Insights into the ongoing needs of grieving parents
By Patrick Misener
Executive Director, Smile Again Ministries
Even though the funeral might be over, the grief journey for the parents is only beginning. Here are a few thoughts about the ongoing needs of grieving parents as they adjust to the “new normal” of living life without their child.
1. Minor decisions. Minor decisions can be incredibly hard to make during the first three months after a child dies. Actually, they can be hard to make for a longer period of time, but the first 90 days are often the most intense when it comes to minor decisions. By minor decisions I mean:
a. Should we eat today?
b. Should I get dressed, or just stay in bed today?
c. What should I buy at the grocery store?
Grocery shopping can be one of the hardest functions to fulfill for the family. Families have often told us that focusing long enough to shop can be very hard. Churches often provide meals for the family for a period of time after a child dies, but eventually the chore of grocery shopping needs to begin. If this appears to be a real stressor, you might see if there would be someone in the church family that would be willing to do the grocery shopping for the family for the first three months or so. Obviously, you need to be sensitive about this issue since some families may not want this “intrusion” into their grieving.
2. Major decisions. Making major decision is one of the danger areas for families after a child dies. Because the family may not be aware of how traumatized they are, they may begin making major decisions that are not in their best interests. At some point after the funeral, I often warn extended adult family members (i.e, grandparents, brothers and/or sisters) about this danger. I encourage them to try to keep their loved one from making any major decisions for at least six months. Major decisions that can end in disaster are:
a. Deciding to sell the house. This is often an idea the family has if the child died in their home. The danger is the family will often sell the home for little or no equity just to “get it done.” For some families, this will be an option they need to pursue for their healing process, but it needs to be done when the family can make good judgment calls.
b. Deciding to quit one’s job. Because of the trauma suffered by a parent after they lose a child, they often find work to be more than they can handle. As a result, they may simply decide to quit their job and get one that won’t require as much focus. Once again, this may be a decision that needs to be made later in the grief journey, but doing so within 6-12 months of their child’s death can be disastrous.
c. Monetary management. Money management after a child dies can be very difficult. Families are often unable to balance their checkbooks. They often turn to credit cards for impulse buying that makes them feel good for the moment. Again the results can be disastrous. If the church has a CPA or other person that is good with finances, you, as the pastor, may want to ask them to consider volunteering to help the family with their finances for the first year. Once again, this is a VERY sensitive area in most people’s lives, so approaching this area needs to be done with care and understanding.
d. Impulse buying. This goes along with the money management issue. After a child dies, families often look to buying “things” to soothe their emotions. As a result, new cars are bought, as are home theatres, new wardrobes, etc. If there is a close adult family member living nearby, you may want to approach them to make them aware of what you are seeing and to ask them to talk with the family. Again, this can be a mine field experience if the family views this as unwelcome interference in their lives.
3. Emotional roller coasters are normal. As a pastor, you need to realize that families who have lost a child will experience extreme highs and lows in their emotions. The mistake most people make is thinking this is normal for the first three months or so, but after that they should be okay. Nothing is farther from the truth. The first year can be pure hell for the family. And our experience at Smile Again Ministries is this FACT – that the second year is actually often more difficult than the first year. This is usually because the family’s support system begins to dry up and the other people around them simply go on with their lives. But for the family that has lost a child, their lives stopped when their child died. So don’t be surprised if it takes mom and dad and surviving siblings a longer period of time to move forward than you might expect.
4. View grief as a life-long journey. When families come to Smile Again we always tell them that their grief journey is going to last their entire lives. That doesn’t mean that they will never be happy again, or enjoy life again. On the contrary, if they are grieving well, that will happen. But the loss of their child will always affect everything they do from that moment on. Helping them to understand this can be an effective way in enabling them to deal with the struggles that follow their child’s death.
5. Every person grieves differently. This is so true when it comes to how a mom and a dad grieve. Women often have a built in network of friends that they can share their feelings with. And as a society, women are usually encouraged to show their emotions and to share they sorrow. Men, on the other hand, often find themselves alone after their child dies. Few men have an extensive male friendship network. As a result, they often don’t have anyone to talk to about their struggles and emotions. As a pastor you can make it a point to come alongside the dad and give him a safe sounding board for his emotions.
6. Surprise! The people you thought would be there for you aren’t, and people you never expected to be there are. It seems to be a universal experience among families that have lost a child that the people they thought would become primary care-givers are not. This can be a very painful reality. It is especially painful when this is true of extended family members that they expected support from – only to find them actually withdrawing from them. And then there are those people that have been casual acquaintances who step forward with empathetic support. Many times these are people who have also lost a child. Other times they are counselors who care for the emotional wellbeing of the family. As a pastor, you can become one of those who step forward to care.
7. Write it on your calendar. Write the date of the child’s death on your personal calendar so that, each year, you can acknowledge the anniversary of the child’s death. Again, remember to use the child’s name when connecting with the family. This can be done with a phone call or note simply saying that you remember. By the way, this IS NOT something you delegate to a secretary.
8. Preparefor a child’s death. There is no doubt that sooner or later you are going to officiate at the funeral of a child. Begin thinking about what you would say at such a moment. Have a group of people in mind who would be able to support the family in a time of crisis like this.
There are so many other things that I could suggest as a pastor to pastors. But let me close by saying the Bible is clear about how we should respond to grieving parents. Romans 12:15 says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 says, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God.”
Pastor, you are Jesus’ hands and feet for the family who has lost a child. You will be His voice of encouragement. You will be His face of comfort. Jesus is counting on you!