Why doesn’t the world stop? How does it just keep on going as if the horror of horrors had not occurred?
If someone you care about has lost a child, and you want to make them feel better, it’s simple: just stop the world and roll back time. If you have not the power to do so, yet you sincerely wish to help, start by sincerely trying to understand what he or she is feeling.
There is nothing like the loss of a child. To the grieving parent, it is quite literally the end of the world — their world. That which means more than life itself has been torn from their breast leaving a hole that threatens to consume their very soul. They are helpless to stop the endless collage of memories that flash through their mind, that lead invariably into the void, into the stark realization that all of their tomorrows will be without that child.
I can’t speak for everyone, but I can speak with authority, especially for those of us whose loss was sudden. Two winters ago, my wife and I lost our son. We were with him one night and woke the next morning to find his lifeless body on the floor in his bedroom. I’ll spare you most of the details, but I will share this: once I stopped pounding on his chest and futilely blowing air into his fluid filled lungs, all the while knowing that it was already too late, I continued to shout his name and cry out loud until finally my voice cracked and failed. I was not acting rationally, but then what is rational in the face of the incomprehensible? My being simply could not conceive of the reality I was experiencing: I had lost my son of a mere 21-years. I had thought that he would be my best friend for life.
Tears still stream down my face as I recall the horror of that morning. I will forever be grateful that my son hugged me on that fateful night, and that I responded by telling him that I loved him. I will also NEVER get over the loss! If there’s one thing you take away in reading this, please let it be an understanding of this reality. Your friend will never get over her loss. She will learn to deal with it, and for outside appearances she will generally seem “normal” once again, but the black hole in the center of her heart will remain forever.
On this particular point, I share with you not only my own feelings, or those of my wife, but the feelings of the many people whom I’ve come to know who too have had their hearts shattered by the loss of their child. “We need not walk alone,” begins the credo of the Compassionate Friends, a self-help organization dedicated to assisting families in dealing with this tragedy. To a person, all who enter the circle of Friends know that they will never be “normal” again. They are forever changed, and it is a “new normal” that they seek.
The good news is that you can help your friend find that new normal. First, take heed of what I’ve shared thus far, and when you have that fully absorbed, understand too that regardless of the circumstance, your friend will likely be suffering from guilt. “If only I had made sure they had a safer car; if only we had tried another doctor; if only I had listened better” — there seems to be no limit to the inventive ways that bereaved parents can find to deepen their grief and blame themselves.
Once you feel that you can appreciate the realities of what your friend is feeling, you’re ready to help. You help first by understanding, as best you can, and then simply by being there — by listening and offering a shoulder, by checking in periodically but not taking offense if they want to be alone, by gently urging them forward but fully allowing them to do so in their own time.
As you walk this uncharted course with your friend, you will likely spend a good deal of time feeling quite powerless. You may even fear for your friend’s ability to survive the tragedy and question your ability to be of any real assistance. Your desire will be to help but you’ll not know how. This is where you must understand that there is no getting it right. There is no magic wand. Your friend will see better days, and you really can help, but their recovery will take time. It will come in little steps: their first smile, their first laugh, and eventually their first day without tears. Your love will see them through these troubled times.
In my own experience, I cannot thank those enough who came, not knowing what to say, not knowing what to do, but who came anyway. They made food for us while we were incapable of doing so ourselves. They answered the phone and handled the notifications and arrangements when we just wanted to curl up and die. They held our hands and helped dry our tears. They just showed us they cared. They didn’t know what to do, and we didn’t know what we wanted them to do, but their love was demonstrated in that they allowed their worlds to stop because ours had.
Truly, all things offered in the spirit of love and friendship will be appreciated, but please do keep in mind that no matter how well intentioned, some things are better left unsaid. Your friend doesn’t want to hear that he’ll be alright. He’s not seeking your advice. No matter how many people are around, your friend feels alone, and unless you too have lost a child, the last thing he wants to hear is that you know how he feels — you don’t.
Outside these few taboos, just seek to help and you will. Give your friends the space to grieve, to yell and scream and cry, and have no expectations for yourself. Allow them to commit and then change their minds. Take no offense because none is intended. They are dealing with that which nobody should ever have to deal with.
Give of yourself and you will help to mend their broken heart. The hole will never fully heal, but with friendship and love, they will recover. Remember that their ability to move forward will depend upon the bonds they have with others, the bonds you will help to strengthen as you live through this process with them.
Finally, there is one last thing you need to know, and it may be the most important thing of all. There is a fear that’s shared amongst all who have lost a child. It’s not spoken of much outside our circles. I’m guessing that’s because we don’t want to bring others down. But the truth be known, we all fear that our beloved child will be forgotten.
Now you may say that this will never happen, but as the days turn into weeks and weeks into months, when you speak of your children, when you share recent tales of their activities and accomplishments, we will share in your delight, but we will also silently mourn our loss. When family and friends join together to celebrate holidays and other occasions, we will be there smiling and laughing with you, but we will also be ever cognizant of who is missing, of who should be there but isn’t, of the way things should have been. So, if you truly want to be a friend, don’t worry that you may bring about sadness and tears, be a friend indeed and give the most precious gift we have left — the gift of memories. We always want to talk about them, no matter how much it hurts, so if they still live in your heart, please let it be known. They will live in ours forever.