QUESTION: My dearest friend and her husband just lost their 5-year-old daughter to cancer. They have been through two difficult years of caring for her. Along with their dedicated physicians, they did everything in their power to save her. Needless to say, they are devastated. I don’t know what to say or do. Everything that comes out of my mouth sounds insufficient and insincere. How can I best show my support and love to my friends during this sensitive time?
ANSWER: Finding the right words following a death, especially when it is a child, is difficult for just about everyone. We share the grief and we want to be sure our family and friends understand that we are there for them. Comments such as “I know how you feel” or “this pain will pass” are probably the most questionable comments you can make. None of us can rightly say we know how someone else feels, and while we believe the intense grieving will pass, the painful memory of the loss of their little one will be there for the rest of their lives.
So what is appropriate? Simple statements such as “I’m sorry for your loss” certainly will suffice, but more important than words could be your actions. A hug or a pat on the hand or shoulder can go a long way in comforting another human. Active listening is important. If your friend wants to talk, be there for her. Let her talk and express her feelings without making any comment. A nod of your head will let her know you understand. Expressing your support in writing is another way to share your grief and offer assistance. If you sense your friend is not open to accepting help, go ahead and do simple things you know will be appreciated. This would include bringing dinner, baking treats they will enjoy, stopping by with fresh flowers for their table, sending a gift card for a meal or a movie. Think of helpful ideas that are specific to their life, such as taking their dog for a daily walk. During times of grief, even the simplest chore such as putting gas in the car can seem insurmountable. Watch for openings where you can take on some of their burden.
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For additional ideas and excellent information, go to www.compassionatefriends.org. This widespread organization was founded more than 40 years ago in England when a chaplain named Simon Stephens brought two sets of grieving parents together and quickly realized they offered each other great comfort. Eventually, the group spread around the world to 30 countries including the United States, where there are more than 640 chapters serving all 50 states plus Washington, DC, Puerto Rico and Guam.
Additionally, be sure to allow yourself time to mourn. Undoubtedly, you feel a loss as well and need to go through the grieving process. Being authentic with your friend and showing your own emotions could lead to healing for both of you. When we lose a loved one, it helps to know he or she will not be forgotten and will always be honored by friends and family. This is especially true with the loss of a dear little child.
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Patricia Smith is a certified Compassion Fatigue Specialist with 20 years of training experience. As founder of the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project© (www.compassionfatigue.org), the outreach division of Healthy Caregiving, LLC, she writes, speaks and facilities workshops nationwide in service of those who care for others. She has authored several books including To Weep for a Stranger: Compassion Fatigue in Caregiving, which is available at www.healthycaregiving.com or Amazon.com.