There are some, however, that walk past all of these celebrations with a deep lump in their throats. Parents who have experienced the death of a child are often forced to smile and sing when in reality, they feel as though the world has forgotten what is most real to them. Grief is a powerful reality. Grief comes in many shapes and sizes, for many reasons and with many different layers. In my experience as a pastor, I have found the most difficult grief to navigate is the death of a child. The following are my own personal thoughts and discoveries as I have walked through the death of a child with several families.
I have learned that there are many factors that shape the individual mourning process, and the best thing we can do as family and friends is get rid of the ridiculous and completely unfounded notion that “one size fits all.” It is simply not true that any one gesture solves the pain of a parent grieving the death of their child. When the Memorial service has ended, the sympathy cards sorted, the food eaten, and both the endearing and insensitive words of solace are all over, the parent is still left with a void that cannot be filled by any other manner. So, what do we do over the holidays as we celebrate light and life and joy in the presence of a friend, relative, or neighbor that is swallowing the lump in their throat in hopes of not making everyone else uncomfortable with their uncomfortableness?
It seems simple that the best way to understand and support a grieving parent is to listen and validate their unimaginable loss. The first thing we need to remember is that it’s not about us. If we are uneasy with silence or tears, if we struggle with what to say, we need to own that ourselves and navigate through it without forcing the grieving parent to work around it or add it to their list of things to deal with. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard a parent say, “why does everyone think they have to say something? I wish people would just listen and let me cry.” Silence is golden when it comes to grief. Silence provides space for emotions, it’s an affirmation that it’s okay to feel what you are feeling. And when it comes to the death of child, not one of us gets to claim what the parent can and cannot feel, that is theirs, not ours. Many times, a hand on their shoulder does more than any spoken word. If the touch brings tears or even sobs, that is good thing, let them cry. If they pull away or walk away, they have had enough and we must respect that. But if they signal that our touch is a welcome comfort, we don’t need to add words. We have to keep telling ourselves that we have absolutely no idea what it feels like to be in their position, but they do, let them lead.
Parents who have lost children to death have expressed a need for empathy. While they need time to themselves, they also want people around them. Many parent’s want to hear the name of their child spoken. They want to laugh at the funny memories, they want to wonder about the future, and they need the space to break down at even the smallest thing that triggers their pain. In other words, let them know that their child has not been forgotten in the midst of all the holiday cheer. And, don’t be afraid to ask how you can support them. They will tell you.
Community Presbyterian Church will be providing A Holiday Service of Remembrance for Parents; Honoring Children Who Have Died on Sunday, December 23 at 2pm in our sanctuary. This service has been described as an opportunity for parents to spend the holiday with their child/children who are no longer with us here on earth. A time of fellowship and refreshment will follow.