Being "there" for a friend or family member who is grieving the heartbreaking loss of a child may seem an abstract concept. What does that mean? What does it look like? How can you possibly help?
Start by listening
Alan Wolfelt, Ph.D., director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colo., suggests beginning by listening.
"Your physical presence and desire to listen without judging are critical helping tools," he says. "Don't worry so much about what you will say. Just concentrate on listening to the words that are being shared with you."
Reaching out, without strings
Anne Vachon of Troy, whose 7-year-old son Timmy died after being struck by a snowmobile at a Michigan ski area in February 2007, suggests those looking to help a grieving friend do things for them that they don't have to do back.
"Call and leave a message letting the person know you're thinking about them or praying for them, but don't expect a callback," she says. "I would get over 100 phone calls a day. It was like I was paralyzed, because I just couldn't return them.
"Send them notes, letters or emails," she continues. "But don't expect anything in return. Remind them of who they were and love them for who they are now. They are different. Accept that person as the fragile person he or she now is."
Lending a hand
Practical help in the form of meals, errands and assistance with other children are useful ways of helping a grieving friend.
"It was so weird – I could walk around and care for my children," Vachon recalls, "but the idea of going to the grocery store and making dinner was going to send me to the moon. People brought meals, offered to take me to lunch or invited me to meet them for coffee, which I was so grateful for."
Mindie Wolvin of Lake Orion lost her 16-year-old son Jake – also in February 2007. She encourages friends of grieving parents to help with grocery shopping and meals – and advises the grieving parents themselves to take the help.
"When help is offered, take it," she says. "And tell people what you need."
Vachon recalls being overwhelmed by the prospect of writing thousands of thank you notes after Timmy's death.
"Whoever made up the thank you note business for a funeral should be shot," she jokes. "Thankfully a friend organized a group of people to come over and help me to just get them done."
Wolfelt notes that in their attempt to comfort grieving parents, friends and family members may use cliches that, while well-intended, can be extremely hurtful.
"Comments like, 'You are holding up well,' 'Time heals all wounds' or 'Think of all you still have to be thankful for' are not constructive," he notes. "Instead, they hurt and make a friend's journey through grief more difficult."
Sister Beverly Hinson, IHM, director of spiritual care at Children's Hospital of Michigan in Detroit, cautions never to tell bereaved parents that you know how they feel.
"No human being knows how another feels," she says. "Don't say 'you're young and can have another child' or that 'God wanted an angel.' I'm a religious person, but even I would never say that."
Hinson encourages friends and family members to ask the grieving parents how they can help – and then to do it.
"Send meals. Let them cry."
Know it won't be easy
Wolfelt cautions that helping a grieving friend will not be an easy task.
"You may have to give more concern, time and love than you ever knew you had," he explains. "But this effort will be more than worth it. By 'walking with' your friend in grief, you are giving one of life's most precious gifts – yourself."