Saturday, January 31, 2009

Just how can you help a bereaved parent?

Something came to mind very recently when I was reading (as I do) various posts from grieving parents. It prompted me to start making notes in here of how to "help" (I really don't know how comfortable I am with that term yet... but that's for another blog post) bereaved parents who are trying to continue their lives without their baby/ies.

This pertains more to the early days. The early months too. I hope to build on this post with others that follow suit, in order that I might create a bit of a helpers'/supporters' guide - and I may very well be pre-empting the work I am about to undertake when I do the grief counselling which is merely days away, but anyway, here goes today's thoughts:

• Don't ask.... please just do
I said "No, that's okay", "You don't have to", "Nothing, but thanks for asking", "I don't need anything" very often. I really meant, "Please just do it. Show that you care by just turning up. Bring us nourishing food. Call me often, but not for very long. Sit with me in my stillness. Help me catalogue in my mind, now, while they are fresh, all the things I am scared I will forget."
I would imagine it's very rare to receive a "Yes, please, I want your help" from a grieving parent who's been asked if they want any. Before yesterday/last week (when their child died), they were capable, strong, independent and not requiring any special attention or kid-gloves. They were preparing for their child's arrival (or their child's arrival home one day, if their baby was treading the treacherous NICU/SCN path). There was never any intention or assumption that they would need your support, shoulder, meals, attention. While they are now integrating the gravity of their newfound situation, requesting help (and even accepting it) is not something that's going to be at the front of their minds.
Think of yourself as the unseen waiter/waitress during this time. Serve, selflessly, and just know you are helping immeasurably. It might seem like a bottomless pit you are throwing your energy into, but keep remembering to put their circumstances into perspective. Hopefully, this will keep you buoyant with your task and be prepared - it could be a long one.
Obviously, it's important not to be too overbearing with this, so a gentle manner would also be wise - newly bereaved parents are especially raw in their grief and for a time, everything will probably be feeling like it is moving way too fast. Things feel louder, crowds seem much thicker. It may be very difficult to go out for some time.
If you are looking to support someone - whether they are a close friend or just a loose acquaintance but someone you feel compelled to reach out to - please remember to slow your pace, be gentle, don't push yourself on them. But do check in. Often. Little visits, very short calls. Be gentle but persistent, I cannot stress this enough.

If you are uncertain what to say, say nothing original.gif
Your task is really, though probably very daunting to you, quite straightforward. Just be there. Offer some open questions if you feel safe enough to ask them. But remember, you are that parent's safe place to talk first and foremost. It would be most helpful to shelve any of your own personal needs and save your vetting of these for another time (with another audience) - in other words, please don't burden your grieving friend with your troubles at this time. It will become apparent to both of you when the time is right to allow some more normal give-take back into your conversations.

• Don't apologise for your tears
That parent will know why they are falling and those tears will be appreciated. But do stop short of making their pain yours (if that makes sense!). Remember, you can debrief after the call/visit with somebody other than the grieving parent/s. It is not their place to counsel you (nor, actually, yours to necessarily "counsel" them either).

• Beware of offering advice
It is possibly something you are keen to do and feel an urgent need (to rush in and say words that are designed to comfort). But please note that the death of a baby is an entirely different situation to that of an adult, a friend, even a child. It is a very specific grief and one which may take careful, long months and even years of working through.
A parent in this position very quickly learns the painful lesson of recognising that not all in their acquaintance are going to be there for the long haul. Those who wrap up their experience in neat "word packages" - 'it was nature's way', 'it's for the best, s/he was very sick', 'what if s/he had been older when s/he died, it's better it happened now' and so forth - are very noticeably the ones who will steadily drop away from the supportive circle of loved ones who are intent on seeing these parents through the toughest trial of their lives.

And here endeth the first instalment. I hope it helps somebody. I can't help feeling a little like I've told people how to suck eggs... but I just have to trust this is now "out there" for whomever (even just one of you!) needs to read it today.

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