Friday, January 30, 2015

How to talk to your friend about her dead child

As time has gone on, people have reached out to me when someone they know has lost a child. They want to help, but they don't know how.  This blog post aims to bridge the gap between those that want to help and the parent of a child that has died. I have read many blog posts about what to say or not say when a child dies (here's a great one from my good SIDS mom friend), I just wanted to add more specific words people can use when they want to reach out and talk to their friend about their child. 

Back on my Grief University post (written about 3 months after Link died), I talked about how amazing and surprising it was for me, after losing a child, to realize how much I needed to hear my son's name after he died. Now, almost two years after his death, that longing to hear his name, to talk about him, to share his life story has not diminished one bit. In fact, it seems to only have strengthened. Talking about him validates that he lived and that he was and is a very important part of our family and my life. Someone posted this the other day and I think it sums it up - amazing as it is, I want to share about my dead child as much - if not MORE - than I want to share about my living children! 

So - the first thing I can say is that if your friend wants to talk about their child that died, LET THEM TALK! We know it is not comfortable when we talk about them. We know you don't know what to say! If your friend brings them up... just listen. Acknowledge their pain. Please don't change the subject. Please don't try to lighten the conversation. 
I had SO many people tell me "I cannot imagine..." - and that's fine. We know you can't imagine - it's not something we ever could have possibly imagined, either. But the people I really, truly appreciated were the ones that tried to imagine. They tried to put themselves in my painful shoes - and tried to offer the kind of support they would want if their child died. That is true empathy. More often than not, people said those words, and just kind of backed out of my life. They didn't want to imagine. They didn't want to walk with me in this painful journey. And unfortunately, it added to my broken heart and broken life. This is something I hear from loss moms a lot.

Now, I don't want you to think it's a natural thing to be able to talk about your friend's dead child. It wasn't for me. Before the afternoon of March 26, 2013 shattered my universe, I had friends who had lost children. Sadly, quite a few. And my heart hurt for them. It stung. I cried for them. I wrote cards for them. I bought them jewelry and gifts. I watched their other children. But I never knew what to SAY.  One friend specifically I had daily interactions with - she was a close neighbor friend. After her twin girls died, I really tried to be kind, but unfortunately, I didn't realize that she wanted to talk about her children. I figured that it would hurt more than help. HOW WRONG I WAS! Now that I'm on the "other side," I know better. So, even though many people said or did hurtful things - or acted like it never happened after Link died, I have always tried to give them the benefit of the doubt. I know how hard it is to think of something to say, which is why I am writing this post. I asked moms from three different grieving boards what helped bridge that gap. You are sitting by your friend who lost their child. You want to help, you want to heal. You just can't think of the words to say. Here are some suggestions from me and other angel moms:

-How is your heart?  You know, I really didn't mind when people asked "how are you?" as long as it wasn't in passing and I could tell they were sincere, but usually that wasn't the case. "How is your heart?" is a deeper question - one that tells me they really want to know how I'm doing and I'm more likely to share. 

-I can't take away the hurt you feel from losing Link, but tomorrow, I am coming over to bring a meal/get some of your laundry/clean for an hour/etc. I'm sure you know by now that saying "let me know how I can help" is pretty worthless. Even if you mean it, the chances that your friend will actually take you up on it are pretty slim. I love this quote from Elder Ronald A. Rasband "“would you ask someone who was drowning ‘let me know how I can help you’ or would you jump in and save them?” Let me tell you, someone that has lost a child is drowning. 

-I can't believe it's been three weeks (or 3 months. or 3 years. or 30 years) since Link died... This bridges the gap. You are acknowledging their child. You are using their name. This opens things for your friend to talk. If you want, you can also follow up with something like "what do you miss most about the age they would be right now?"

-Tell me about your plans for Link's headstone... After the initial shock is worn off, this is something that we unfortunately have to think about. As hard as it was to acknowledge that I had to pick out a headstone for my son, I loved sharing our plans for Link's bench. It was something that I put a lot of thought into. While I won't be getting a tattoo, I also love to ask people about theirs. If your friend got a tattoo, ask them about why they chose what they did to remember their child. 

-I visited Link's grave today... Oh my goodness, I cannot tell you how much love I feel for the person that just randomly visits his grave and tells me about it. Even more when they leave something sweet for him. 

-Tell me about a favorite memory with Link... This is something that makes us think... we may not always know the answer right away. Link only lived 4 months, but thinking about our favorite memories together makes me smile. Now - if your friend lost her baby when she was pregnant, or had a stillborn baby, I believe you can still rephrase this question to something like "When did you feel Jonah move the most?" "Did he seem like he liked certain music?" And if your friend lost an older child -  "What was Jennifer's favorite toy?" "Did she have a favorite food or movie?" "What outfit was your favorite on Link?" I know this seems awkward. I KNOW it's hard to ask because you are scared they are going to freak out. Obviously, you are going to need to know your friend, but when someone asks this to me, I love it. I get to talk about him! One angel mom said "I love it when people remember that he lived, not just ask how he died."

-How are Link's sister's handing everything?... Another way to open those lines of communication and see how everyone is doing. Each of my girls has gone (and continues to go) through their own grieving processes and it sure helps to talk about. 

-Will you tell me about the day Link was born? An angel mom said that her sister-in-law asked this question on her child's birthday and it meant so much to her. I agree. Just as I love sharing the birth stories from my living children, I love to share his, too. Questions like "how long were you in labor?" and "how much did he weigh?" are perfect follow-up questions. 

-Will you tell me about the day Link died? Obviously, this wouldn't be a question you would ask at any random time, but in the right setting, I want to tell you about the day Link died. Something you need to understand is that I carry the hurt from the day he died 24/7. It is ALWAYS with me, so you asking me about it isn't going to cause me MORE pain. I will share different details with you depending on how well I know you or how sincere I believe you are, but I will not get offended by this question. 

-Will you show me pictures/videos of Link? Again, I just want to hug the person that asks this. I regularly download pictures from my phone each month & delete them, but I haven't ever deleted the pictures that I had of Link on my phone. I can whip it out anywhere and any time and talk your ear off about each picture. And if you're in my home, I have two photo albums to show you, pictures on the wall, hand molds, etc. Many moms of stillborn babies have gotten pictures as well & I know it means so much to them to be able to share them with you. 

-Do you have plans or ideas for Link's upcoming birthday/angelversary? We have specific things we do to honor our son on his special days (Link's birthday and anniversary of his death) and while of course it's hard, I love to share our plans. 

-I thought of Link today when... it could be they saw a rainbow. It could be they saw a baby boy that was Link's age when he died - or a boy the age that Link would be. It could be that they read a scripture or they did family history. It could be when they were rocking their baby. Whatever it is, I love to hear it & I am filled with gratitude when people don't just keep that to themselves, but share it with me. 

-I'm praying for you. This can be just another trite saying, but I can tell when people really mean it. When they really are praying for me. And it means a whole lot - especially on his birthday or angelversary. 

-I wanted to show you this picture that Brandon drew... I LOVE it when people share with me when their children talk about Link. Whether it's a picture that they drew, a question that they had, or just a comment, it all means so much. And little children are not prone to awkardness when asking questions :) One angel mom said "Last week I had a friend in my church stop by and she brought her daughter. We were talking about Gabriel's upcoming 6th Birthday and my daughter said he will be 6. My friend's daughter who is 8 very abruptly said "if he is dead how can he be almost 6"? It took us by surprise a little and her mom immediately went into overdrive trying to smooth the comment over and explain it to her daughter. I felt a little bad for my friend because I'm sure it made her uncomfortable but for me it was kind of nice to hear the honesty in her little voice trying to understand. I welcomed the question and was happy to help her understand that we still celebrate his birthday's whether he's with us physically or not."

-I had a dream about Link... Ahhh - dreams. I cherish each and every dream I have had about Link. Both the sweet ones and the crazy ones. My sister called me one day & shared a dream she had about Link and it meant so much to me. So - again, don't keep it to yourself, thinking it will only bring up hurt!! Please - share!! 

Some final thoughts:

*Consistency! Keep showing you care when everyone else has gone back to their lives. Probably the most meaningful thing to me after my son died - even more than all the sweet gifts, cards, money, etc was my sister's act of kindness. For 3 months straight, she didn't miss a day checking in with me - either texting or calling (we live 3 hours apart). Sometimes I had a lot to say. Sometimes I didn't say much. Sometimes I didn't answer the phone because I was sobbing too hard. But I saw that she was calling. I knew that she cared. Even with all she had going on with her life, her act of acknowledging my pain, asking those hard questions, and just putting herself in my shoes was a huge support for me. Her constant care brought me love & security when sometimes I thought no one else cared. 

*Remember Dates! We know you are busy. We know you have lots of other dates and times to remember, but you don't know how much it means to us that you remember our sweet children on their special days - especially birthdays and angelversaries (the anniversary of their death). And not just the first one. Or the second one. Or the 20th one. Send flowers. Send a card. Call. Or at the very least, send a text or e-mail to let us know you are thinking of us and our child. Also - please remember that babies month birthdays are days that we hurt, too. I think Link's 6-month birthday was almost harder than his year birthday. My mom is really good at remembering all his dates & sending texts - it just tells me that my son isn't forgotten - and neither am I. 

*Use their name! I always say that hearing Link's name is like food to my starving momma soul. I get to hear my living children's names many times a day - and in our family I don't think a day goes by that his name isn't mentioned, but for others to use his name, it's such a blessing. Such a treat. It swells my heart with gratitude. 

*Share memories and pictures! Right after Link died, I sent an e-mail to family & friends asking for them to send me any memories and pictures they had. It was so neat to read their memories and see their pictures. I put them all in his book. Once in a while, I will even get a random e-mail with a remembered picture or memory and it is seriously like finding a diamond. Doesn't matter how blurry or seemingly insignificant it is - each picture and memory is SO precious to me! Send your friend any/all that you have and don't worry so much about it bringing pain to them!

*Do not assume these things become obsolete after a certain period of time! Pretty much all of the questions I suggest are timeless. As I said in the beginning, talking about my son only becomes more precious to me as the time goes on. So - if your friend's child died 12 years ago - ask these questions! My grandma lost her son almost 50 years ago & she still wants to talk about him. 

I know this seems like a lot. Maybe you are not up for it. Maybe you would rather walk away than try and make it work with all the messiness that comes with losing a child. But I promise that you both will be blessed if you put in the effort. THANK YOU to all my loved ones who have "walked with me in the rain" and continue to do so. Your love, empathy, and kindness have blessed my life more than you will ever know. 

*I would still love input from any loss parents out there on what helped them. I'm sure I haven't covered all the bases, but hopefully I got the important things. 


Tiff Meister said...

Heidi, thank you!!!! I love you and loved seeing Link's cute picture in the bumbo.

Lacie said...

Great post Heidi! I love it. Thank you so much.

Robyn said...

Thank you for sharing this. I have such a hard time with words and rarely know what to say. This helps so much.

Elise said...

Heidi, I love and miss you my friend! This sweet post was an answer to my prayers today. I was watching my friend's kids for her ultrasound this morning and she found out she had lost the baby, has to be induced and go into labor to deliver her baby tonight...I actually immediately thought about you and wondered if I dare ask you if you had any suggestions on things to say and do to help or show her I care. This post was so perfect. Thank you. It also made feel like I was a bad friend to you after Link died. I'm sorry I wasn't consistent, and didn't really say much at all. I hope you know, I still ache for you and your family for Link's loss. I often look at Owen and think of Link. I give him an extra tight squeeze and sometimes start crying for you. Know that you and your family are still in my prayers.

Patricia Potts said...

Cindy and I think you should submit this beautiful, incredible article to LDS Living and Parents magazine.

we love you!!!

Sheila Jenkins said...

As a mother who lost a child, i do love to hear that people remember her and have memories of her. You don't want anyone to forget your child.