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The Compassionate Friends
North Shore - Boston Chapter

Grief Support after the Death of a Child

This website is dedicated to the memory of all of our children.


Coping with Grief


Coping With Grief

Grief is a normal response to loss and lasts far longer than society in general recognizes.

Grief is a very individual process and there is no one “right way” to grieve.

Grief is a powerful and sometimes overwhelming journey, and the following is a list of some of the common physical and emotional reactions that many bereaved parents may experience:

  • Physical exhaustion, sleeplessness, lack of desire to get out of bed
  • Loss of appetite or overeating
  • Tightness in the throat, heaviness in the chest, a “lump” in the stomach
  • Respiratory reactions - excessive yawning, gasping, sighing, hyperventilating
  • Restlessness, aimless activity, difficulty concentrating, forgetfulness
  • A feeling of numbness or an empty feeling that seems indefinable
  • Crying at unexpected times and experiencing mood changes for minor reasons
  • Wondering if you are losing your mind
  • Guilt - thoughts and feelings of “If only I had . . .” as well as awareness of aspects of the relationship that were less than perfect
  • Anger - at God, at the people around us, at the person who died, at things which did or did not happen in the relationship
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Searching for answers
  • Questioning or challenging your faith or philosophy of life
  • Searching for or expecting the child who died to walk in the door or call on the phone; hearing the child’s voice; seeing the child’s face; dreaming about the child
  • A need to tell and retell and remember things about the child and the details of the child’s death
  • Difficulty with special days, such as birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, holidays
  • Feeling able to cope, then falling back again

All of these reactions are natural and normal. It is important not to deny one’s feelings, but instead to learn to express them.

It is very important for bereaved parents, grandparents and siblings to take care of themselves during this difficult time. The following suggestions are offered to help you cope with the intense burden of grief:

  • A balanced diet, rest and moderate exercise are especially important at this time
  • Avoid the use of drugs and alcohol
  • Use medication sparingly and only under the supervision of your physician
  • Be tolerant of your physical and emotional limits. Grief “work” is exhausting
  • Be patient with yourself
  • Avoid major decisions if possible (changing residence, changing jobs, etc.) for at least a year
  • Avoid making hasty decisions about your child’s belongings. Do not allow others to take over or rush you. Do it at your own pace when you are ready
  • Cry freely as you feel the need. It is a healthy expression of grief and releases tension
  • Talk about your feelings or find other ways to express your emotions
  • Find a good listener, someone who will just let you talk
  • One’s religious faith or spirituality may also be a source of support, comfort, strength and hope at this time
  • Reconciling your grief will not happen quickly. However, if you are having difficulty managing the intense emotions you are experiencing, or if the physical and emotional reactions become severe or persist, it might be helpful to seek the advice of a physician or professional counselor
  • It may also help to become involved with a group of other people who have had a similar experience, such as The Compassionate Friends


How Friends and Relatives Can Help

Suggestions for the Friends and Relatives of the Grieving Survivor

Yes, there is much that you can do to help. Simple things. This guide suggests the kinds of attitudes, words, and acts, which are truly helpful.

The importance of such help can hardly be overstated. Bereavement can be a life-threatening condition, and your support may make a vital difference in the mourner’s eventual recovery. Perhaps you do not feel qualified to help. You may feel uncomfortable and awkward. Such feelings are normal - don’t let them keep you away. If you really care for your sorrowing friend or relative, if you can enter into his or her grief, you are qualified to help.

In fact, the simple communication of the feeling of caring is probably the most important and helpful thing anyone can do. The guidelines, which follow, show how to communicate your care.

  • Get in touch. Telephone. Speak either to the mourner or to someone close and ask when you can visit and how you might help. Even if much time has passed, it’s never too late to express your concern.
  • Say little on an early visit. In the initial period (before burial), your brief embrace, your press of the hand, your few words of affection and feeling may be all that is needed.
  • Avoid clichés and easy answers. “He (or she) had a good life,” “He (or she) is out of pain,” and “Aren’t you lucky that...,” are not likely to help. A simple “I’m sorry” is better. Likewise spiritual sayings can even provoke anger unless the mourner shares the faith that is implied. In general, do not attempt to minimize the loss.
  • Be yourself. Show your own natural concern and sorrow in your own way and in your own words.
  • Keep in touch. Be available. Be there. If you are a close friend or relative, your presence might be needed from the beginning. Later when close family may be less available, anyone’s visit and phone call can be very helpful.
  • Attend to practical matters. Discover if you might be needed to answer the phone, usher in callers, prepare meals, clean the house, care for the children, etc. This kind of help lifts burdens and creates a bond. It might be needed well beyond the initial period, especially for the widowed.
  • Encourage others to visit or help. Usually one visit will overcome a friend's discomfort and allow him or her to contribute further support. You might even be able to schedule some visitors, so that everyone does not come at once at the beginning or fails to come at all later on.
  • Accept silence. If the mourner doesn’t feel like talking, don’t force conversation. Silence is better than aimless chatter. The mourner should be allowed to lead.
  • Be a good listener. When suffering spills over into words, you can do the one thing the bereaved needs above all else at the time - you can listen. Is he or she emotional? Accept that. Does he or she cry? Accept that too. Is he or she angry with God? God will manage without your defending him. Accept whatever feelings are expressed. Do not rebuke. Do not change the subject. Be as understanding as you can be.
  • Do not attempt to tell the bereaved how he or she feels. You can ask (without probing), but you cannot know, except as he or she tells you. Everyone, bereaved or not, resents an attempt to describe his or her feelings. To say, for example, “You must feel relieved now that he or she is out of pain,” is presumptuous. Even to say, “I know how you feel, “ is questionable. Learn from the mourner, do not instruct him. Do not probe for details about the death. If the survivor offers information, listen with understanding.
  • Comfort children in the family. Do not assume that a seemingly calm child is not sorrowing. If you can, be a friend to whom feelings can be confided and with whom tears can be shed. In most cases, incidentally, children should be left in the home and not shielded from the grieving of others.
  • Avoid talking to others about trivia in the presence of the recently bereaved. Prolonged discussion of sports, weather, or stock market, for example, is resented, even if done purposely to distract the mourner.
  • Allow the “working through” of grief. Do not whisk away clothing or hide pictures. Do not criticize seemingly morbid behavior. Young people may repeatedly visit the site of the fatal accident. A widow may sleep with her husband’s pajamas as a pillow. A young child may wear his dead sibling’s clothing.
  • Write a letter. A sympathy card is a poor substitute for your own expression. If you take time to write of your love for and memories of the one who died, your letter might be read many times and cherished, possibly into the next generation.
  • Encourage the postponement of major decisions until after the period of intense grief. Whatever can wait should wait.
  • In time, gently draw the mourner into quiet, outside activity. He or she may not take the initiative to go out on their own.
  • When the mourner returns to social activity, treat him or her as a normal person. Avoid pity - it destroys self-respect. Simple understanding is enough. Acknowledge the loss, the change in his or her life, but don’t dwell on it.
  • Be aware of needed progress through grief. If the mourner seems unable to resolve anger or guilt, for example, you might suggest a consultation with the clergyman or other trained counselor.
  • A final thought: Helping must be more than following a few rules. Especially if the bereavement is devastating and you are close to the bereaved, you may have to give more time, more care, more of yourself than you imagined. And you will have to perceive the special needs of your friend and creatively attempt to meet those needs. Such commitment and effort may even save a life. At the least, you will know the satisfaction of being truly and deeply helpful.