How to be of help when a friend loses a child

 

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.

  36 Responses to “How to be of help when a friend loses a child”

  1. Thank you so much for putting this in oerspective so to speak. My friend has just lost her daughter and she live quite a distance away and I am at a loss of words or what I can do and reading this has helped me understand that there is no cure. Time, love and being present is all I can do.
    Thanks

    • Thank you for reading, and for accepting the most important point; your love and presence are your healing gift. The hole in your friend’s heart will always be there, but your friendship and support will help her to find a new normal. That’s really the best we can hope for.

      My heart goes out to your friend.

      Dave

  2. Thanks, Dave, artfully and accurately stated. Your Josh and my Josh may eventually be forgotten to future generations but that time is far distant from us. Today, both persist in the lives of the circles of families and friends that provide emotional harbor to us and each other as they recall and recount how our Joshuas gave of themselves while still among us physically. Two years or twenty-three years afterwards the same is true — God gives us the blessing that while we never hurt less, we do hurt less often.

    • Yes indeed, Russ, our Joshuas do live on in our memories and those of friends and family. I’m sure the imprint of the way they touched those who knew them will outlive our time here on this Earthly plane. I’ll not rush the Reaper, but I will look forward to being reunited on the other side. Until then, as you’ve stated, I’ll take refuge in the blessing of hurting less often.

  3. I would like to say that I am so sorry for your loss and thankfull for your words I lost my daughter in 06 and people just don’t understand and tip toe and still to this day apologize it’s so hard to loose a piece of your future. I still remember the moment that I noticed the world didn’t stop for her passing and how horrible it was you expressed many feelings of parents of children who have lost a child it’s just crazy to me how no other pain comes close and I would never wish that kind of pain on my worst enemy. People don’t understand how hard it is to be in our position I have trouble answering simple questions that are easy for most like how many kids do you have well if I answer three I get the normal questions how old boys girls? and then i have to explain because i cant say shes seven cause shes not here but shes also not 2 1/2 anymore either so then i end up sayin would of been and hope they dont notice for i dont want their pitty people seem to look at you different and want them to get to know me first to see im not broken and i feel like if i just say two its like she wasnt even worth mentioning or that she was forgotten i still remember crying thinking that people were going to forget her but now im so consumed by the fact that her voice and laugh have faded from my memories and thats a hole nother pain in its self. now i find myself attaching myself to families who have lost a child in wanting to help anyway i can and that little black hole in the center of your heart i like to believe that it’s there because they took that piece with them when they departed because they didnt want to go alone what a long hard road a great song that i truley relate to is im crying for me by toby keith i am in no rush myself but i am so hopefull to be able to see her again again i am so sorry for your loss and your words will help many looking for ways to help a friend or family member who have lost a child

  4. I wanted to say thank you so much for the help with this personal loss. My best friend lost her son and it has been 2 days sense I spoke to her on the way to the hospital. I’m not sure what to do next. I have called and sent a few texts in case speaking was too hard for her, but I feel so out of place in this and I’m not sure how pushy I should be with seeing her. I don’t want to bother her and her family even though all I can think about is her and her son whom I was VERY close with also. I am having a hard time accepting this myself and have been crying for days, is it ok to be upset when I see her because I have depression issues and I really can’t control my crying but I am able to say nothing and just hold her. Any help on what I should do next would be greatly appreciated. I am really morning the fact I have lost part of my best friend forever :( Thank you so much for listening and my condolences and love go out to all of you who are also suffering the loss of their child. I could not imagine.

    • Hi Lorrie,
      I’m reluctant to respond as if I have a clue how another grieving parent might feel. My experience is that there are as many ways to deal with the loss as people who must suffer through it. So, all I can do is share my thoughts and feelings, and those of my wife. The truth of the matter is that the first period of time is a near total fog — it’s close to an out-of-body experience; there’s little sleep, little eating, lots of silence, and of course tears — buckets of tears, and so many thoughts and questions. Many, many times during that period, my wife and I, and the few friends and family with whom we had contact, would just embrace and hold each other without a word, sobbing. People say that they don’t know what to say, but that’s because there is nothing anyone can say, except “I’m so sorry (this has happened)” and “I love you/him/her.”

      Your friend has a huge hole blown through the center of her being, and she’s likely dealing with issues regarding her will to survive this tragedy. More than ever in her life, she needs her support network, and in some ways, it’s more difficult on her friends and family than on her. They all want desperately to help, you want desperately to help, but there’s nothing you can do except to be there. Even if she doesn’t feel she can see you, she needs to know you’re there for her. So, I say, don’t be pushy but be constantly present, and please keep always in mind that even though you’re personally hurting deeply, it’s not about you.

      Things will obviously never be the same. Your friend will get better, but she will never again be whole. What’s important at this stage is that those in her life who will help fill the void make themselves available as she becomes increasingly able to reach out. The process will move from silent tears and sleepless nights to fond memories and even quiet giggles, and your friend will remember and appreciate those who were there throughout the process, those who provided a shoulder to cry on, who shared in her tears, and who offered a helping hand with the activities of daily life while she felt so incapable.

      I don’t know if any of this is helpful or not, but you asked, so I’m sharing what I have. I can tell you this for certain, it will be 4 years since my wife and I lost our beloved son, Joshua, and your comment this morning sent me to tears. I have a friend who lost his son 23 years ago, and to this day, when he shares the story, he cannot help but cry. It’s what happens; it’s a tragedy that nobody should ever have to face, but people do all the time. So, please, by all means, be there with your friend — share in her tears; share in her silence; respect her need in grieving; don’t ever tell her that “it’ll be alright;” don’t tell her that “you know what’s she’s going through;” let her know that you’ll be there for her “no matter what,” and most importantly as time moves on — don’t ever be afraid to talk about her son; it is a fear of many grieving parents that their child will be forgotten, and even though it often calls forth tears, the memories are all that we have.

      I don’t know if you’ve found it yet, but there’s a national group called Compassionate Friends that’s formed of parents who have lost children. They typically have local meetings where parents at different stages come together and share, and the interaction with others who “do” truly understand can be helpful.

      Be strong, but not afraid to show your emotions.

      All the Best,
      Dave

  5. Thank you so much for sharing this with us all. One of my dearest friends lost her 14 year old son very suddenly a few days ago. She was an absolute rock to me when I lost my fiance a couple of years ago and I so want to be the friend to her that she was and has been to me since.

    • My heart goes out to both you and your friend. She’ll need as much love and patience as you can possibly muster. Just being there for her will help to ease her burden. It’s only with the support of those close to us that we can survive such loss.

      Much love,
      Dave

  6. I appreciate you sharing how we as friends can support our friends in their time of need. Our dear friends lost their 16 year old son 4 weeks ago. When I was 16 we lost my 19 year old brother and while that loss was devistating to me, 26 years later I can honestly say that I do not, nor do I pretend to understand my parents loss. Being so close to the loss my parents experienced has helped my wife and I to partially understand how we can support our friends. But reading through your words has really helped guide us. Immediately following our friends loss, we began researching how to provide the correct support to them. We came upon your very personal story. In our circumstance our friends are still in a very private place in their grief. We did support them publicly during the services and memorials. As much as we want to see them and hold them and give them our love, we let them know through quiet messages that we are here for them when they are ready. We hope we are finding the correct balance of letting them know how much we care, but not pushing them. We have for the first time this week told them when they are ready we would love to see them. But we understand it is all in time and when they are ready they will let us know. Mostly we let them know we care, we are here, if there is anything they need let us know.

    I appreciate your words and am sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing your story and helping guide those who have or are supporting someone who has experienced this life changing tragedy.

    • I am deeply saddened by your friends loss. There really are no words to explain. It’s understandable that having your childhood experience you would, at least, have a window into understanding the grief. That’s the best any of us can do. I’ve directly experienced what I consider the tragedy of tragedies, and still I don’t presume to really understand all that your friends are going through. Again, it’s just another window. It sounds to me like you’re doing exactly the right thing, and I am so grateful that your friends have someone as thoughtful, loving and selfless to help and support them through their dark times.

      Please don’t let them just fall away. They need their space, as you already know, but space can become distance if allowed to grow for too long. I wish you all the best as you travel these dark roads. There is a group called Compassionate Friends that you might want to check into. My wife and I found them to be helpful. And please, let you friends know, from somebody who has walked a similar path, that it does get better. It’ll never be the same, and the hurt will never go away, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Compassionate Friends calls it the “new normal,” and the only way it’s ever found is with the help of family and friends like you.

      All the best,
      Dave

  7. Dear Dave,

    I am so sorry for your loss. As you mentioned, those of us who have not lost a child can’t imagine what it’s like for those of you who have. The fact is, when I have tried to imagine it, I’m so overwhelmed by grief that I want to shake myself out of it. I am truly sorry that you aren’t able to shake that feeling away… and that the feeling is magnified beyond what should ever be expected of anyone.

    My best friend has been living this tragedy for the last year after her 14 year old son passed. He was severely autistic and was suffering from seizures in the last few months of his life. But it was still very unexpected. She blames herself constantly, wishing she had done things differently. Everything you have written is exactly as she describes… the fact that she doesn’t want people to forget her son… she wants to talk about him, and finds that people want to change the subject so she’s not upset. It’s not surprising that so few people know what to say… but it’s amazing to me how few people try. People stay away because they don’t want to bring it up. So this has been an incredibly lonely time.

    Today, on Christmas, her son’s favorite time of year, she is having such a hard time. I wish I lived close enough to just drop by and hug her… to sit and watch a movie… to hold her hand. I feel so incredibly helpless. But reading your words has helped me know that patience is probably the best thing I can do for her. She needs to know that no matter what she feels (and her husband of course too) that I will love them both, and be here when they’re ready.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. It’s so important to be able to validate her feelings, knowing that her “new normal” is definitely “normal” for what she’s going through.

    My heart goes out to you on Christmas!

    Fondly,
    Ally

    • Thanks for your heartfelt comment, Ally. The holidays are always particularly difficult, but while your friend has suffered the worst of loss, she is very fortunate to be loved by a good friend like you. It’s only with such friends and family that we find that “new normal.” My heart goes out to your friend.

      Please share my writing with her, and let her know that once I wrote it and shared it with my friends, they really got the message — they thanked me for it and now feel free to talk openly and often about Josh.

      Your patience and love will be critical in helping your friend to heal, but it will take time. I shed tears every single day for more than a year. I’d even wear sunglasses when shopping in the grocery store. My wife says to make sure I tell you to mention Compassionate Friends, a support group for people who have lost children, to your friend. They were a great help to us.

      With gratitude,
      Dave

  8. Dear Dave,

    Our deepest sympathies for the loss of your son. Thank you for capturing our feelings so succinctly. We read your letter through tear-filled eyes knowing that you and your wife understand. We appreciate you reaching out, even through this painful journey, to other parents and families experiencing such great loss.

    Our beautiful 13-year old son went to heaven 15 months ago. We know we will be reunited again one day, but we miss him every second of every day. Huge void in our hearts.

    Wishing you peace and grace,

    Evangeline & Patrick

    p.s. We are Ally’s friends and are so blessed for her loving heart. It has made such a difference. We will check out Compassionate Friends and appreciate the source.

    • Dear Evangeline and Patrick,
      Sorry I’m so late responding to your comment, but my work situation has changed and I’ve been on the road for the past month. I am so sorry for your loss, and I’m dearly grateful for any small help I’m able to extend. My wife and I share your faith in one day being reunited with our lost son, but we know until that day, the hole in our hearts will remain. Until then, we just do what we can to be the best that we can be. It’s really all we can do.

      It is good, loving friends, like Ally, who help us through these times. We wish you all the best.

      Dave and Kathy

  9. I lost my precious 16 year old son jan 10th. It was so unexpected and my world will never be the same. I have no desire to celebrate Easter.

    • I’m so sorry Peggy. I totally undserstand your feelings about Easter. It was late February when I lost my Joshua, and celebration was still far from my mind come Easter. All I can say is that it does get better. Your world will never be the same, but you can find your way through it.

      Much love,
      Dave

  10. Dear Dave.

    I can identify with your loss. I lost my son 8 months ago, in a bike accident. He was 25. I still cannot stop crying. I have 3 other children, another son of 31 and my daughters are 22 and 16. Everyone keeps telling me to be strong for my children. I dont think they understand, I make myself stop crying and i make myself laugh so my children think I am ok. They have their grief to deal with, they dont need to make sure I am ok all the time. For them life needs to return to normal as fast as possible, so they can get on with their lives.

    Kind regards
    Charlene

    • Hello Charlene,
      I’m so sorry for your loss. Nobody should ever have to feel the grief of losing a child. I can tell you that it will get better. My wife and I just passed the fifth anniversary of losing our Joshua, and the truth is that things will never even be close to the vicinity of being the same, but we have found a new normal. I cried every day for a year. I even had to put sunglasses on while grocery shopping. I still cry, but not every day. I imagine that will always be the case. It is true that you have to pull through for your other children though. I too have 3 others, and 4 grandkids now. I press on for them all, and my for my wife, but for Joshua too. Call me silly, but I want him to be proud of me.

      From my heart to yours,
      Dave

  11. I lost my daughter this January. Still trying to cope with it. Not sure when I get my strength back.

    • I’m so sorry SD. I don’t know what to say, except that it will get better. It takes a very long time though. At 4 months, I was still a total wreck. Have you heard of the Compassionate Friends? They’re a support group for those of us who’ve experienced this most severe of losses. It does help to share with those who you know understand.

      My heart goes out to you,
      Dave

  12. Thank you for your honesty and advice. My best friend and her husband just lost their daughter Emily. As you said no one should ever have to go through this. I have know Emily’s mother my entire life, our mother’s were good friends. We have shared so many experiences in our lives but never did we think that we would be sharing something so devastating. As you said, I can only imagine how bad her pain is, not ever having experienced losing a child myself. I have 2 children who are also trying to cope with the loss of their friend. My heart breaks for my friend and I hope that my constant contact and quiet listening will help. I pray every day that she will find a purpose that will help her to hang on and make Emily’s memory live on. Thank you for putting in writing what my friend is not able to explain right now.

    • Thank you for your comment, Melissa. I too pray that your friend will find purpose once again and make sure Emily is never forgotten. She’s very lucky to have a friend who cares enough to just be there. It’s a thankless job, but there’s no way we make it to the other side without your sort of support. Just know that no matter what your friend shares with you now, she will always be grateful.

      God bless you!

      Dave

  13. Dear Dave,
    Yet another tragic story: my best friends 6 year old son drowned last night. She is passed out drunk and the dad is frozen on the couch. I want to rush down there ( 8 hours away ) but because I am in recovery, it has been suggested that I wait till the dust settles and that I shouldn’t be in that crazy environment. I feel I should be there for her, her husband and their other two children. I opted to wait while other friends go down. So powerless and sick. Your posts help give me some direction. God bless you and the many families I know you have helped by sharing your story.

    • Thanks Kelly,
      It’s so hard to know what to do, and every situation is different. Like I’ve told others, the only constant is pain, and the only antidote love. So long as your friend knows you’re there, you’re already doing your part. It was over a year before I had my first day without being overcome with tears, so trust me, the path is long.

      My best to you and your friend,
      Dave

  14. Thank you for your hi esty, and insightfulness. I am an elementary school principal and in the past week we one of my student’s was killed in a horse riding accident, and one of my teachers’ five year old daughter is missing because she fell off a dock and into the Connecticut River three days ago. I am so incredibly sad about both of these children, and trying to find the strength to support the families.

    • Dawn,
      Just the fact that you’re sufficiently troubled to cause you to search the Internet and seek ways to support these families speaks volumes to who you are as a person. We need so much more such empathy in this angry, divided world. My heart goes out to your school and community. Please know this, even though the early times during our loss is very much a blur, we vividly remember the love and understanding that was showered upon us from our friends and neighbors. It is that net of support, each little note, every hug, those who, knowing we wouldn’t be up to it ourselves, just stopped by to just drop off a casserole, the donations and other offerings in our son’s name, the memories of better times and the promises to not let him be forgotten — these are the gifts of kindness and support that made our survival possible.

      I’m glad your school has you, Dawn.

      With love,
      Dave

  15. Dave:

    Thank you so very much for sharing. Like you my dear beautiful friend just lost her son tragically ……. I loss I pray I will never have to endure …. CAN’T CAN’T CAN’T IMAGINE …… through the sharing of your pain, I can now REALLY be there for her as she has always been for me.

    GOD BLESS,
    Becky

    • Becky,
      Thanks so much for reaching out and sharing. I wrote the article to help, and it does offer some comfort when people tell me that I have.

      God Bless,
      Dave

  16. I am so grateful for founding this article and all the comments. My best friends have just lost their baby girl, age 17 to cancer last Thursday. Drs declared her braindead and machines were shut off at 14.06. I sat with them for 2 nights, hoping and praying, but God wanted her too much. They have been staying with me since last Tuesday and only went home yesterday. I have lost my other daughter, and am devastated, but trying to be strong for them. I have gone beyond trying to hug/hold with no tears, and now just cry with them or sit in silence. I have been thinking that I should maybe give them more space, and not sure how much I should or should not step back.

    I thank you for your article and all the comments, helped a lot reading it all

    • How can we ever know what to do in unimaginable situations? We all just stumble through, hoping that our faith and love will help make things right, and knowing that our hearts are in the right place. We all just do our best trust in the outcome. You’re there, and that’s what matters.

      With a loving heart,
      Dave

  17. I have a friend who lost his wife 13 years ago. He was just ready to jump back into life and dating as his only “son” had told him so many times to “get a life”. 2 weeks into him finally pulling himself back together his only son gets killed in a tragic work work related accident. I’m 10 hours away from him where he has few friends but no family where he is. What words of comfort do I offer? I have never met his son. I am planning on going to spend time with him in 2 weeks. Would really like some advice?

    Sincerely,

    Vera

    • Geez Vera,
      I’m so sorry I’ve been away and just read this today. This is awful. It just goes to prove that whenever you think you’ve had it so bad, there’s plenty of people who’ve had it worse and gone through more. Alas, I don’t think I really have any sage advice anyway. I don’t think i could have made it through losing my son without having my wonderful wife to lean on. I hope your visit went well . . . as well as it possibly could have. If you ever happen to read this, I really would appreciate hearing about how your friend is doing.

      With love,
      Dave

  18. Hi my friends lost their son today (he drowned) do not know what to say or what to do please help me help them.

    • Anton,
      I apologize for not responding earlier. I’ve not been on my own blog for months. My heart goes out to your friends. I hope they have a strong support group around them. Two months later now, I’m sure they still grieve on a daily basis. All you can really do is be there for them. There are no silver bullets, no real words of wisdom, just time and a process.

      Regards,
      Dave

  19. Dear Dave, My friend from high school has lost her 3 children. I have recently gotten in touch with her after many years since we live in different states. Her sons died from cancer and heart.They were grown when they died.I know she will never heal from this horrible loss but do you have any advice for me as to how I can help her? I am so sorry for your loss.Thank You, Marcia Case

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