How to Support a Grieving Parent
April 30, 2023
When somebody close to you loses a pregnancy or a child, you want to help them – but you may be unsure of how to proceed. You might feel afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing and making them feel worse. However, just being there for your loved one is often the best way to help a grieving parent during this difficult time – and it won’t make them sadder, says Allison Remy, MSSA, LISW, The Joanie and Tom Adler Endowed Director of University Hospitals Parent Bereavement Programs.
“Be present with them. Just sit with them, listen to them, and be helpful where you can,” says Remy.
Supporting someone who has suffered this kind of loss can be as simple as being a shoulder to cry on, or providing practical help with things like housework, errands or meals. The most important thing is to make sure they know you are there for them, in whatever way they need you to be.
What You Can Do – and What Not to Do
Some do’s and don’ts Remy suggests for helping a grieving parent include:
DO talk about the baby or child if the parent wants to, and don’t be afraid to mention the child’s name. Even in their sadness, many bereaved parents will welcome the opportunity to talk about their child and keep their memory alive.
DO ask the parent what they need or how you can be helpful. Remy also recommends offering specific suggestions. Ask if you can bring food, help look after their other children, or do a few loads of laundry. This can be helpful for someone who may not be in the state of mind to come up with ideas on their own.
DO acknowledge anniversaries, such as the child’s birthday. A simple phone call, card or text can let the parent know you are thinking about them and can give them an opportunity to talk about their child.
DO extend invitations to events such as a baby shower or a child’s birthday celebration, but let them know that it’s ok if they choose not to attend. And don’t be hurt if they decline – they may find these celebrations too triggering. But giving them the choice will let them know that they are important to you and you want them to be a part of your life.
DON’T compare your grief experiences with theirs. Though you may be trying to convey that you understand how they feel, the loss of a baby or child is not the same as the loss of a parent, grandparent or pet. You can never know exactly how someone else’s grief makes them feel.
DON’T make it about yourself or look to the grieving parent with your own sadness and pain. If you need emotional support, you should seek it out somewhere else, from another close friend or loved one. But when you are trying to support a mom or dad who lost a child, the focus needs to be on them.
Helpful Things to Say
Sometimes the simplest words and phrases can have the biggest impact for a grieving person. While you can’t do or say anything to take away their pain, your empathy can speak volumes. Helpful things to say can include:
- “I’m sorry.”
- “I’m here for you if you want to talk about it.”
- “I love you.”
- “I’m at a loss as to what to say.”
- “This stinks/sucks.”
- “I wish this wasn’t happening.”
Phrases to Avoid
Words can be hurtful sometimes, even if your intentions are well-meaning, so always think about how your words may be interpreted before you speak. Remy suggests avoiding certain good-intentioned but unhelpful phrases and platitudes, such as:
- Phrases that begin with “At least…”
- “It’s going to be OK.”
- “Everything happens for a reason.”
- “You need to be strong for (other children, spouse, etc.)”
- “Time heals all wounds.”
A Continued Show of Support
After the initial outflowing of sympathy and support, bereaved parents may find themselves feeling alone. Grief doesn’t get smaller; typically someone grows around their grief. So it can be beneficial to continue to show your love and support, even months and years later, and keep the lines of communication open. Text or call to check in on them and let them know that you are there for them.
“Supporting grieving parents can feel overwhelming. However, being mindful with what you say and do in order to provide a supportive presence can really help in the long run,” says Remy.
University Hospitals Parent Bereavement Program is working to build a safe community for people who have endured the loss of a pregnancy or child by providing support and resources for grieving parents and families.