Many of us likely have friends and family members who are walking through the heartbreaking reality of grieving the loss of a child. We want to support them, but often aren’t sure what to do or say in response to their deep grief and pain. In this article, Sarah Damaska draws from her own experience of grief to encourage us to walk alongside our friends in their suffering and offers 8 suggestions for how to help a grieving parent in tangible ways.
Every eye in the room was on her and it hurt my heart more than I knew possible. A sweet baby girl lay in the casket in the front of the church, while my best friend and her husband leaned into one another, looking completely and utterly alone.
She’d called me just moments after Lauren was born, but the news wasn’t what I’d expected. “You have to pray,” she’d told me. “She’s having seizures.” I’d rushed up to the hospital, not knowing what to expect. As I held her tiny body, I learned what it meant to pray with groans too deep for words. Lauren lived for just ten weeks. While each day was a gift, it wasn’t nearly long enough.
A GRIEF SHARED
Watching my best friend grieve, while holding my own grief for Lauren, was something I was completely unprepared for. It crushed me. Suddenly I didn’t know how to reach out or what to say. I had my own grief, yet it paled in comparison to what Jamie was experiencing. At times I felt guilty that I was so sad. I wanted to give her space, but I wanted to talk to her, too. That time shaped me, and little did I know, it prepared me.
A few short years later, we switched places. I was the mom everyone was watching as my own baby girl lay in a casket. We lost Annie to a brain tumor at six months old, discovered just a few days before she’d died. Our hearts were shattered. And just a few rows behind me, as I had been for her, sat my best friend.
That’s right. Jamie and I both lost our sweet baby girls. At times I’ve felt incredibly heartbroken at this reality—what are the odds? But many more times, I’m overcome with immense gratitude. Over the years, we’ve had each other. Jamie understands me in a way that no one else can. My unfiltered thoughts aren’t new to her. We’re not caught off guard by one another’s tears. And you can probably imagine the conversations we’ve had in the years since then on what hurt us, what was helpful, how we felt cared for, and how we felt forgotten.
SHOWING UP MATTERS
But before I go any further, let me just say this: If you’re reading this article, chances are you’re wondering how to reach out to a grieving parent. And I think that’s amazing. Because in my experience, many people tend to disappear when loss comes. They don’t know what to say, so they don’t say anything. Showing up to an article like this means you don’t want to disappear, or be the one who says hurtful things or does something uncomfortable to make it worse. Instead, you desire to enter into the grief, leaning in instead of shrinking back. I am so proud of you.
There are ways to get past the awkwardness of walking with your friend through the grief of her child. And when you do get past it, you find joy and the satisfaction of blessing someone else in a significant way. So let’s dive in with a few practical and meaningful ways you can help a grieving friend who has lost a child.
HOW TO HELP A GRIEVING PARENT
1. Let Go of Your Own Expectations
This one is at the top of the list for a reason. The key to being a great friend to a grieving parent is to let go of your own expectations. Don’t take it personally if your text goes unread. Let it go if she doesn’t ever call you back. Don’t be offended if you go out of your way to do something nice and her reaction is less than you expected. There were many times I received something from someone and I was genuinely thankful, but I simply didn’t have the emotional capacity to express it.
Small things can seem like the biggest obstacles when you’re grieving. Give your friend the gift of lifting that burden from them. It will set her free.
Just a few days after Annie died, our neighbor knocked on our door. She handed me a warm pear pie, a smile on her face and eyes full of tears. She didn’t even say anything. Her gesture was so simple yet so profound. Without words, she expressed that she was sad with me and cared for us. At the same time, she didn’t require anything from me. I’ve never forgotten it.
2. Get Out Your Calendar
The first few weeks and months of grief are the most intense, but it was also the time I felt the most supported. People were diligently praying for us, checking in on us, sending cards to us, but, inevitably, it trickled off as time went on. One of the hardest realities of grief was watching normal life return for those around me, while still feeling like my life was incredibly shattered. It was easy to feel forgotten, discouraged, and depressed as I watched the world pass by.
An easy way to remind grieving parents that you’re still thinking of them is to put a few reminders in your phone. Mark the child’s birthday and death day, and make contact with your friend to let them know you remember.
As the years go on, this means more and more. You can even make an effort to reach out on other days that may be hard like Mother’s day, Father’s day, and Christmas. A simple card, phone call, or text will be deeply significant.
3. Be Aware of Hidden Hurts
My Annie was part of a batch of babies born at the same time in our church. So when my arms were suddenly empty, I had several awkward friendships. One particular day, I looked up to see a baby wrapped in a blanket identical to Annie’s favorite blanket. I rushed out of the room before the sobs hit, but I’m sure I left my friend feeling completely devastated. It was uncharted territory for us all.
The reality is that grief puts a strain on relationships. And if you have a friend who loses a child, the best thing to do is to address the uncomfortable strain with grace. Realize that your child’s presence may bring her deep pain for a while. But don’t use that as an excuse to not reach out. Be brave enough to navigate the awkwardness. Sometimes simply acknowledging it knocks the barrier down.
Often, the best way to bridge the gap is to simply say you don’t know what to say. Nancy Guthrie says: “I know it sounds weak. But that’s the beauty of it. It reflects humility. It communicates that you don’t presume to have words that would make the loss okay. And it esteems their loss as being too great to minimize by mere sentiment.”
4. Help in Tangible Ways
There are many ways to practically help parents who have lost a child. The tricky part is navigating how. Sometimes just jumping in is better than waiting for permission. I had never been in the position of needing help. So I found it overwhelming and hard for me to accept. I was inundated by people who wanted to do something for me. But I felt paralyzed when it came to knowing what I needed. I was so thankful when people discerned a need and filled it without my input.
A funeral and burial is very expensive, especially when unexpected, and there may also be steep hospital bills. The weeks and months following the death of a child are very precarious for marriages, so a restaurant gift card or a night away is a great idea. If there are other children, offer to watch the kids for a night. Make a freezer meal. Offer to help write thank you notes. Help around the house— cleaning, mowing the lawn, picking up groceries, catching up on laundry. Bring over a load of paper napkins, plates, cups, silverware so they don’t have to do dishes.
What really matters isn’t what you do, it’s that you show up. Helping in tangible ways to support a grieving friend shows her that you want to ease her burden and you’re not going to disappear.
5. Let Them Be Sad
We are people who tend to be uncomfortable with sadness, but after a death, doesn’t it make sense to be sad? Romans 12:15 admonishes us to, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” We do a pretty good job with rejoicing together, but weeping is a different story altogether. However, allowing your friend to be sad, and being sad with them, with no expectation to cheer them up, will be a gift to them. If this sounds ambiguous, it’s because it is ambiguous! Being sad with your friend is going to look different for different people, which makes it difficult to define.
For me, that meant I didn’t need people to coddle me or hover around me. There was a particular woman at church who would follow me around, like she thought I was going to break into a million pieces. Wherever I went, she was standing in the periphery. It’s humorous now, but at the time, I felt so smothered. She didn’t want me to be sad, but the truth was, the sadness meant I had loved my daughter deeply.
It’s wise to be available for your friend, but trust that she will be okay. Give her empathy, but not pity. There’s a big difference. Losing a child is unbelievably heartbreaking. Sadness, sorrow, and grief are a way to express how much we loved and how much we miss our loved ones. It’s a natural response to how much they matter to us. So we weep with parents who have lost children because they will not get over that absence in their homes and lives easily or quickly.
6. Make Sure Your Words Are Grounded in the Truth
It seemed like everyone had a pithy saying or feel-good advice to share with me. Unfortunately, it often had no biblical basis and left me feeling empty.
“Heaven must’ve needed another angel.”
“She’s looking down on you now.”
Actually, none of those statements are found in the Bible and honestly, made it much worse for me. Even as I leaned hard into God’s Word in those days, I still felt like I was drowning. Everything I had always believed about my faith seemed to be up in the air. I felt like I needed to reexamine my life as I looked at everything with a new lens. Deep grief is very vulnerable.
If you want to comfort a mother who has lost a child, tread very carefully. Before you glibly recite something you’ve heard before, make sure it is actually sound biblical advice. As a friend, you have a big responsibility to help others who are hurting by giving them the truth. And if you are unsure, don’t say it.
7. Tell Stories and Use Names
The names of my other children slip off my tongue dozens of times a day. But Annie’s name is different. For that reason, when someone talks to me and uses her name, it is deeply significant. I need to hear her name, to be reminded that she was real.
Specific memories and stories or pictures are gifts to comfort parents who have lost a child. You may be hesitant to share because you don’t want to make them more sad, but the truth is, new memories may bring sadness, but they are also healing. They are a way of giving grieving parents a bigger picture of who their child was and gather more memories.
8. Pray Scripture
Really, at the center of it all, the best thing to do in grief is to pray. As I grieved for Jamie’s daughter Lauren, and later when Annie died, I realized there were whole sections of the Bible I had glossed over. I had no idea that the writers addressed grieving and sorrow so much. Whole books focused on lament, and Jesus Himself was called “a Man of sorrows” (Isaiah 53:3).
But for many of us, when we’re watching our friends go through the loss of a child, we have no words to pray. We have no words to offer. That’s where the Bible comes in. When we pray the words of Scripture, we can know that our words are aligning with the words of Christ. Praying Scripture over your friend is one of the most powerful gifts you can give them.
Here are a few to get you started:
“You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle, You have recorded each one in your book” (Psalm 56:8, NLT).
“He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds” (Psalm 147:3).
“He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will abide in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say to the Lord, ‘My refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust'” (Psalm 91:1-2).
“He tends his flock like a shepherd:
He gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
he gently leads those that have young” (Isaiah 40:11, NIV).
THE GIFT OF GRIEVING WITH ANOTHER
When Jamie and I sit together, we love to recount how God has used our daughters to make a difference in the lives of so many around us— including us! And yet, we would do anything to have our sweet girls here. The Bible promises us that someday God will wipe every tear from our eyes. Not only will there be no more death, but there will be no more sorrow, no more crying, and no more pain. As followers of Jesus, we can claim the victory that all those things will be gone forever. But in the meantime, we live in a very broken and sorrow-filled world.
When we walk alongside others who are broken from the sting of death, we are the hands and feet of Jesus, bringing hope and healing and redemption to them. It’s a gift from our Savior to be able to participate in this very holy work. God is using you to bind up wounds and bring healing to those who are hurting. Well done.
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