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How to Help a Grieving Friend

Nine years ago, I happily packed up the car, stuffed my huge, pregnant body into the van and headed off to give birth to my third child. Three hours later, my beautiful second daughter was born in shattering stillness. No heartbeat. No cry. No breath.

I entered a dark world, the world every mother hopes she’ll never get to know, the world we’ve glimpsed before when some other lady lost her child, buried her baby.  Somebody else’s reality, the one we’ve skirted nervously past when we’ve glimpsed it before, thinking, “God, don’t let that ever be me!” Now I was a part of this awful club.

For a long time, that Dark Spot was everything. After a lot of years, it faded some. It’s a mass of scar tissue there now; patched up as well as one could expect, but still noticeable if you look.

When The Worst happens, it’s hard on the grieving, but it’s also hard on those who care about the bereaved. The friends and family – they want to do the right things, they want to help, but it’s so hard to know what to do. wouldn’t have known how to help, when I was still safely on the other side, before I was in the awful club. Some people did the most lovely things; some still do them, 9 years later. It’s desperately precious to me. Some people did or said the most horrid things. I wish they had just sewn their lips shut and vanished from my life.

Here are the ways you can help a friend who loses a child:

1. Impose No Expectations: This is by far, number one, the most loving and useful and worthy thing you can do. Give the grieving your unconditional acceptance with no expiration date. The worst thing you can do is to “should” on them. You should get out more. You should be moving on. You should have another baby/not have another baby/wait a long time to have another baby. You should pray more often/more fervently/with more conviction the next time around. You should go to counseling. You should be “open and honest” about how you feel. Blech. I detested every expectation. To truly love your friend, meet them where they are and wait for them to heal. Wait forever if necessary; don’t look at your watch.

2. Understand Their Relational Style:  People process grief differently. Some people want a lot of people around them. They want a lot of contact, want someone to talk to them often.  Others retreat to lick their wounds alone more of the time. Respect whichever way your friend operates.

Oddly, some people make their friend’s loss about themselves. They behave like they want to win the Biggest Help Award. They’re visible with their ostentatious “sacrifices” every time you turn around. One “friend” called me on the phone and then, once the conversation was going, told me she was missing an appointment, but that it was worth it because I was more important. Gack. Nauseating self-centered “help.” Please don’t do this. If you’re that immature, leave your “friend” alone and get your own therapy.

3. Help In Practical Ways: In the early months after a tragedy, your friend needs practical help. Often, the best way to give the practical help is just to give it, not ask when or how or under what conditions you can give the help. (But do consider point #2; intruding too much on an introvert isn’t helpful, either.)  When Lydia died, we were also three days from moving into a new home.  The friends who came and just did were of unspeakable value. They just came and did what was needed. They figured out how to get everybody fed. They put the beds together and got the clothes put in the dressers. It’s a good thing because I barely remember it. When I think back on it, it’s like I’m watching a poorly-filmed video without my glasses; there are some shapes and sounds, but I can’t really tell what’s in the picture.

4. Accept That You Can’t Fix It: This may be the hardest thing. People want to make it all better. They want to say something or do something that will be healing. Most attempts to do so will fail. It’s not going to be all better no matter what you say. It’s not okay with me that Lydia died, even if she’s “in a better place” or she “never had to know this messed-up world” or “God can bring good out of tragedy.” And don’t even get me started on “God’s will” and how that conundrum plays out!  The best thing you can do is sincerely say how sorry you are that it happened. Say how you wish you had magic and could make it all better.  And then just accept that your friend will hurt for a long, long time and you cannot fix it.

5. Don’t Tell Your Friend She’s “Strong”: I don’t know if this is some sort of wishful thinking or if it just goes back to #4 above, but, especially in a faith community, people want to comment directly or indirectly that the bereaved is “strong,” or “has a strong faith.” Please, please do not project this onto your friend. When people said this to me, I just made a check-mark in my head confirming that this was a person who could never learn the ugly, messy truth about how shattered and ruined and decimated I now was. Sometimes, ironically, it was the very people who were always touting the gospel about being “open and honest” who simultaneously conveyed their unwillingness to see anything in me except how supposedly strong and faithful I was. Folks, I wasn’t strong and faithful. I’m not now, either. I was totally wrecked by losing Lydia. It turned me inside out. I was a walking tangle of exposed nerves and a bleeding, broken heart.

I hate to say, I hear this same refrain said about other people who have joined this awful club. “Oh, So-And-So…what a marvelous Christian! She is so strong! She just buried her baby and yet she is so strong!” It’s all baloney. If the friend appears strong, assume it’s an act. If the friend appears messed-up, just get to know your new, freshly messed-up friend because that is who they are now. If you loved them when they were actually “strong,” you love them when they’re messed-up and sloppy. Let them heal if it takes ten years. If it takes twenty thousand. Be a loving friend and don’t project attributes you wish they had so that you don’t have to look at what actually is.

6. Don’t Criticize Their Medical Team If There Was One: It’s safe to assume that every parent who has lost a child feels some level of guilt that they were not able to protect their child from death. Why add to your friend’s misplaced guilt by suggesting that they did not have adequate care or medical teams did not make the right decisions? If there truly was medical malpractice that caused the death, leave it to the lawyers to sort that out. Just assure your friend that she did everything she thought would be best for her child, even if it didn’t turn out well.

7. Remember Their Child: Some of my dear friends give me acknowledgements of Lydia from time to time. I don’t think anything could communicate their care for me more fully than this.  Once, a friend mentioned my youngest child as, “…your fourth child…”  I was so touched at her giving Lydia a “count” as my third child. Giving your friend a card or other acknowledgement on important dates will be so appreciated, especially in the years to come, after the initial incident is over.

On my baby girl’s ninth birthday, I ask that we all just spread a little love around.  If all my advice was distilled down to one word, it would be Acceptance. Accept your friend and find the courage to just sit with the helpless sorrow you feel around her. Love her and don’t rush her grief journey. It may take many years for her to come around to something resembling herself again.