Grief is a lonely process.
Because it is a difficult subject – one that others are uncomfortable talking or hearing about – the grief that surrounds the loss of a child can be especially isolating. It leaves us feeling as if we have been picked up and dropped onto another world – unable to interact with others the way we used to, unable to navigate our own overwhelming thoughts and emotions. We are strangers even to ourselves.
Add “social distancing” to the mix, and the isolating experience of grief becomes even more unbearable. During this unprecedented time of staying apart, women have continued to have stillbirths and miscarriages, many alone in hospitals because they were not allowed to have visitors. Infants and children have died, and parents have buried them without being surrounded by family and friends for support. I can not imagine a more difficult time to experience such a painful loss.
Romans 12:15 tells us to “Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep.” The rejoicing part is easy, but connection and accompaniment in the midst of pain are some of the most healing and helpful things that we can offer to others who are suffering, even if it feels awkward and uncomfortable for us. Sadly, a fear of that discomfort leads many people to abandon those who are grieving, not knowing what to say or do, or to offer mere sympathy instead of helpful empathy.
Brené Brown says this so well in the following brief video comparing sympathy and empathy:
But what are some things we can do to make this connection with someone who is grieving when we need to keep our distance? How do we empathize and accompany our friends when we need to stay physically apart?
In addition to praying for comfort for their broken hearts, here are five practical things we can do to support our grieving friends during this unusual time.
Send a card, text, or email – and then follow up later. This may seem obvious. In the days immediately following the news of a loss, many people will send sympathy cards and messages to someone who is grieving. These are certainly welcome and comforting, but don’t always carry with them the feeling of connection. Even a sincere and kindhearted offer to let you know if they need anything will likely go unaccepted; they may not even know what they need. A follow up, however, goes a step further, especially when it’s done a few weeks later, when the influx of flowers and messages has subsided, the numbness begins to wear off, and the ache and loneliness settles in. In the follow up, offer emotional connection. Imagine what they might be feeling. Ask and be willing to listen to the answer to the question, “How are you doing?” no matter how difficult the answer may be to hear. Check in periodically to let them know that you’re praying for them and they’re on your heart and mind.
Bring them a meal or send a gift card to a restaurant. Grief is exhausting – mentally, physically, and emotionally. Everyday decisions, like what to make for dinner, can feel overwhelming and utterly draining. Even if it’s weeks or months after their loss, they are still feeling that strain, and the opportunity to have a break from making that decision and going through the effort of cooking is welcome and appreciated. If you’re local, send them a message saying you’d like to bring them dinner one night the following week and ask them which night would be best. If you’re not local, look online to find out what restaurants are close to them. If there is a chain restaurant, you can purchase a gift card at the location near you and send it. If not, you can call a restaurant near them and ask them to mail a gift card to your friend’s address.
If they have other young children, send a few toys or activities for them to do. Children grieve, too, and caring for other children while grieving is incredibly difficult. They can be wonderful distractions from the pain and a reason to get out of bed, but at the same time they can make much needed self-care a challenge. Grieving parents need a little more space to process all of their painful and difficult feelings. Sending or dropping off some bubbles, sticker books, sidewalk chalk, play-doh or some other similar activities gives the children something new to occupy their time for a while, giving the grieving parents a bit of a break. It can also help uplift the children, who may be feeling the weight of grief in their home during what is a sad time for them, too.
Send a perennial plant that can be added to their garden. Fresh flower arrangements are so thoughtful, but eventually, they die and need to be discarded. Sending something that will bloom every year will be a precious sight for years to come. Consider a peony, a rose bush, a bleeding heart, or a pink or blue hydrangea. These beautiful flowers will be an annual reminder of your comfort during a difficult time. If they live in an apartment or don’t have a garden space, send a house plant in lieu of cut flowers.
Don’t give up – give. They may not take you up on an offer to chat right away. They may not return your text or email. They might not feel able to even verbalize what they’re feeling or the myriad ways their grief has permeated their lives. You might have already fumbled through your efforts to empathize with a bit of “silver lining” or “at least-ing,” as Brené Brown described in the video above, and need to circle back and apologize. But don’t give up on them. Don’t mistake their lack of response for a lack of desire to maintain the friendship. And don’t let your own discomfort with their pain stop you from checking in, letting them know you care. If they ask for space, respect that request. Eventually they might be ready to talk to you, and they’ll know that you’re trustworthy with their story if you have made the effort to stay present with them in whatever way they need. Even though these times are stressful and difficult for many of us, make sure you have a different support system in place for meeting your own needs. Understand that your friend won’t be capable of offering that kind of mutual support to you right now, even if your relationship has been give-and-take in the past. Eventually, the relationship might get back to that, but for now, only approach them in a position to give – comfort, empathy, a listening ear, compassion, support. That is not easy to do, but it’s selfless love.
Any of these suggestions can be useful to support someone who is grieving any loss at any time, but they are especially helpful right now because they can all be done from a distance. Once the threat of COVID-19 has subsided, it might be nice to offer to go out for coffee together, to babysit for them, or to spend time visiting together. Hugs, touch, and physical presence are so comforting and are built into the needs God has created in us, in good times and in bad.
Going forward, it will mean so much to them if you remember the anniversary of their child’s death. Add it to your phone’s calendar so that each year, you can send them a little message to let them know you’re remembering that day with them. Include their child’s name on a Christmas card or send them an ornament with the name on it so they will see it each year. Seeing their child’s name is so special.
There are so many little ways you can let your friend know that you are acknowledging their grief, and willing to walk this difficult and uncharted path alongside them. I hope that these few ideas help you to find that there are some practical things you can do, even from six feet – or six thousand miles – away.
If you know a mother who is grieving the loss of a child during this time, please consider sharing my upcoming retreat with them. It begins on October 12, 2020, and will be a special time to focus on their own grief and healing, accompanied by fellow grieving mothers who understand the unique aspects of this type of loss.