The Friends + Family Guide to Helping Parents Heal After Loss
Editor’s note: This article was originally written in 2018 for Jesse Was Here. It may have been edited for length and clarity.
I can’t begin to explain the thoughts that ran through my head as I drove the grueling 30 minutes back home—where my world had ended after losing my son Jesse to type 1 diabetes (T1D).
There was a surreal thought process—it felt almost fake. Like when you just “try” to imagine the worst happening to you, try to envision losing your child and you wonder things like, “what would it be like”? Well, it actually felt like that exactly.
It was unreal.
I can’t remember every moment or the exact chronological order, but I do remember very well that I called a handful of people. First, I called my partner when I was suspected that something was gravely wrong with Jesse. I called and told him I was concerned, that maybe he should leave work—I was starting to panic.
After calling Jesse’s father and hearing the worst, that my son wasn’t breathing and the EMTs were working on him, as hard as it was, I hung up. I called in reinforcements. It’s a blur. It’s madness. It’s brutal. Those are the words I feel as I write this.
I told Jesse’s father to leave the line open, that I was calling for help. Help? I don’t know, I just knew I had to reach out. I called my partner immediately. I know I was screaming, I know I wasn’t making sense, I know I was screaming that Jesse was dead. He hung up without letting me finish. I was also freaked out because my cell phone was low on battery—I couldn’t imagine if I were to lose communication.
I then called my friend Sandy. I knew she was someone I needed there to help me. The next call was to Amy—someone who proved almost like life support to me over those awful months. Lastly, I called a coworker, Laura, to make sure they were updated. Why did I do that? I still don’t know.
I went into some kind of “protect yourself, you are going to need help” mode. Julia, the old neighbor that was always there for me, called.
I can’t imagine what was going through all of their heads—not knowing what to do either. But somehow, they did know what to do. They picked me up and didn’t let me fall.
So instead of guessing what was going through their heads, I asked them to tell their story here, for you. This is what they said. These are things you can do to help someone you love grieve the loss of their child.
1. Be present
Don’t find excuses not to help. I know it’s hard, it’s difficult to deal with but we need you. Even if we say “I don’t want anyone around,” we want people around. It’s necessary.
2. Organize a memorial fund
Especially with the loss of a child, chances are the family did not have money put aside to pay for a funeral and the expenses that go along with it. Ask the parents for permission first and consider starting a memorial fund to help ease the financial burden.
Start a memorial fund so people have a place to donate immediately. Like you, others may want to help but not know how. Donating is one way people can help.
3. Plan a memorial event
It was not only cathartic to be with so many people who loved Jesse outside of a funeral, but it helped raise a lot of needed funds. You can help organize and plan a memorial event at a local community center, spiritual or religious centers, the child’s favorite park or your own home. Avoid planning it at the parent’s home as they might want some privacy.
4. Funeral planning
No one truly knows how much work goes into planning a funeral until they need to plan one themselves. It can be overwhelming and exhausting. You can help with planning the funeral by contacting a funeral home, making sure there is money to put down on the funeral, finding a church, etc.
Make sure to ask the parents before helping plan as there are many personal details that will need to be decided.
5. Let them talk
And talk, and talk and talk. The more they talk and grieve, the better.
6. Answer the grieving person’s phone for them
The phone is exhausting. People mean well but to tell what happened over and over is painful and brutal. Tell it for them. Redirect them to the memorial page or fundraiser page. Give them the details of the memorial event. Minimize how much the grieving person needs to share so they can preserve their energy.
7. Plan the food at the funeral or the home gathering
The last thing people can do is cook or entertain, as eating alone can be a challenge. Organizing this would be a big help. You can also organize a food train with a group of friends where everyone cooks a meal the grieving person can freeze and not have to cook for a while.
Another way to help is to offer to come do some household chores like laundry or buying groceries. It’s one less thing on that person’s plate so they can focus on healing.
8. Put a slide show or picture boards together
You can gather photos from social media or personal ones and collect them in digital folder. Most computers will allow you to show the photos in a rotating slideshow. You can even put them on a USB drive to display on TVs or directly from your phone if it’s a smart TV.
Other options include printing the photos and collaging them for display at the funeral or in the home. Photo books or creating memorial social media pages are also options.
9. Do not say “call me if you need me”
We will not call you because we don’t know what we need. Others may feel like a burden or that no one wants to talk to a “debbie downer.” Everyone checks in the first few days, even weeks, but after the first month everyone tends to go on with their lives while ours is still wrecked.
Instead, continue to check in even after everyone else has forgotten. We haven’t.
10. Put away items of the person they love
You don’t have to go extensive here, just put away school forms left on the table, or car keys or a note they left—anything that is recent and obvious. Do not throw these items away, just hide them for a bit. Don’t box up their room or anything. That’s for another day and time of the grieving person’s choice.