills to be paid, meals to be prepared, if there are other children needing care, do what you can.
The grieving process takes time, healing happens gradually, it’s not a smooth journey, there are many ups and downs. There are triggers that can aggravate the pain and slide them back many months. Respect the parents’ unwillingness to talk about something or to participate in certain activities.
When and if solace is sought, the grieving person alone can tell what they find comforting. Respect this.
Listen to them. Focus not on advising, but on listening. If they are not saying anything, just be there for them. If they wish to connect with other grieving parents, help them do that.
What I found most helpful.
Like many other grieving parents I sensed that most people, no matter how willing to help, did not understand what I was feeling.
Amongst other things, I called Artemis Hospital after reading in a newspaper about a 19-year-old Jyoti’s death by dengue. The hospital refused to share the patient’s contact information. They didn’t even offer to take my number and pass it to Jyoti’s family. Emotional trauma is not their area of concern I suppose.
I blogged about wishing to connect with other grieving parents and in Sept 2010, I received an email from a blogger who had lost her nine year old daughter six months earlier. I still remember the lightness I had felt the first time we spoke on the phone. She knew. She understood.
After that I received more emails and got in touch with more mothers. In August 2014, four years after I first needed such a group, I created a support group – In Our Hearts Forever.
At first we interacted only on Facebook.
The first day, within hours of the group being formed, two of the mothers called to say they found the interactions overwhelming. I thought they weren’t sure they wanted to be a part of the group, and I did understand that each one of us may not find the same things helpful. But they said the sharing of experiences was cathartic for them.
One mom faced concerns from her family, because they feared she might find the meetings depressing; another mother, on the contrary – was pressurised to go for a meeting. I believe there is only one way to truly know what would work for us.
There is a voice inside of you
That whispers all day long,
“I feel that this is right for me,
I know that this is wrong.”
No teacher, preacher, parent, friend
Or wise man can decide
What’s right for you – just listen to
The voice that speaks inside.
Five of us who were in Delhi-NCR, met for the first time in October, 2014.
We talked about what hurt and what helped. About what we couldn’t understand and the questions that would never be answered. Those of us who had walked longer on this journey talked about how we were now able to do things we never dreamt we would. We smiled, we woke up on many mornings without that weight in the centre of our chests and we were beginning to make peace with what we could not change.
We also realised our journeys were a lot alike, which was why knowing what to expect helped; and we understood we were individuals still – which was why it was important that we choose our own paths.
This was around Diwali. As we left, we had just entered the lift and one of the mothers said, “They are able to put up Diwali lights…! I too will be able to do that in five years.”
Nothing could have assured her better.
One mother excused herself at the last moment. Later she called me and said she had got dressed and gone down the lift, reached the car and then sat there wondering what she was doing. She was sure it would be a mistake. She locked the car and went back home and sent a message that she would not be able to come.
I told her we would love it if she came for the next meeting, or the next. Whenever she was ready. Nobody else could decide this for her.
And she did come for the second meeting on 12th December. This meeting went on for over five hours, very positive, very warm. There were cathartic tears too, but we parted on an unbelievably cheerful note – with many ideas and plans for future.
What made it even more special for me was that the next day was a Saturday and two of the mothers agreed to come for the healing and life altering (for me) Saturday hikes that I have been going for with Let’s Walk Gurgaon.
As we walked along the 9 km trail, one of the mothers said, “I see this as a new beginning for me IHM.”
I knew what she meant. This was how I had felt on my first hike in March 2014.
The other mother called some days later. She wanted to know how to save her photographs from the walk. “I am smiling so sweetly! I can’t believe I am smiling so sweetly! IHM you guys have changed my life in two days!”
Now we have created two Support Groups on facebook, one for parents and the other one only for mothers.
If you know of someone who has lost a child, please let them know about this group – and let them decide if this is for them. One way would be to send them a message with this email address, and let them decide, firstname.lastname@example.org