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Helping a Grieving Mother

Aug24

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Advice Smackdown ArchivesAmy,

I do love your column, and in regards to my question, searched your archives to no avail. I need some advice on the grieving mother. A fellow coworker and good friend lost her 16 month old last week to SIDS. 16 months! We all thought he was out of the woods. I have developed a good friendship with her throughout our time at work, even taken pictures of her and her family numerous times while trying to develop my skills. Now, I, and all of her coworkers and friends are at a complete loss of what to do.

I know it is tempting to DO something when tragedy hits, but what? And how? And when? They aren’t accepting visitors, which is understandable, and did not attend the viewing, and were at the funeral service, but left before they had to talk to anyone. Their grief is intense, as anyone could imagine. I spoke with a coworker today, who said “if she came back today, I would probably either 1) burst into tears or 2) not talk to her at all and I know that isn’t right, but I just don’t know what to do”.  Do you have any advice? Any at all…(I don’t think she’ll be returning to work for quite some time….) Thank you…

Liz

Grief is hard. And it’s hard when it’s your own grief and/or someone else’s. What to do? What to say? When you’re the one who is grieving, you don’t necessarily know what you want people to do or say. Some days you want the phone to ring so you can talk about the loss and the details to someone, anyone, and have your sadness and pain acknowledged. Some days you just want the entire world to leave you the hell alone. Some days you want to throw yourself into work or social functions or other distractions, while many, many other days you simply cannot even deal with the thought of interacting with another human being, whether it’s a dear friend or coworker or just the cashier at the grocery store check-out.

So yeah, that all can make grief difficult for the people not directly in the epicenter, but who still want so badly to help or do something.

I can tell you what NOT to say, for sure: I know how you feel. No, you don’t. Even if you personally did lose a child to SIDS at 16 months old, you still wouldn’t know how she feels. In fact, any platitude that includes anything about how she feels should generally be avoided — refrain from saying stuff like, Oh, you must feel so devastated/angry/whatever. She might not feel that particular emotion at that particular time, actually, and thus feel like maybe what she IS feeling (numbness, denial, etc.) is somehow “wrong.”

A simple “I am so sorry” really is a good thing to say. Because it’s true and you are. Those are the only emotions you can speak of.

Beyond worrying about saying or doing the “wrong” thing, though, what would be hopefully and most-likely right?

1) Practical, emotion-free-ish gifts and services. Now that the funeral is behind them, they probably don’t need any more flowers. But they probably still could use food, meals, a clean house. Your office could ask for volunteers to deliver meals — stuff that can either be reheated and eaten right then or frozen for later if they just. aren’t. hungry. is always a good idea. Lasagnas, batches of soups, comfort food. You can knock on the door but make it clear you aren’t there to intrude or invite yourself in or to “make” them talk about anything. Or you can leave it on the step in an insulated container with a note saying that they are in your thoughts.

Alternatively, a group gift of a gift certificate for a cleaning service or online grocery delivery.

2) Understand there’s a difference between “not wanting to talk about it” and “wanting to be left alone.” While she probably isn’t ready to rehash her tragedy with you yet, avoiding her completely will simply make her feel isolated and abandoned. Send a card, write a quick email. Leave a voice mail. Let her know that you aren’t expecting a response, but: You are thinking of her. You care. These little gestures become especially meaningful after the initial wave of sympathy cards and gifts from the immediate aftermath and funeral dry up, but the grieving continues. A grieving person can feel incredible pressure to “move on” and “get over it already” from people who may be uncomfortable with the grief and in a rush to change the subject, so it’s nice to hear from people who give you permission to still be really, terribly sad.

3) Understand that grief is an ongoing animal. We hear a lot about the five stages of grief, which are accurate, but I think some people assume that a grieving person is going to be clip through them at a set, standard pace and that once you hit “acceptance,” you’re done. You’ve graduated! Congratulations. Now I don’t want to hear about your loss anymore. After your friend returns to work, there will absolutely be days when she seems “fine” and “back to her old self.” But then…Christmas. Mother’s Day. Her son’s birthday, the anniversary of his death. My mother (who is still profoundly grieving the loss of my dad earlier this year) told me that she was even dreading Labor Day, a holiday that never held much meaning or tradition for us, but still. It’s another first for her, she said. So it matters. While I don’t recommend looking at your coworker like she’s a super-fragile broken doll who might burst into tears at any second, it might not hurt to be aware of certain dates or triggers (i.e. the company picnic that her son attended the year before) and…I don’t know. Ask her how she’s feeling, if she wants to grab lunch or coffee, or rescue her with a fake phone call when you notice that one jackass from accounting hanging around her cubicle making inappropriate jokes.

And lastly, if you feel comfortable enough, consider sharing the link to Glow in the Woods — a wonderful, beautiful group blog written by other grieving parents. It might be helpful for her to connect with an online community, or inspire her to put her own grief into words, or just to feel a little less alone one day to read about people who know how she feels…but also know better than to say that they know how she feels.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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9 Responses to “Helping a Grieving Mother”

  1. Procrastamom Aug 24 at 1:46 pm Reply Reply

    http://thespohrsaremultiplying.com/heather/what-do-you-say/

    This link –  to a post written by Heather Spohr, who lost her beautiful daughter Madeline at 17 months – is a great resource of what to say and do for parents who are grieving.  It’s really in-depth and echoes a lot of what Amy said here.

  2. Christy Aug 24 at 2:46 pm Reply Reply

    As to the question of what tangible thing you can do for her, you might find out from your HR department whether or not you and your co-workers can donate some of your personal leave or vacation days to her so she can take time off without having to take an unpaid leave of absence.

  3. Kaelak Aug 24 at 5:28 pm Reply Reply

    All good suggestions. My friend lost her baby right before she was set to deliver. It is tempting fr you and your coworkers to avoid her because you don’t know what to say, but please please please don’t do that – it’s incredibly isolating and may just make her feel worse. She may not want to talk, but she may have moments where she needs to (over)share some awful, uncomfortable (for you) details – be prepared with your poker/sympathy face so you don’t react badly to what she might say.

  4. Amy Aug 24 at 10:37 pm Reply Reply

    I recently found out about this service – http://www.mealtrain.com/ – and thought it was brilliant! I’ll bet you could get your co-workers to sign up and help out, too, which would be a nice gesture.

    I think it’s perfectly honest and acceptable to say, “I am so sorry. I just don’t know what to say,” or “There just aren’t any words for this, are there?” Acknowledge the awkwardness of it, then say, “What can I do for you?” or “What would you like to talk about?” Leave the door open for her to ask for help, or to talk about her loss if she wishes to, without being pushy.

    As a work-friend, too, I’d imagine she’d appreciate anything you can do to lighten her load at work, without making her obsolete.

    And as the mother of an 8 month old, it is absolutely chilling that a 16 month old can die of SIDS. I may not sleep for a very long time.

  5. Kate Aug 25 at 6:18 pm Reply Reply

    I lost my 13 month old son to meningitis in early 2010. For me, the most appreciated gestures were the least intrusive ones. Brief cards that simply said “I’m sorry” versus long letters about the sender’s own experiences with grief; voicemails and emails versus insistent phone calls. When I returned to work after several months, I really appreciated the people who treated me semi-normally – some people never spoke to me again for a lack of the “right” thing to say, some still treat me with kid gloves over a year and half later – but I really came to appreciate the people who acknowledged my loss while also acknowledging that I was still me and was by that time functional again. I appreciated those who didn’t shy away when I talked about Max, I appreciated the ones closest to me who would, occasionally and casually, simply ask “how are you?”

    It’s hard to define, but to me there was a difference between someone curious emotionally poking at you and someone you care about and vice versa just acknowledging that they remember, months and years later, that you lost your baby and that never leaves you.

    Finally, and I don’t know that anyone else feels the same way, I DESPISED and still do being told how strong I am, or any other similar platitude. At no point after my son’s death, right up to this second, have I felt strong. Nothing makes me feel weaker or less capable of navigating this world. I move on and continue to redefine what a happy life can be for me and my family because there was no other choice. Maybe from the outside it looks like “strength” but on my side of the fence it’s simply necessity, and I always hated being told otherwise.

    P.S. Glow in the Woods is an excellent, beautifully written site. One of the contributors, Tasha of awfulbutfunctioning.blogspot.com, lost her daughter at the same hospital as my son and we come from the same area. All the writers there are amazing.

  6. Molly Aug 26 at 10:08 am Reply Reply

    Maybe this is not a great idea right now, but you could consider, if you still have a lot of photos of her son from the photography sessions you did with them, putting together a small album for her. You could give it to her closer to Christmas, or near her son’s next birthday…some occasion where she’ll be missing him terribly. I have never lost a child, but I think many grieving mothers feel that others have “forgotten” their loss because they’re afraid to talk about it. She might appreciate a reminder that you cared for her son and you’re missing him too.

    Plus, I’m sure this death is troubling and sad for you too. Making a photo book might feel good to you, to compile your experiences with the little guy and process your own grief. I’m so sorry for her, and you, and her little boy. Good luck.

  7. Christy Aug 27 at 12:58 pm Reply Reply

    These are all really good suggestions. My little boy died at one week old, so it’s definitely not the same thing…but definitely the advice to give her space if she needs it; to let her talk if she needs it; to let her talk ABOUT her baby if she needs to. She’s going to be on a difficult journey to weave this experience into who she is – and it’s bumpy and it’s painful and it’s really hard. The best thing you can do is to simply abide with her while she works through this. The last thing in the world she will want – and what many of us struggle with – is turning our lost babies into a “thing that happened” instead of a person, if that makes sense. They are a who. Continue to acknowledge them as a “who”.

    Glow saved me when my son died. Definitely would recommend that, though most of the moms there have lost infants – babies only a few days or weeks old; babies who were born still. I don’t know if that would be frustrating for her…people that “almost” got it but not quite? I am not sure. It’s definitely worth a try though – like I say, it really did save me.

    I’m really so very sorry to hear about this. I’ll be thinking of her, and you – I know it must be awfully hard for you too. Good for you for not backing away from this and for trying to figure it out.

    Christy

  8. lesley Aug 30 at 2:57 pm Reply Reply

    I am so sorry to all of you who have lost children. Thanks for sharing your experiences. I had a friend who lost a baby at 8.5 months pregnant last year, and I have often wondered if my reaction to her has been appropriate.

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