June 14, 2014
Get Up.
Go On.
Do Great Things.

What to do (For Friends and Family)

When we lost our Christopher, many of our friends and even family members had no idea how to "deal" with us. One thing was certain though: Everyone wanted to do something. Below are some of the things we found helpful, which may be helpful to others who are going through similar circumstances. However, keep in mind that everyone reacts to loss and grief differently. What is and was helpful to us may not be helpful to someone else.

Say you are sorry for their loss

When someone dies, even the most eloquent individual finds themselves stumbling over their words. In the days following the loss of our son, many just looked at us with tearful eyes, mumbled their "I'm sorry for your loss" and hugged us. This action, and the acknowledgement that there are no other words to say, were sincere and heartfelt. Do not be afraid to say you are sorry for their loss. That is really the only thing you can say.

Ask how you can help around the house, with guests, with food, etc.

Everyone wants to help when tragedy strikes, but many just do not know what to do. For us, what helped the most was when people would ask us "What can I do to help you right now?" or "Is it okay to do this?". There is something about our laundry room that draws people to it like a bug to a light. When family came in from out of state to be here for us, all of the women wanted to do our laundry. That was the LAST thing we wanted them to do!! Quickly, Billy and I gathered in the laundry room to remove all of Christopher's clothes. The one thing we did not want was to lose any more of him, including his smell. Even a year later we are funny about things in our house. Recently, someone threw away a container that was in our kitchen. Unfortunately, the person who threw it away had no idea that the container was something that we held on to because it was a link to our son. We always had to get on to Christopher for leaving empty containers around the house (like an empty milk jug put back into the 'fridge). He had left an empty container in the kitchen cupboard, so we kept it there...the last of his empty containers. When we realized it was gone, we cried bitter tears. We'll never see another empty container left by our son again. Be sure to ask before washing anything, moving anything or throwing anything into the trash. What seems like something trivial or insignificant to you could be a treasure to a grieving family.

Be careful with open-ended questions like: "Is there anything I can do?"

This is a hard one. Everyone wants to do something, but the one thing a grieving family wants done cannot be done. Be careful asking open ended questions such as this one. After Billy and I returned to work, a co-worker asked me one day "Kim, is there anything I can do?". I forgot myself for a second and replied "No, not unless you know how to bring my boy back." Just be careful how you word things when speaking to those who are grieving. Fortunately, the co-worker mentioned above has also been a close friend for many years and realized my comment was drenched in grief and anger.

Do not say "I know how you feel."

We all grieve differently, and all relationships are different. People do not know how someone else is feeling, no matter how similar the circumstances. Many try to identify with the person who has suffered loss. We, as humans, need to feel connected. A comment like "I know how you feel" could be met with misdirected anger. One example I've read about recently was concerning a family that had also lost a son. An acquaintance came by their house to offer her sympathies. During the conversation, the acquaintance mentioned she had recently suffered a loss too and knew how the family was suffering. She went on to explain how bad she missed her cat! Remember, during this initial time of grief and pain, it is not time for you to tell your story of loss. This is a time to take the focus off of you and put it onto the folks who are grieving the most.

Remember the fathers, siblings, and grandparents

This is very important. Since Christopher went to Heaven, many people will stop Billy in the halls at work to inquire about my current state of mind. The conversation is always the same: "Hey Billy. How's Kim?" Never: "Hey Billy. Are you doing okay? How are you holding up?" When a child dies, the focus generally is on the mother. What people seem to forget is that Billy lost his son too, just as much as I did. Being a father does not shield a person from grief or determine the depth of grief which is felt. As modern as we are as a society, it is still expected that men do not "feel" as strongly or deeply as women, nor are men expected to show their grief as readily as a woman. Remember, when a child dies, the father's heart is breaking right along with mother's heart.

Siblings generally deal with two losses when a brother or sister dies. First, they deal with their own loss: the loss of their buddy, protector, confidant, and co-conspirator. Second, they now have to deal with the loss of the parent they once knew. The parent they once knew may have been carefree and excited about life. The parent they once knew may have been easy going, and willing to try new things. The parent they will come to know will be very different. Some embrace life even more, while others become paranoid about losing their remaining children. Some parents become withdrawn from their family as a way to protect themselves from additional pain. The remaining children will now have to grieve for the parent they once knew. On top of all of this, they must also watch as their parents transition from being strong and sometimes near invincible being into a person that seems frail and fragile. When a sibling dies, there is more than just the loss of the sibling to deal with. The whole family dynamic changes and children must cope with this new dynamic. Remember to be there for the children.

Grandparents are also multiple grievers. The grandparents must deal with the loss of their grandchild, but also must deal with knowing their own child is such pain and there is nothing they can do to take it away. There is nothing more frustrating or hurtful to a parent than to watch their child hurt and know that nothing can be done to make it better.

Speak the name of the person who died

Many times, we are fearful of upsetting a grieving family, so we do things like hide pictures, fail to mention the person who has died, and act like everything is okay. For our family, some of our hardest moments have been overcome by talking about memories of Christopher. We talk about him all the time, and try to encourage others to do the same. Talking about him does not make us miss him more. Not talking about him, or feeling like we make people uncomfortable by talking about him makes the grief harder. Our son died, he did not fail to exist; his history was not erased from our minds. Christopher was on this Earth for 16 years. We have wonderful memories of him and we love to talk about them. It's also great when his friends come over and share their memories. Of course, they tell us things we never knew, so it's almost like making new memories with him. Share your memories of the person who died. If you did not know the person, but are a friend of someone who has suffered loss, ask them to tell you stories about the person. If they do not want to talk about him or her, they will let you know. Do not be afraid to speak the name of the departed. This is not a Harry Potter movie in which someone "cannot be named". Ask to see pictures, many times those who are grieving are just waiting to talk about their loved one - not about their pain, but of the person they miss.