Grief, How Can I Help?

Question: My neighbours lost one of their triplet sons. I feel helpless and don’t know how to help. How can I effectively support the family at this very sad time?

For several reasons grief is very difficult to deal with: Grief has no time line; Grief is very personal and everyone grieves differently; and there is no telling what may trigger sad and painful feelings. Additionally, grief, for the same individual, becomes different as they walk along its rocky and difficult path. The individuality of grief and where a person in his grief journey, makes it difficult to know exactly how to aid and support someone attempting to heal. Another factor which can impede helping someone is our own inhibitions regarding death and in not knowing how to approach a grieving person. It may be easier for some of us to ignore a grieving person, perhaps with a mumbled “Hello”, no eye contact and then to get on with our own lives.

The following has been prepared in order to assist you when you come into contact with someone who has suffered a loss. I hope that you will find it of assistance.

NOTE: ”Loss” is defined as any major loss – e.g. loss of employment, house fire, divorce, as well as bereavement. This article deals with loss by death.

  1. Step forward and approach the bereaved individual. Put out your hand or offer them a hug, if the situation is appropriate. Make eye contact and say, “I am so sorry!” Often that will be enough to allow the person to speak of their pain.
  2. Be a good listener. This rule applies in so many different areas of our lives and is extremely important when listening to a bereaved person. Don’t add to their situation by recounting horror stories of your own. It is not a time for one-upmanship of stories. This is their time and a time for you to listen, to perhaps once again say, “I am so sorry.” Or “It just isn’t fair.” Don’t take up this time with yourself but give freely of your listening skills. Don’t be afraid to use the deceased’s name during the conversation. If you don’t know what they name the baby(ies), ask them. They will appreciate the validation of their baby’s existence. Families need to speak of their lost one(s), including using their names.
  3. Be prepared to make yourself available. Make sure you don’t give them the impression of “hurrying” or speeding them along because you need to be elsewhere or because you feel uncomfortable.
  4. Try to accept the words shared with you. A grieving individual may rail against life, G-d, the doctors, the world. Don’t make harsh judgements. Just accept the words as they come. In an effort to get rid of our pain, it is not unusual to make rash and/or harsh statements.
  5. There are many concrete ways in which you can assist – take care of other children for a while, bring over a meal, send a card, make a donation to an appropriate charity, attend the wake, funeral or memorial service, make a cup of tea for the parents. Ask how you can help.
  6. Don’t minimize the loss – “You can have more children.” “It’s better this way. Your baby was sick.” “She has gone to a better place.” “G-d needed her more than you did.” None of these remarks are helpful to a grieving parent. Children are not interchangeable and “having another one” will not replace what should have been and “a better place” is here with her family. Families who have survivors of multiple birth children are often not given the proper space to grieve their loss. In a bereavement counselling group session, parents of a surviving twin where yelled at by a mother who had lost her singleton child, “Why are you here? You have a baby, I have none!” Minimizing anyone’s loss does not help.
  7. Don’t forget to acknowledge the father’s grief too. Too often the Mom is consoled while Dad is expected to “Hang tough.” Some people ask Dad how Mom is doing and don’t even think of asking him how he is. Dad too, has lost a child and experiences feelings of loss and pain. He has the added burden of society’s expectations that he can “cope.” He may be split between a child(ren) at home, a baby in the NICU, his job, planning a funeral, and his wife recovering from a c-section. He will also need your support.
  8. There are no shortcuts through grieving. Any attempt at a shortcut can only make things worse. Try and allow the bereaved person as long or as short a period as they need. Be patient. Avoid tell the person how they “should” feel or act or what they “should” do to make things easier. Also avoid saying “You are handling it so well” as this puts people into a box. Remember that there is no time limit on grief and several months down the road, these families still do not feel “normal”. They are trying to adapt to a new reality. They have still lost their child(ren) and nothing will ever change that.
  9. Encourage the bereaved person to look after themselves. To eat properly (it is not unusual for a bereaved person to stop eating and drinking), to see to their own needs and not to make important decisions right away. They need time first to grieve and heal.
  10. Remember that you are not responsible for this person’s pain. You didn’t cause it and because your children are alive and healthy, try not to feel guilty about it.
  11. Remember that you cannot take away their pain but you can assist them over the rocky path. You can be supportive and caring. You will not have all of the answers and, often there are not any answers at all. Life happens with no apologies or excuses and sometimes, it can be quite unfair. They did nothing wrong to deserve this.
  12. You may find it prudent to recommend some professional counselling, a physician, religious figure, grief counsellor or therapist. The library has books on death and dying and there are workshops, seminars or support groups that can also be of assistance. Your local funeral home will also be able to guide you in this area.
  13. One way a Chapter can be of assistance is to donate Multiple Births Canada’s Loss Booklets to the funeral homes and neonatal hospital units in your Chapter area. Such a donation will assist the professionals in being aware of the family’s unique needs.

Additional Resources:

Empty Cradle, Broken Heart, Deborah L. Davis, Ph.D., Fulcrum Publishing
The Worst Loss: How Families Heal from the Death of a Child, Barbara D. Rosof, Henry Holt and Company
On Children and Death, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, Collier Books
Life After Loss, Bob Deits, Fisher Books
Men & Grief, Carol Staudacher, New Harbinger Publications

Did you do something special by way of support for a bereaved family and would like to share that idea with others? Write and let me know how you helped someone deal with the loss of their precious child(ren). Contact me at haddon@istar.ca

 

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