If you are reading in an effort to better understand and support someone you care about who has lost a child, it is hopeful that the following will aid you to become better informed about their needs.
Be aware that the bereaved parent’s grief may trigger your own.
If you haven’t dealt with the grief of your own losses, you may be shocked by how upset you become. Don’t pull away, and don’t squelch your own emotions. It’s fine to cry with the grieving person and to cry later on your own. Grief needs to be expressed.
Don’t abandon the grieving person. Your silence only adds to her pain.
Shechtman writes, “What I have found most helpful over the years are those who chose to be straight with me. It is the silence and abandonment that adds to the pain. I always thought it was a hilarious statement for people to say, ‘I was afraid that I might upset you.’ How much more upset can a person be?”
Know that you can’t help her right away. Over time, though, your efforts will make a difference.
“We do not have the power to give back what has been lost, and the grieving person cannot give us the smile and assurance that our help has made everything all right,” reflects Shechtman. “The greater the loss, the longer this will be true. However, over time our assistance does help. It is analogous to applying salve to a wound. The salve will not magically heal, but over time, the salve, plus the healing power of the body, will at some point heal the wound.”
Pray and send positive thoughts. This helps more than you may realize.
“An important piece that helped me through that very difficult time was a persistent sense of being ‘held up’ by all the prayers, good wishes, and positive vibes sent my way,” writes Shechtman. “I am not a religious person, but that sense was powerful and difficult to ignore. It was the spiritual equivalent of many hands holding up a person during a ‘trust fall.’ I am eternally thankful for all those good wishes.”
Expect the bereaved to go through a long period of depression.It’s okay. This is when the major work of grieving is done.
“Grief goes on longer than anyone wants it to, or thinks it should,” writes Shechtman. “Everyone gets sick of it, including the bereft person—and still it goes on. As helpers, once again, we feel our own helplessness and impotence, and we want to withdraw. That is a normal and natural response, and is to be trusted. Some distance is necessary at this point because so much of the work is private and internal. “Just sitting or walking together, or a brief handclasp, is all that is required, and the most effective way to get through this time,” she adds.
Let the person grieve however she wants to grieve.
Your intolerance of her choices is more about your comfort than hers. “I am fiercely for a person grieving any way he or she chooses,” writes Shechtman. “I once had a young woman client who lost her husband three weeks after they married. Her choice was to wear black for a full year after his death. She got no end of flak from others. Again and again, the message she heard was, ‘Get over it’—or, more accurately, ‘Don’t bother me.’”
Watch out for chirpiness.
Sometimes a grieving person keeps herself at a safe distance from others. She may seem strong and in control and may not bother anyone else with her problems. There is a strange incongruence in effect and behavior that does not fit the circumstances. Shechtman calls this “chirpiness.” “Chirpiness is probably the result of a lifetime of ‘being there’ for everyone else and feeling too terrified of the vulnerability of ‘breaking down’ and needing to ask for something from others,” she writes. “This is most likely related to early abandonment issues, and as a youngster this person was required to perform far beyond his or her developmental abilities. The way to help someone in this terrible dilemma is to gently insist on closeness. In short, to offer the help this person is so terrified of asking for.”
Keep your relationship honest. Secret, unspoken feelings create distance.
Twenty-six years after her daughter’s death, Shechtman developed breast cancer—creating a “double whammy” of grief. She credits her husband Morrie’s ability to express his darker feelings with keeping them close during those terrible months. “He was able to tell me how angry he was that I had cancer,” she says. “If he had not, those secret, unspoken feelings would have made everything more difficult, and I would have wondered what was wrong that we couldn’t be intimate.”
Don’t let the person hide behind her grief forever. Force her to re-engage.
“I will never forget how a friend of mine helped me move on,” writes Shechtman. “About two years after my daughter’s death, he commented that I used her death like a black ace, to hide behind. I, of course, was very hurt and indignant at first, but as time passed, I realized he was right…I was a bit wobbly about taking the risk of loving and losing again…Sometimes the hardest things to say are the kindest. I am glad he and others cared enough for me to want me back.”
Never ask, “Shouldn’t you be over it by now?”
Believe it or not, people do ask this question, even if not in so many words, especially after a lot of time has passed. “The further one gets from the funeral, the less tolerance others have for one’s grief,” says Shechtman. “But bereavement is a condition that never clears up. The loss of a child is a never-ending process of feeling wounded and regaining wholeness. Telling grieving parents to get over their grief would be like telling an amputee not to miss her arm.”
No matter how much time has passed, acknowledge special occasions.This is your chance to be a healing force in the grieving person’s life.
On what would have been Sharon’s 37th birthday, Shechtman’s friend Deb showed up with a birthday cake and fifteen balloons, one for each year of Sharon’s life. They ate the cake and threw Sharon’s piece over the side of the deck. Then, they let the balloons fly away, the first five individually (each accompanied by a shouted message to Sharon), the last ten together. “We stood there together and watched them sail away till they were all gone,” writes Shechtman. “With each balloon I let her go a little bit more, again, and the final release of the other ten felt wonderful. The silent choice was to open my heart a bit wider for that healing closeness that happens in intimate moments.”
Offer to be on the grieving person’s “List of Ten.”
Shechtman writes,“I developed a list of about ten folks I trusted and would call, one by one, to see if they were up to my grief, right then. There was always someone on my list who was there with comfort and solace. Grief requires comfort, a hard thing to keep asking for. “Get on this list,” she advises. “Don’t wait for the person to ask. Tell her, ‘I am here for you, even if you need to cry at 2 a.m.’ Then, if she does call, do everything in your power to talk as long as she needs to. Your willing and patient presence is the greatest gift you can give someone who is grieving.”
Tips from ArleahShechtman, author of My Beloved Child: My journey since the death of my daughter (Fifth Wave Leadership Publications, 2012, ISBN: 978-1-4750469-9-1, $13.95)