Have you ever had someone in your life experience a profound loss? Did you immediately know how to comfort and care for them? If so, you are one of the very few. For most of us, when the people we care about are grieving, it is common to feel unsure of what to say or do. We all want to help, but oftentimes it is difficult to really know how.
In the weeks and months following Abel’s passing, we were the recipients of wide-ranging care and support from the people in our lives who loved us. We found that folks always meant well, but some efforts were deeply encouraging and helpful while other attempts were underwhelming and even hurtful.
Since founding Abel Speaks and walking alongside parents who have chosen to carry a child with a life-limiting diagnosis, we have gradually shifted roles. Now years after Abel’s life on earth, we have moved from those receiving comfort after a loss to those hoping to extend it to others.
Here are three pointers that have served us well as we’ve sought to offer care and comfort to families that have lost a child or loved one.
(1) Be present, but resist the urge to say something profound.
Don’t avoid them because you feel uncomfortable or inadequate. Be okay with silence.
There are no perfect words, and there are certainly no magic words that take away the pain.
A wordless hug or even a simple text message of a ‘heart’ emoji to let them know you’re thinking of them can say it all.
Avoid cliches or platitudes that attempt to minimize or explain the loss and sprint to a silver lining.
Don’t start any sentence with “Well at least…” or “I guess…” or “You should…”
Don’t compare the person’s experience to anyone else’s problems or pain.
(2) Anticipate their needs and adjust your expectations.
Taking initiative is far more helpful than asking for instruction.
“How can I help? What can I do?” are typically hard to answer
If you say “Call me if you need anything,” that call will probably never come.
Find a need and meet it!
Set up a meal calendar, leave gift cards, run errands, handle house chores or lawn care, pick up and drop off kids.
“Coffee and pastries are on your doorstep. We love you.”
Specific questions are easier than broad ones — rather than “How are you?” ask ““How has today been so far?”
Give special attention to surviving children. They can be confused and often overlooked.
Expect a ‘new normal’ and recognize that the relationship will likely shift and become one-sided for an extended period of time.
There is no standard timetable for recovery, and grief usually lasts far longer than anyone expects.
Your loved one WILL be a different person after the loss. If you expect them to return to their old self you will be disappointed and have a hard time caring for them.
(3) Set reminders, share memories, and stick around.
Families often receive an outpouring of care immediately following the loss, but that diminishes quickly.
While life moves on quickly for others, they will carry this loss for the remainder of their lives.
Remember and commemorate different milestones, anniversaries, etc. Let them know you haven’t forgotten.
Share memories and moments that were impactful — “I remember when she would… I loved how…”
Don’t fear that talking about the baby will cause additional pain — the opposite is usually true.
You can gift them a personalized keepsake box from Abel Speaks to honor and commemorate their child.
Remember, there are no perfect words — including the ones written above. Nevertheless, we hope these thoughts might be practical and helpful for you, but more so for the ones you’re caring for.
* The thoughts above were compiled from personal experience, other families that we’ve walked with, and other written resources. Blake Holmes, in particular, is a mentor of ours who serves as the campus pastor for our home church in Dallas. He has shared extensively on this topic, and for further teaching we would also direct you to a message of his titled, “The Kind of Friend You WANT To Be in a Time of Crisis”)