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Ways to support grieving parents.

This is a post that I’ve wanted to write for a while. I recently noticed on the SUDC Foundation Instagram page that July is ‘Bereaved parent’s awareness month’. That gave me the nudge I needed to go ahead and put pen to paper. I’m not qualified in any way, unfortunately this post comes from first-hand experience.


I’m new to this world, it’s the club that no parent wants to be part of, no parent would offer to trade places for, and you’re in it for life; you don’t graduate this club with flying colours; prove you can survive without your child and then get rewarded at the end with them coming back to you. It’s a life sentence of grief and navigating triggers and a new way of life that you didn’t choose.


I often think about how I’d support a friend if their child died. What type of friend would I be? Would I message them a lot? Would I be compassionate enough? Would I listen? Would they consider me a safe person to talk to? This journey has made me take some time to think and reflect. If the shoe was on the other foot, and I was supporting a friend or family who were grieving the loss of their child, what would I want to know, so I could help them? So, 8 months in, and still very new to this journey, I thought I’d share a few things.


1. Research grief - take the time to educate yourself on it. What it means, what the stages are, how it can affect everyone in different ways?


William died on Wednesday 17th November, I googled grief on Thursday 18th November. I needed information, I wanted to understand why I felt numb after he died. Was this normal? What was wrong with me?


Take a few minutes to learn about grief. It could really help your relationship with the bereaved parent, you might then feel equipped to offer advice, or it might make you feel more prepared when spending time with them.

Believe me, in my experience it makes a huge difference. I feel more comfortable to open up when I know the person isn’t going to shy away, or act awkward with these raw conversations.


2. Don’t compare – don’t compare your grief to someone else’s. I remember in the hospital when we knew we’d have to say goodbye to William, I asked my husband whose father had died 16 months before, ‘Is this the same feeling? Is this pain what it feels like when you lose a parent?’ I was comparing! He looked me straight in the eye and said ‘No, you cannot compare losing a parent to losing a child. There is a natural order, William shouldn’t be dying before us’.


We live in a society where we compare. I receive messages most days from individuals explaining their circumstances and their own grief. It’s only natural, you want to share your loss and make others feel less lonely. From my experience and with the mums I have spoken to in similar situations (losing a child), there’s an unwritten rule not to compare, but to listen and support. Yes, we’re in this horrendous club together, that’s what unites us, but no two experiences are the same.


3. Listen - a lot of the time people just want to be heard. Don’t always expect it to be about their grief, it could be about anything. I often just want to talk and get things off my chest. I describe my head as a thunderstorm, with information firing off in every direction, and nothing makes sense. Please just offer to listen to the person you’re supporting, it’s comforting to know you’re in a safe space where you can talk and try to process loss without judgement.


4. Communicate - it’s very easy to avoid sending a text message, or to not make a phone call because you don’t know what to say. Believe me, when I receive the text messages and phone calls, I don’t know what to say either. How do you explain how you feel? Shocked, upset, devastated, broken, shattered, the list goes on, but none of those words come anywhere close to describing how a grieving person feels. However, receiving communication lets them know that you’re there, you’re thinking of them and that you’re holding their hand on this never-ending journey. You never know, when they receive that message, it could change their outlook on the next hour or day or week. I urge you to check in with them. And if you really don’t have the words, send emoji’s, I’ve communicated with most people at some point with just hearts or bunny emoji’s.


5. Just ask - Don’t be afraid to ask what can I do? How can I help? What the boundaries are for talking about loss? Etc. From the very early days when I’d see people for the first time since losing William, I would bring him up immediately. I consciously did this to make people feel comfortable and confident to talk about him in front of me. I should have got a t-shirt printed, and it would have said: Yes, you can talk about William. No, I don’t know why he died. I will probably cry, but that’s ok. I will tell you if I’m not comfortable talking about certain things.


But just because I am an open book, with a blog and talk about William all the time, it doesn’t mean everyone else is the same. My husband and I can confidently say to each other, ‘I can’t talk about what happened right now. I don’t want to go over every single detail of his death today.’ We both respect each other’s grief and understand that we’re not programmed the same or riding the same grief waves at the same time as each other. We accept the ebb and flow of grief in our relationship.


6. Childcare - if the parents have other children, offer to do school or nursery drop off/pick ups. I am fortunate that my parents live around the corner and could take Max and Lewis to and from school for me for as long as I wanted. For weeks I didn’t feel strong enough to walk through the school gates, without William and the push chair, just walking in by myself, alone.


Suggest playdates; to take the children out for the day. My closest friends had the boys a lot for me, they’d organise my diary so I was given time to grieve. It was a huge relief to know the boys were having fun with their friends and that Keith and I could have time together at home.


7. Be mindful - just because your friend or family member has a smile on their face, or is trying to create a positive environment for their children or themselves, don’t be fooled; on the inside they’re probably desperately trying to hold it all together, triggered by everything around them and not wanting to cry, in fear the tears will never stop.


Recently I’ve felt this and questioned if by being so positive on the outside people forget that it’s only been a few months since losing William. I choose to surround myself with people who understand me and allow me to laugh and banter with them. People who don’t take me too seriously or judge me for trying (with every cell in my body) to enjoy what I’m doing. I don’t want to be the broken mother in the corner that people cross the road to avoid, I know for me and my personality that would add to my pain and grief. I am fully aware that I am a changed person, in every way, my brain processes everything with William at the start of every thought that comes into my head, but I desperately search for joyful times and to try and be present for the boys. A grieving parent has lost so much, the past, present and future, but they are probably clinging on to any aspects of their old life, seeing a glimmer of themselves from happier times before. We just want to go back to ‘normal’.


8. Remind them you’re always there - During the first year of anniversaries and milestones the support is huge, gradually that drops off, but from experience I know that as we approach 8 months without William that an element of fear is creeping in. That once the month of November 2022 ends and we move into December that everyone will think, it’s the second Christmas, then the second Mother’s Day, second birthday etc, but that doesn’t make it any less painful. Bereaved parents have to face those milestones and the build up to them, every single year. Always be available and tell your loved ones that you’re there. I promise you it will mean a lot.


Final thoughts and things I love…


When I receive photos or videos of William that people have found on their camera roll - they’re so precious to me.


When people share memories. A parent’s biggest fear is forgetting things, forgetting their loved one. Keep their memory alive with details that you remember.


I hope this was useful and you paused and thought about how you’d support someone close to you if they’re struggling.


Thanks for reading.


Hannah x


Website recommendations


Sudden Unexplained Death In Childhood


Child Bereavement UK


NHS Website


Mind






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