We can learn a lot when we look at our language. In English, there are words for a husband whose wife has died (widower), a wife whose husband has died (widow), and for someone whose parents have died (orphan), but there is no word for a parent whose child has died. It’s that traumatic, that unimaginable for most, that we haven’t created a word that’s easy to toss in as an identifier.
The closest we can get is a two-word combo, bereaved parent.
It’s not as strong. But it is just as sorrowful as the other words. And it’s harder to use. Because we don’t want to think about someone’s child dying.
July is bereaved parents month. It is also the month my child died. This year it’s a very strange month as we’re coming up to the one-year anniversary of our son’s stillbirth on July 27. (You can read more about my experience with stillbirth here.)
While it’s not something people like to think about, parents all over the world lose their children to death every day. For some, like me, they never get to see their child experience life. For others, their child thrives and experiences childhood and maybe even adulthood before they are lost in death. Either way, a parent loses their child. Any time a parent has to grieve the death of a child, it is devastating. No matter how old that child was. And, no matter how long ago that child died, their parents still miss them.
If you know a bereaved parent, please consider these tips to support them.
Also, if you know of significant dates in their child’s life – birthday, due date (for pregnancy loss), wedding day, death day – consider how you can support them on those days too. Those days are extra hard.
Say their child’s name. If you have memories of their child, share them.
Sometimes people are afraid to talk about someone who has died. They don’t want to cause any hurt to the parents, or stir up feelings of grief in a happy situation. Don’t be afraid. The grief is always there. We never forget our child who has died. And by bringing that child into conversation, letting us know that you remember them and loved them, it helps. It lets us know that they mattered to more than just us. It honours our child and it honours us.
Only our family and some friends know the name we gave our son. I haven’t shared it here on the blog yet. I might later. I don’t know. But when someone uses his name and tells me they miss him or that the sweater they’re wearing makes them think of him because it’s the sweater they lent me one day when I was pregnant and cold, it lets me know that he was and is loved by more than just me. That others recognize me as a mother even though I never got to bring my baby home.
Check in with them. Ask how they’re doing.
Life goes on. When someone dies, people come out of the woodwork with cards and flowers and condolences. But after a few weeks or months, those messages of support decrease to a trickle and then they stop coming. It feels like the world has forgotten your child, like your child never existed to them. But your life, when your child dies, is forever changed. It will never go back to the way it was before. And as time goes on, your grief remains. And that grief can be overwhelming sometimes, especially when it feels like the world has forgotten your child.
A text message, a phone call, or a visit can do wonders for the soul. A “How’re you doing?” or a “I’ve been thinking of you” can go a long way to know that we’re not alone and that someone remembers what happened. I have a few girlfriends who have been amazing at this. Every few weeks one of them sends me a text checking in. It usually turns into a long conversation, tears, and an abundance of feeling loved and knowing that they remember me and my child.
Invite them to do something fun.
Grief can be isolating. When your child dies, it can be hard to be around other people with children your child’s age. It can be hard to go out and do normal, every day things. Places and activities can remind us of our child, of memories we made or planned to make with them. So instead, bereaved parents stay home. Sometimes that’s healthy.
And sometimes, we need a distraction from our grief – something to remind us of the good things in life. So invite us to do a fun activity with you or travel to someplace fun. We might say no. But even being asked helps us know we are loved. On my son’s due date, a few months after he was stillborn, a friend invited herself over. She brought me lunch and gave me a manicure. She let me talk about my boy, about the dreams I’d had for him. She told me about her kids and the antics they were up to. We cried, we joked, and we laughed. It was exactly what I needed. It both helped the day pass a little more quickly, and it made me feel so loved.