My friend wanted to know...should she go? And....could she help, how could she help, should her children come too, what should she say, should she say much, and why was this causing some strange emotional clog for her, my friend?
We talked for a while on the phone; when we hung up I felt my own emotional upheaval - so sad for this family, so angry at the sudden loss of this baby girl, but gratified that I could offer any helpful words.
There is no manual for what to say, and one extremely good reason for this is that no manual would ever work for every family, every encounter.
But because I have a big mouth and am a self-appointed public service educator, I am going to go ahead and tell you what was helpful or memorable for us in the immediate aftermath of Elijah's death:
- If you can visit them or attend the memorial service, do. If you can offer your presence, it will be appreciated. Even if you cannot offer any words at all, just be there. Just that is enough, because we (the parents) know that there are no words.
- If you can offer words, do express your sympathy, your disbelief, your extreme sadness. There are no effective words of consolation to offer -none. When a child dies, everyone loses.
- If appropriate, do say 'this is so fucked up' to the parent(s). It is probably what they are thinking anyway, and may feel comforted that you can say it aloud with them.
- Do allow room for anger. Sadness is to be expected, and sometimes the anger is a delayed reaction, but for many it is immediately interspersed with the extreme agony, and sometimes is a hard emotion to justify or accept. I felt very ripped-off and angry, but I also felt like it was a 'wrong' emotion to be experiencing at the time.
- If there are other living children, do bring them gifts. Any small new shiny object that captured my daughter's attention and distracted her from noticing how incredibly sad and checked-out I was at the time, was greatly appreciated and remembered. The day Elijah died, a friend came over with a new doll for Supergirl. One observer thought it a bit morbid; bringing a baby doll over to a girl who had lost her baby brother. They were wrong. It came with clothes and accessories and kept her interested for blessed minutes, maybe hours...I really can't remember. Another friend overnighted a package to me which contained a doll and some small games for Supergirl (which I still have and remember their source) and books about loss and grieving for me. I still have never read one of the books, but the thought and desperate desire to help that went into that package was palpable and memorable.
- Do bring food if you live nearby, and/or organize a community food drop-off and/or freezer for the family. Something I will never forget as long as I live, was one of my dearest friends driving up our mountain only hours after Elijah died. Hours after we had retrieved our daughter from her house, leaving there with one carseat empty. She came bearing at least three grocery bags full of pre-made salads and ready-to-eat gourmet grocery food. She sobbed as she stocked our refrigerator, "I'm Jewish. We feed people. I don't know what else to do." We would never have eaten anything until our family showed up if it had not been for her. Seriously.
- Do go to the funeral home with the parents if they want you to (especially for family members and closest friends). You may think it is a private meeting meant for just the parents, but they have no idea what they are doing and could probably use someone nearby to hold them up or offer them a valium when the funeral director asks them: "Cremation or burial?" Also helpful if someone can just write that damn check for them. Our cremation bill was not at all on the high monetary end, but having to see that check to the crematorium come back in my bank statement was agonal.
- Do delegate responsibility to others you see who wish to help and appear to need direction. The last thing you want to ask of the parents is any sort of coordination efforts at all.
- Do not bring a child who is near the same age of the child who died unless you are specifically asked to by the parents. Really. Especially with babies, and I am not kidding At All.
smackpolitely intercept the person who may try to violate the above suggestion. Offer to hold their child for them so that they may offer their sympathies and then leave.
- Do not repeat useless and meaningless platitudes just because you have heard them in previous similar circumstances. Unless you are unfortunately accustomed to frequenting the funerals of children, you have never been in similar circumstances. Examples: S/he is in a better place; (God) never gives you more than you can handle, etc...
- On another note here, because this is a whole separate post (that I believe I have written in several segments already), but if the child who died was a child with special needs and not dying a horribly painful death, then I cannot stress enough, DO NOT EVER suggest that the death was a blessing for the child or family in any way. EVER. These are the most insulting words ever: they imply that the child who is lost was loved less than your own (or their own) 'typically developing' children. Do not even hint at or suggest that there is relief of a burden lifted. EVER.
- Do not ask the parents if they are going to 'have another baby'.
- Do not tell the parents 'what you think they should do' regarding having another baby, waiting to have another baby, or not having another baby. Actually, don't even utter the words 'another' or 'baby' and you are probably safe.
- If you are close with this person, do call them after the memorials or funerals are over; after their friends and family have left, after the initial aftermath. There is much loneliness ahead, regardless of the number of people around them. And the reason I said, 'if you are close' is because I mean you need to call her/him every day or every 48 hours. And for months. You should not demand a conversation, just leave yourself open for one and let your friend know you are there. This 'small' act by a friend very possibly saved my life more than once.
- Do not tell the parents that you 'really should get together more', or that you 'want to help' if you: can not, will not, are too hurt and afraid yourself to be of support, or just live too far away for it to be feasible. It's really okay if you are unable. Like I said, when a child dies, everyone loses. And everyone feels lost. But disingenuous offers are just that. Disingenuous.
- Do not tell the parents that they are 'stronger than you are' or that 'you would not be able to get through this'. While the good intention behind these words is obvious, they fall into an open gaping wound and come across to someone in a very sensitive place, sounding more like, 'I cannot believe you have not killed yourself yet. You must not love your child as much as I love mine. For I would not be able to go on.' Also, the 'stronger'? Bullshit. Nobody wants to have to be that strong. Cry your fucking hearts out. A kid died. Let your legs buckle with the blow of it. 'Strong' is for fan belts, triathletes, and the airplanes which carry me up in the sky.
- Do ask me if you have any questions...or helpful hints of your own.
Edited to add reader suggestions:
- Do be willing to undress the person who is grieving if she passes out drunk, and/or put her children to bed for her. Thank you, Squid. Very important and realistic information.
- Do consider carefully before you send flower arrangements or live plants, as Julia mentions: One thing I would add is that many bereaved parents I know had a hard time with the flowers that people sent to them-- they felt like the flowers needed tending to, like letting them die was another (small, but somehow significant) loss. So it might be good to try to figure out how the parents might feel about that before sending. Two people sent us edible arrangements-- these are cut and decorated fruit baskets arranged to look sort of like flowers. You'd think it would be morbid to eat those under the circumstances, but it wasn't. It was strangely satisfying to pluck things off and consume them. - Indeed. Thank you, Julia.
- Do not, in the months following, frequently place your baby on the bereaved mother's lap, saying 'Here! You need a baby fix!' Unless the mom grabs for your baby, no she doesn't. And you're making her feel very awkward about hating your baby on her lap.
- Do ask everyone you know if they have any friends or family with a vacation home they could offer to the family. Chances are, the family will want to escape for a while after the memorial. Cheers to Lori for reminding me how incredibly important that one was/is.
- Do show up and clean the floors, tub, or do laundry. Thanks, Tricia.
- Do not clean everything of the child who died. Do not clean anything or put it away unless the parents ask you to. (I did. I asked others to put his things away for awhile.) You do not want to remove every last trace of this child's scent from their lives. Thank you, Bree.