How to help a friend after the loss of a child

If you’ve recently learned that your friend has lost a child, you may be wondering what you can do. You may yourself be processing grief; the loss may bring back your own trauma; and you may feel uncertain about the “right” move to make.

Everyone grieves in different ways. And it can indeed be difficult to think of what you can do that will best or most perfectly help your friend. But when it comes to grief, the imperfect action you take is probably better than no action at all. And you don’t need to do everything; just one thing could lighten someone else’s burden.

I like to think about this in terms of a timeline. What your friend needs will probably vary over time, and you might want to adjust your actions and words accordingly. So here are some generic ideas, arranged by time period.

The First Few Days: Immediate Needs

Ask, “Have you eaten today?”
Drop off a meal or groceries. 
Offer to come over.
Offer to pick up/drop off surviving children at school or daycare.
Be a shoulder to cry on and a hand to hold.
For yourself, put the date of the child’s death/birth/expected birth on your calendar so that you do not forget it the following year.

The First Week: Administration

Offer to take care of specific funeral details (the flowers, thank you notes, etc.).
– One particularly useful task is to record who contributed to the ritual so later your friend sees all the people that were involved. You could take pictures of each floral arrangement with the card saying who sent it; you could write down who brought food and what they brought; or you could ask the funeral home or church for a list of the workers who helped make the event possible.
Take a lot of photos at the funeral to show your friend later.
Arrange rides for your friend and any surviving children to any appointments they may have.
Drop off more meals or groceries. Meals that are easily frozen are especially valuable.

The First Few Weeks: Comfort

Encourage your friend to seek out others – offer to accompany them to a support group or to drive them to see a grief counselor.
If you and/or your friend are religious, offer to pray for or with them, for themselves and – if the religion permits – for the child.
Ask, “Do you want to spend time together this afternoon?”
– Be specific with time periods when you offer to make plans. This is useful when making decisions for people who are under a lot of stress. So instead of “Do you want to spend time together soon?”, your friend may find “Do you want to spend time together this afternoon?” easier to answer.
– If they say no, tell them you are thinking of them and check in again the next day.
– If they say yes, be willing to talk about the loss as much or as little as they want.
– If they don’t seem sure, offer options with varying levels of activity. “We could talk, or we could watch tv together without talking.” “We could go jogging at the park, or we could make dinner together at your house.”
For yourself, be sure that you are only offering comfort you have to spare and that you are only providing advice you are qualified to give. Healthy boundaries are necessary for good relationships, which is why taking care of yourself and using qualified resources available to you such as mental health providers are so important.

The First Few Months: Memorials

Ask if your friend would like to see the photos you took at the funeral.
– Unless you think your friend would object, feel free to point out things you notice or memories you have – who was there, how beautiful the flowers were, how perfect a particular song was, etc.
You might give your friend a memorial gift – a plant, a stuffed animal inscribed with the child’s name, a wind chime, etc. While many people do this at the funeral, it may be more meaningful later when your friend is less likely to be in shock. (Additionally, it is easier to get a beautiful personalized gift with more than a few days notice.) Some people do not find memorial gifts very helpful in their grieving process, so use your judgement based on your knowledge of your friend.

If the loss occurred during or shortly after pregnancy, keep in mind that your friend may experience their first period after the loss during this time. This can be an especially difficult time, as the body seems to return to normal while life feels anything but. If you know when that occurs, offer to bring ice cream, a meal, or company during that time. A heating pad or other comfort measures may be useful gifts or loans as well, as the first period after a miscarriage, stillbirth, or birth can be particularly painful.

The Next Few Months: Companionship

Encourage your friend to attend a support group, find a counselor, or otherwise care for their mental health.
Invite them to do things that memorialize the child. You could ask, “Would you like to go together to the cemetery this week? I would like to join you if you want company.”
You can also invite them to do things that they would have done before their loss: for example, “Do you want to come to the pottery studio with me tonight?” or “Would you like to try the new restaurant in town next Wednesday?”

Yearly, on Holidays and Important Dates: Rememberance

Text, call, or visit on important days. These might include:
the anniversary of the pregnancy announcement
the diagnosis date
the child’s birthday or due date
the date of the child’s death
Mother’s Day
Father’s Day
Sibling’s Day
and more.

Thank you for trying to make your friend’s burden a little lighter to bear. I hope this list has provided you with a few ideas of how you might do so. Please email me if you have additional ideas you suggest I include.

Here’s a quick infographic as a reference for a few of the ideas I’ve listed here.

This infographic gives ideas in a timeline of how to help a friend after the loss of a child

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