Comforting a Grieving Friend
From: NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 16 No. 3, May-June 1999, pp. 80-83
We provide articles from our publications from previous years for reference for our Leaders and members. Readers are cautioned to remember that research and medical information change over time.
"Toddler Tips" is a regular feature of the magazine NEW BEGINNINGS, published bimonthly by La Leche League International. In this column, suggestions are offered by readers of NEW BEGINNINGS to help parents of toddlers. Various points of view are presented. Not all of the information may be pertinent to your family's lifestyle. This information is general in nature, and not intended to be advice, medical or otherwise.
My friend's two-year-old recently died. We used to get together at least twice a month to visit and allow our children to play together. My son asks questions about what happened to his friend. I'm concerned that if I visit my friend, my son will ask why his friend isn't there and where his toys are. I'm worried that his questions, and even his presence, will be too painful for her. I want to support her during this very difficult time in her life, but also want to be sensitive to her grief. How can I explain things to my son so that he understands? And how can I best show my love and care for my friend in the months to come?
I feel I have a unique perspective as I lost a baby brother as a child, and as a woman I have lost a baby of my own. When my baby brother died, I was three. All these years later, I can still remember the moment my mother told me that he had died. I had been anxiously awaiting the day he would be old enough to play with me. I had kept in my mind the image of my brother and me bouncing a ball around the backyard. When my mother explained that my brother wouldn't be coming home again, I knew that my image would never come true. It helped me to hear that my brother had gone to a place called heaven. How you choose to describe this depends upon your family's beliefs. Heaven was described as a place where my brother was that I couldn’t go to yet, a place I would be able to see one day. It also helped me to be able to talk about him whenever I wanted, to ask questions about heaven, and touch his baby clothes and his toy lamb. This openness made my brother real. I coped with the loss of my brother because I could talk freely about him.
As for how you approach your friend, I know that my mother hated it when people pretended my brother didn’t exist. When I had my miscarriage, I understood how she felt. Even if it made me sad, I took comfort in talking about the baby I lost. I didn't want people to pretend that I had never been pregnant. Your son's presence might even be helpful for your friend. Children speak frankly about all sorts of subjects. My daughter was two and a half when I had the miscarriage. I found it soothing that she would talk about her baby sister. She said so many profound things in her childlike innocence, things that adults would be afraid to say, that brought comfort to my grief.
Your friend is probably experiencing the worst grief she will ever face. She may cry if you talk about her son. She may also be grateful to have someone talk about him, remember him, remember his birthday and the anniversary of his death. As the years pass, she will appreciate even more those who still mention her son. Your friend will never forget her son. She will appreciate having others remember him, too.
Acknowledge your friend's child's life as well as his death. You might consider planting flowers or a tree. Donating a book to the library in his memory or writing a poem are also gestures that will be appreciated by the child's family and healing for you. Younger family members may want to draw a picture. There are many possibilities. The process of planning and carrying out some of these activities helps each person deal with the loss in their own unique way. My heart and prayers go out for all of you.
It may seem awkward to try to get together with your friend after the death of her child, but consider this. She has already lost her son. Is she about to lose you as a friend also? If you can stand by her during this difficult time, she may very well count you as one of her finest friends. Parents who have lost a child may be inadvertently shunned by those who feel that they don't know what to say. The loss of a child can seem like the loneliest feeling in the world.
She may not have the energy for a long visit, so how about a phone call? Maybe there is something practical you can do for her, bringing over a meal, or doing an errand. Once you have your foot in the door, so to speak, try to be flexible. If she's exhausted, just give her a hug and promise to check on her later. Follow through on that promise. When she wants to spend more time with you, try to make yourself available. Social customs used to allow for a lengthy period of acknowledgment of a loss. Today we are expected to get our respective acts together in a hurry.
Let your reactions to the situation be natural. Tell her how sorry you are that her child died, talk about special qualities you enjoyed in her child. Remember she needs a listening ear and leave most of the talking to her. Rather than fretting about upsetting her, try to accept the fact that she is already upset. Diligently avoid platitudes such as, “You can try again.” Even if she had another baby, it wouldn't replace the little individual who died. Be prepared for the grief to start and stop, even after years have gone by. You may not always say or do the perfect thing, but by supporting her during a difficult time you can make all the difference in the world.
Adele M. K.
The best thing you can do for your friend is to listen. Be there for her. Let her cry, laugh, or whatever feels right to her. Remember her not only for the first few weeks, but also for the long term. Send her a note on her baby's birthday or the anniversary of his death, just saying you're thinking of her. Bring her a fully cooked meal in a month or two, something she can freeze for when “one of those days” comes up, as they may for a long, long time. Ask her how she would feel about you bringing your toddler for a visit. She may feel angry and not want to see a happy child (especially one the same age as the child she lost), or she may get real joy out of it.
When talking to your son, the most important things are to be honest and talk at a level he can understand. Use real words, like dead, instead of euphemisms, which are often misunderstood by a small child. Explain that this is forever. Talk about feelings. Your son may be sad or confused. Answer his questions. Talk about your spiritual beliefs and explain them as concretely as possible. Expect more questions to come up from time to time. Explain death in terms of other deaths in the family, maybe grandparents or great-grandparents. Reassure him that, although these things do happen sometimes, it is highly unlikely that he or someone else very close to him will die suddenly in the future.
It is sad to lose a child at any age. Please keep in touch with your friend. Questions from your son will happen. They may provide the opening your friend needs to talk about her feelings. Listen to her, share hugs and hand squeezes with her, too. Be there for her. Too often, people leave behind someone who is grieving, just when they really need a friend. Your friend will see other children too and possibly, by seeing your son and the others, she will have hope for the future. I wish you both the best.
I work as a hospital chaplain where, unfortunately, grief is a constant presence. It is very important not to make decisions for and assumptions about parents who have lost a child. Be honest with your friend about your questions. Let her teach you about what she needs right now. Share memories of her child. Ask to see pictures and encourage her to tell stories about her child. Use her child's name. Honor her time as a mother when her child was living. Let her decide whether it is too hard to see your child. It's important that she not feel that she must care for you as well. Get your support from others.
Your two-year-old probably understands "owies" and "sad" and crying and tears. Explain to him that your friend has “owies” and is sad because her child has died. She misses her child. A simple book such as The Fall of Freddie the Leaf has themes and examples that might help a two-year-old. Answer his questions directly and as honestly as you can. While it is a big subject, death is not a subject to shelter children from or to suggest that they should be afraid of.
Rev. Joanna B.
When people have someone close to them die they need to talk about it. Maybe you could ask your friend if she would like to get together with you. Ask her if it would be all right if your child were with you. Tell her that you know this is a difficult time for her and you want to help. If she thinks your child’s presence would be too hard for her, she will tell you. It may make her feel better to talk to your child about her son, and she will remember things about the times they spent together. It might make her cry, but tears are not a bad thing. They have to come out sometime, and how good it is to be able to let them out with a friend. You might suggest that she make a scrapbook of things she remembers of her son because the memories get foggier, although they are always there.
It is difficult to understand the range of emotions a parent experiences unless you have lost a child yourself. I found the following poem on the Internet and wanted to share it.
The Mention of His Name
The mention of my child’s name
may bring tears to my eyes
but it never fails
to bring music to my ears.
If you are really my friend
let me hear the beautiful music
of his name.
It soothes my broken heart
and sings to my soul.
I have also found some resources through Centering Corporation. Where's Jess? is a book about a baby brother who dies when he is about three months old. It explains death in a gentle way for a two-year-old to understand. A book called Timothy Duck discusses the death of a friend.
Ask her if she wants to get together. It is a very normal activity. When you're grieving, your heart cries out for normalcy, though “normal” will never feel the same again. She may not be ready this week, so ask again later. The loss of a child often isolates a person, and a bereaved parent may need some help to move away from isolation.
Keep explanations for children to age level and expect different questions as their understanding increases. Don't expect a two-year-old to understand death. Give them information calmly and be as truthful as possible. Don't try to completely shield your child from pain. It is important to explain that there are good things and bad things about nearly everything in life.
My four-year-old daughter died last summer. What helped most was when friends shared “Melanie stories” with me and allowed me to talk. Some friends tried to avoid mentioning her, attempting to shelter me. Thoughts of my daughter were so strong that avoidance was even more painful than talking about her. It also helps me (though I often still cry) to see and hear about other children that were my daughter's friends.
Your child can talk about fun times, too. Remembering the good times with the sad can help a child accept death as another stage of life. Don't prevent your child from asking questions in the presence of your friend, but be prepared to answer if your friend cannot.
Before visiting your friend, prepare your child. Tell him that your friend's child died and can’t come back to his house anymore, and his mama is very sad. Don't forget the most important part. What your child needs most is you, with lots of hugs and cuddles to get through this confusing time.
Mary Beth S.
The loss of a child is a devastating, life-altering event. My third-born child died a year and a half ago. It is difficult for friends to know what to do or how to help. Tell your friend that you want to get together with her. Ask her if it will be too painful to see your son. It may or may not be; every grieving person is different. One thing that grieving parents are afraid of is that their child will be forgotten. Tell her that your son asks about her child and misses him. When you talk to your friend don't avoid conversation about her child. Ask her how she is doing and what she has remembered about her child that day. Try to remember important dates such as her child's birthday and anniversary of his death. Use her child's name when talking to your friend. This may seem obvious but many people avoid using the dead child's name. Grieving parents like to hear their child's name spoken. You are right that your friend will need lots of love and care in the months to come. The first year is the hardest, but the grief doesn't go away after that.
When explaining things to your son, be very honest. Tell him his friend died. Explain that, because he isn't living, he doesn't need his toys anymore. When my own son died, we were very honest with our two older children who were then five and two-and-a-half. We told them their brother died because he was missing part of his heart. They have been to the cemetery with us, and we have told them that his body is buried there but the part of him that thinks, feels, and loves is in heaven. It is okay for your son to see you or his friend’s mother cry. Death can be very sad and when we are sad we cry.