How to Help When a Child Dies
What to do when you have no idea what to do
In April 2009, our family received news that no family should ever have to hear: Our 5-year-old son had an inoperable brain tumor. The news devastated us as we battled for almost 14 months against the cancer beast that would eventually take our precious son Joey from us.
Our saving grace all those months was support from our families and our school and church communities. Inevitably some people drifted away, possibly uncomfortable with the situation or unsure of what to say or how to help. But we gained new and lasting friendships from people who took initiative, were there for us, and always seemed to know the right things to say and do during our son's illness and after his death.
Obviously it's difficult to know what's appropriate, especially if you haven't personally been in the situation, which is why I put together this list of ways to support a family who is grieving the loss of a child.
Show up. Don't be afraid to visit the family at home. If you have food, flowers, or something else to bring, do it. Odds are the family would love to see you. Keep your visit short – just long enough to put a smile on their faces.
Volunteer to run errands. All the little things in life become so unimportant when you lose a child. And if a family has been battling their child's illness for a while, like we were, these things have probably been neglected for a long time. See if they have any dry cleaning that needs to be picked up or a pet that hasn't been groomed in a while. Maybe their yard work has been ignored. Even if it's something small that needs to be done, offer to do it.
Take their other children to the park or out for ice cream. Siblings of a sick child have often had to stand in the shadows for a long time. It is a confusing time for them. Paying a little extra attention to them and giving the parents a breather or time to talk alone can be a godsend.
Send cards and emails. On some of our darkest days after Joey's death, we would get a card in the mail at just the right time to give us something to smile about. Remember the date of the child's death and send the parents a card. It will mean so much to them that you haven't forgotten. Be ok with not getting a response.
Tell them you are glad to see them. Everyone always asks a grieving person how he or she is doing. The answer is pretty obvious. Instead, when you see a grieving mom at church or in the neighborhood, give her a hug and tell her how great it is to see her.
Give them permission to talk or not. Everyone grieves differently. I love to talk about Joey, and my friends are so good about listening. But some people don't want to talk, and that's ok too. Maybe you are the one person they feel they don't have to talk to about their grief. Maybe they just need you to make them laugh instead.
Share your memories of the lost child. I love when people who knew Joey tell me stories about him and how he touched their lives. It gives me a good feeling to know when someone is still thinking about Joey and our family.
Talk to your own children about death. Before Joey got sick, I would never say the "D" word to my children. I'm not sure why I was avoiding it. Death is a natural part of life. Explain it in very simple terms, "Her body stopped working, and she died." Avoid all the euphemisms for death like 'passed away,' 'went to sleep, and 'was taken from us.' These only confuse and scare children. Some great children's books on the subject are The Fall of Freddie the Leaf: A Story of Life for All Ages by Leo Buscaglia, When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death, by Laurie Krasny Brown, and When a Pet Dies, by Fred (Mr.) Rogers.
Donate to children's cancer charities and wish granting organizations. Four years later, we still get notices in the mail that people are donating to Make-A-Wish and Give Kids the World in honor of Joey. It warms our hearts that people haven't forgotten how impactful these organizations are. Other ways to show your support for a family who lost their child to cancer are to participate in fundraising events such as The Cure Search Walk and the Race Against the Odds. It's also helpful to contact lawmakers and let them know you support greater funding for pediatric cancer drug research.
A family who has lost a child never gets over it. They will be working through and living with their grief for the rest of their lives. Birthdays, holidays, family vacations, and siblings' milestones all reopen their wounds. Finding small ways to show the family that you are still thinking of them and supporting them through their journey can make all the difference in their healing.
A version of this article originally ran on Nurse Mommy Laughs and is reprinted here with permission from the author.