Enter Into The Parent's Grief

A grieving parent can resonate with the deep grief expressed by the psalmist in Psalm 88.

“…For my soul is full of troubles, And my life draws near to Sheol. I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am a man who has no strength, Like one set loose among the dead, Like the slain that lie in the grave, Like those whom you remember no more, For they are cut off from your hand. You have put me in the depths of the pit, In the regions dark and deep. Your wrath lies heavy upon me, And you overwhelm me with all your waves. You have caused my companions to shun me; You have made me a horror to them. I am shut in so that I cannot escape; My eye grows dim through sorrow.” Psalm 88:3-9 ESV.

Just as the psalmist considered himself “among the dead,” so also a grieving parent feels “among the dead.” If you have been around the parents for any period since the death of their child, you have noticed that the parents seem to be living among the dead: they have stopped communicating regularly, cannot seem to laugh or enjoy your company, lack initiative, and might have difficulty eating or sleeping. So how do we, as friends and family, support the grieving parents in their grief? What support can we reasonably expect to provide to them?

As you come alongside parents, we think it would be helpful for you to keep three points in mind:

Only God Can “Fix” Grief

First, we must realize that we cannot “fix” the grief experienced by these parents; it is only through God’s sovereign strength will God bring them through. We are promised, as Christians, that we will suffer in this lifetime. In 1 Peter 4:12, Peter says, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” We are also promised that God will use this suffering for great purposes. While we will not know all of those purposes on this side of eternity, we can trust that God is working His ways in the lives of the parents. Nothing happens to us that is outside the control of God. God continues to love us, and our grieving friends, even through “tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger or sword.” Romans 8:35 ESV. “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” Romans 8:31-32 ESV.

In light of this, what type of friend would you be if you thought that you alone could somehow “fix” the grief the parents are now experiencing? While your desire to “fix” the parents’ grief is well-intentioned, you are powerless to do so. No amount of gifts, notes or diversions will push the parents through their grief. God, on the other hand, is supremely powerful over the entire situation, and will be able, in His timing, to use this time of mourning to accomplish His desired purposes. Therefore, as those who are supporting other grieving parents, we should do what we can to come alongside parents in their grieving, but we should not think that it is up to us to “fix” the grief. We must ultimately trust in God for their healing.

Life Is Forever Different

Second, we must realize that the lives of the grieving parents will never be the same. Grief professionals say that grieving parents will endure various “phases” of grief, such as shock, denial, depression, anger, and others. While the severity of each these phases might decrease over time, no grieving parent is ever “over” his or her grief. Grieving parents who are many years removed from the death of their child will say that, even while the “fog” of intense grief has since lifted from their lives, there continues to be an ongoing hole in their life, a void that cannot be filled. Grieving parents sometimes refer to living life in this type of ongoing grief as “the new normal.” Veteran grieving parents can attest to the fact that, even many years later, they continue to live in this “new normal.”

As you interact with the grieving parents, extend grace to them as they make arrangements for “the new normal.” Do not assume that they will engage in the same activities, enjoy the same hobbies or pastimes, and keep the same schedule. Being involved in certain activities that the parent may have previously enjoyed with the deceased child may now be too painful to endure. The child’s death may have caused a significant change in their outlook and priorities. The parents may have new interests and perhaps even new professional endeavors.

This “new normal” for the parents may mean that extended family members must make new arrangements around the Holidays and other significant dates, such a birth dates. Some grieving parents will avoid altogether any of the same activities they did before the death of their child. But regardless of whether the grieving parents wish to retain many of these same traditions, extended family members need to be ready to give up these traditions if it will be too painful on the parents.

For some extended family members, losing a Holiday tradition or other tradition is almost like religious heresy. But as Paul tells us in Colossians 3:16-17, there is nothing uniquely spiritual about our traditions, days, and festivals. Don’t push grieving parents into an ongoing tradition just because the extended family wants to retain the tradition. Instead, realize that just as grieving parents must develop a “new normal,” so also must the extended family members develop a “new normal.” As you consider how to go about structuring Holiday traditions after the death of the child, consider asking the grieving parents what traditional activities they would like to be involved with, and which ones they would like to avoid. Whether it relates to Holiday traditions or other events, you can extend a considerable amount of grace to grieving parents by providing them the latitude to develop their “new normal” following the death of their child.

Healing Takes Time

Third, we are called upon to patiently suffer along with the grieving parents. In the book of 1 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul exhorts all believers to bear with each other’s sufferings as “one body.” Paul says, “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” 1 Corinthians 12: 26. Just as the parents must trust in God’s sovereign strength to pull them through these dark days of mourning, so too must you, as the friends of the grieving parents, trust in God’s goodness to the parents during this period.

In his article, “Waiting for the Morning,” fellow grieving parent Dustin Shramek writes about the responses of his own church to the death of his infant son. Shramek felt that, while fellow church members meant well, what they really wanted was for he and his wife to get through their grief quickly. Shramek believes that, in times such as these, we should not move “so quickly from the affliction to the deliverance and thus minimize the pain in between.” Dustin Shramek, Suffering and the Sovereignty of God (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2006), 184.

Entering into a mourning period with grieving parents is difficult in numerous ways. It is emotionally difficult to converse with parents who might have more tears then intelligent words to say to you. It takes time to cook the meals, go to the cemetery, and help with childcare. And, most importantly, it takes faith. In times like these, we must ask ourselves if we really believe the Bible’s promises for us and for the grieving parents. Are we secretly hoping that the Bible’s promises about suffering are not true? Or are we trusting, in faith, that nothing can separate us and the grieving parents from the love of Christ? If God is indeed sovereign over space and time, then we must trust God that He is working in the lives of the grieving parents, even during these periods of their mourning when they do not feel any blessing from Him.

God is sovereign over grief, regardless of how long it takes. Don’t judge the parents as to their own faith in God by how long it seems to take to “get through” various aspects of grieving. In seeking to support others in the midst of deep suffering, then we must be willing to plumb the depths of suffering with others, to wait patiently with them during these, the darkest nights of life, the kind encountered by the Psalmist in Psalm 88. As you grieve patiently along with the parents, you are able to provide unspeakable comfort to the grieving parents.

In 2 Corinthians 1:3-5 Paul says, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.”