Twenty-two years ago today, I buried my daughter, Amy. Amy had a genetic disorder and lived 4 days. She was born on June 9, 1992, died on the 12th buried on the 16th grave. She is buried in another state and I will not be able to visit her. She isn’t there and I know that, but I still wish I were there to put flowers on her grave. To brush the dirt and grass off of her headstone. To sit quietly for a few minutes in the cemetery with the birds singing and a maybe a lawnmower running in the background.
As I reflect on that time 22 years ago, I know that the experience of losing a child played a large part in making me the person I am today. It was also the hardest thing I have ever endured. Yet, I learned much about myself and others during that time.
One of the things I learned was what is helpful and what is not during a situation such as this. I want to share some things TO do and say or NOT to do and say when ministering to someone who has lost a child.
A disclaimer: I do not profess to know other parent’s feelings. I am only sharing what I know from my own experience; what I have learned from talking with other parents who have lost children – children of various ages, infant to young adults.
- DO tell them you are sorry for their loss and you are praying for them and their family.
- DO take a meal. We had so much food brought to our home that family members packaged it up and put it in the freezer. After things calmed down and all the out of town family left, it was weeks before we had to cook. We could just pull a meal from the freezer. One less thing to worry about in the days and weeks after she died.
- DO be specific when offering to help. Instead of saying, “call me if you need anything.” Say “I’ll come by on Tuesday and clean your bathrooms. Or is there another day that is better?” or “I’ll be by on Monday to cut your grass.” It is rare for people to call and ASK someone to clean their bathroom, but it is even rarer for those grieving to turn down an offer such as this!
- DO say the name of the child. Days, weeks and months down the road parents want to know that other people have not forgotten their child. I have a sister-in-law whose birthday is near Amy’s. She usually remembers to send me a text, e-mail or phone call letting me know she remembers.
- DO send a card or hand written note. Your note doesn’t have to be fancy, long or eloquently written. Just a note letting the family know you care. I was shocked at the number of sympathy cards we received when Amy died. I went back and read every single card multiple times. Currently, they are bound together and in my closet. They are precious. You may think sending a card is not a big deal. It is. And better yet, send the card or note a week or two or even three weeks after the burial. By that time, out of town family has returned home, the parents may have gone back to work and for those on the outside, things look normal. But, I assure you, in most cases, normal has taken on a new image and receiving a card and knowing someone remembers is comforting.
- DO offer to babysit, if appropriate. The parents may be overwhelmed with all the details and having someone help with the other children will, most likely, be well received.
- DO remember the grandparents. Not only are the grandparents grieving the loss of a grandchild, they are grieving for their children and the pain they (their grown children) are experiencing.
- DO remember the siblings. Two years after Amy died, my oldest brother’s son died and two years later his only daughter died, leaving two young children and leaving my brother with only one son, at that time a young adult in his mid-twenties. A few years after Kathy’s death, my brother’s only living child got married. It was a joyous occasion. The young lady the son married was the only person that had sent my nephew a sympathy card. The only person to acknowledge HIS grief.
- If the child is an infant or young child, do NOT tell the parents they can have another one. The child is not a pair of sunglasses or a vase. One does not just “replace” a child. Even though Amy only lived 4 days, I carried her for 9 months. I HAVE memories and I HAD dreams. Dreams that died with her. Dreams that slowly slipped away the afternoon she died in my arms.
- Do NOT tell the parents they are lucky their child died young. Yes, I had someone tell me this when Amy died. I was lucky that she died young and I hadn’t had time to get attached. Please see number 9 above. I assure you, when you bury your child there is no feeling of good luck involved.
- Do NOT tell them that it was part of God’s plan. While I knew that to be true, it was not comforting to me at the time. It took months, a couple of years even, for me to embrace that truth. Parents in the early stages of grief are not ready to hear this. It is Ok to say “we don’t understand God’s ways” or simply, “we don’t understand.”
In closing, one of the things I found to be very helpful for me while I processed my grief and walked that long road with ever-changing landscape was listening to Christian music. There are many songs that are fitting, here is just one: God and Time by Newsong
Have you lost a child or someone close to you? How did you process the loss and deal with your grief?