What do you give—what do you do for—a family that has just lost a child? How do you help a friend or family member who is grieving such a loss?
From my family’s journey through infant loss, here are some ways to help a grieving family.
Hugs and prayers are a good start, but there are far more additional opportunities to help if we look for them.
People always want to help. Sometimes we want them to help— their care makes us feel loved. But in the midst of grief, few of our deepest needs can be met by other humans.
So please don’t say, “Let me know if you need anything.” Even if you emphasize the “ANYthing.” Pride, timidity, or simple inconvenience prevents most people from taking their friends up on these genuine offers.
Rather, DO jump in and DO or offer something SPECIFIC.
Typical Help: Meals for the Family
After a births and deaths, friends often organize a steady delivery of meals. (Meal Train is an easy, online tool for organizing meals—I have found it helpful both as one delivering meals and as the recipient.) But as helpful and appreciated as those are, after the first week or two we don’t need any more meals. We are back on our feet and can take care of our own again. (Gift cards—or freezer meals—are nice for later when it’s a crazy night, or we’re exhausted, or plans changed and there isn’t time to cook.)
The Self-Care Short-Fall
Grieving parents are told to take care of themselves. Yet self-care can be difficult when jobs, children’s needs, or other demands do not stop just because a family lost a baby.
Comforts, pleasures, and pampering do not take away the pain of loss. But they do offer a reprieve from pain. They do provide a break from working through hard emotions. They do help the grieving to keep on living.
10 Ways to Help a Grieving Mother and Her Family
Not everyone wants or needs the same things, so consider the personality or lifestyle of the mother and her family. Even if you’re not sure, doing something will be appreciated more than doing nothing.
Here are some gift ideas—beyond meals—that can help a grieving mother and her family. While some of these ideas are physical gifts, others are less tangible gifts that help facilitate the grieving parents’ self-care.
1. Special Treats
Food doesn’t take away the pain of losing a child, and it’s not a healthy habit to (attempt to) sooth the pain by eating. Nevertheless, I feel loved when a friend drops by with a special treat just for me. There is comfort in being thought of in this small way, be it your favorite coffee or chocolate, or a plate of homemade cookies.
I still remember one such gift passing with fondness and gratitude. At the time, I had been eating gluten-free for several years, and it was hard to find good baked goods I didn’t have to make myself. A few days after Josiah’s passing, a friend from church stopped by with a box of four fresh gluten-free pastries from a local shop, a jar of roses from her garden, and a hug. That was it. But it meant so much.
And I thoroughly enjoyed indulging myself in those (actually delectable gluten-free) pastries.
2. Visits or Outings
A grieving mother may not feel like joining in social events or being around crowds. That’s okay. But after a period of grieving alone, she may be lonesome and desire some company, or just want to get out of the house and forget everything. Make some suggestions, ask if she would like…, give a couple options, and be sensitive.
She might like to get out of town and attend a ladies’ conference or go to a pottery-painting event. Or she might prefer something low-key like doing a puzzle at home with a friend , meeting at a quiet coffee shop, or going for a walk together. Even if she says “no,” it will mean a lot that you thought enough to ask.
3. Care Packages
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Surprise packages always make me feel loved and special. Whether I love the contents or not, the thoughtfulness of the sender warms my heart.
During my recovery from a C-section and Josiah’s passing, a friend in another state—who was dealing with major health issues herself—sent a box full of little, individually-wrapped gifts to be opened whenever I needed a pick-me-up. The joy of the package could be spread over days or weeks, however long I desired. Some of the items were beautiful, some humorous, some practical. Three items that stand out in my memory are an adult coloring book and colored pencils, a couple starts from her succulents to plant in my garden, and a selection of blooming tea pouches and tiny glass teapot in which to infuse them.
I LOVED these blooming tea infusions AND the cute, little, personal-size, clear teapot that came with them. (They reminded me of the blooming tea I first experienced with students at a Chinese restaurant in Kazakhstan.) The flavor is subtle and gentle. I found it calming to sit and watch the dried tea creation bloom in the hot water, before sipping my tea while I read, or wrote, or simply sat in silence.
4. Care Packages for the Children
If the grieving family has other children, they need attention, too. My friend who sent me the package described above also sent one for our foster daughter. Lots of little, inexpensive items were individually wrapped in brightly colored tissue paper. Things like a tube of glow bracelets, and a set of tiny clear plastic canisters for storing collections of pebbles or whatever. So every day our little girl wanted to, she could choose an item to unwrap and play with for a while.
Children love the excitement of opening presents. And my heart was touched seeing her joy.
Not every family is sentimental. Not every family likes knickknacks or memorabilia. And if they do, personal taste can differ greatly, so this is not always the safest option. However, if you know the family would appreciate it, this could be greatly appreciated.
After losing our firstborn, a friend sent us a wooden cube with Josiah’s name and birth date and a couple little sayings. For a long time, our little girl loved picking it up and talking about Baby Josiah. To this day, this cube sits on our piano as a little reminder of our baby boy.
Not everyone likes being touched or feels comfortable with massage. But for those who love it, the gift of a massage can mean a lot.
Grief adds its own kind of stress to whatever we already face in daily life. Tension builds up in neck, shoulders, lower back, or other places that cause discomfort, pain, or even other issues.
A gift certificate to a massage therapist is a luxury many grieving mothers probably won’t splurge on for themselves. But they are carrying a lot of emotional weight, and this can relieve some of the physical effects of grief, at least for a time.
If a professional massage is too expensive or the mother isn’t comfortable going somewhere, close friends or family can offer snippets of comfort in personal ways: give a short 5-minute neck and head massage, a back rub, a hand massage, or even rub her feet. Relaxation is a gift, no matter show short or simple.
7. Date Night (or a Day Away)
If the grieving couple has other children, offer to watch them for an evening, a day, or a weekend. (If they have foster children, depending on the state, they may be restricted to babysitters who have their clearances and are approved by the foster care agency.)
Families need time to themselves, but grief can take its toll on a marriage. Give the couple time to focus on themselves, together. Maybe it’s just so they can have dinner out, or simply go for a walk. But they need this time to refresh. Relaxing and having a reprieve from responsibility is refreshing.
Shortly after our daughter Portia was stillborn, my husband took me out to a nearby state park we had never before explored. He had the day off work for a minor holiday, but public schools were still in session. So without needing to find a babysitter, we dropped our kindergartner off at school and took off for the day. We explored the campgrounds and cabin areas to consider our preferences for family outings next year. Then we hiked in the brisk fall air and beautiful October sunshine, and explored an abandoned train tunnel. Afterwards we got lunch at a local joint before heading home to pick up our little girl.
I started the day heavy with grief, tears held in my chest. By that night our little girl even ASKED me to cry with her, but my tears were gone. The day of fresh air, with my husband, and without responsibilities, was healing, and I was fine for the evening.
8. Quiet Time Alone
If a grieving mother (or father) has other children at home, a job, or other responsibilities, make sure they each have a day—or even a few hours—to get away from everything, ALONE.
Fun things can salve the pain for a while, and busyness can shove the thoughts and feelings in a corner to be dealt with later. But quiet spaces, where we can be alone with our own thoughts, where all guards can be let down, these are the times and places where grieving—and healing—can happen. We need to make time for these opportunities, because they won’t simply happen on their own. Life keeps us too busy, too occupied, and too obligated to allow for grief.
So help the grieving parent to do this. It might be offering to watch her child for a few hours. It might be arranging for a day off work. Or providing food or offering to help with cleaning and laundry so she can step away.
Reading and writing are both tools that help me grieve and process. Writing helps me work through emotions or confusion. Reading about other parents’ experiences with loss resonates with the pain I feel, allowing my emotions to come to the surface. I don’t cry a lot. Most of the time I am “okay.” But books like these help me actually release my tears.
My Quiet Time after Our First Lost
A week or two after our firstborn, Josiah, passed, Matt was back to work and we had arranged to continue our girl’s daycare a bit longer even though I was on maternity leave for the remainder of the school year. I took one particular morning to get out of the house. I went down to a local coffee shop armed with my Bible, journal, planner, and maybe a couple other books. I took my coffee and sat outside at a table in the warm May sunshine. I may have read, but mostly I wrote. I probably sat there for a couple hours. Alone. In the quiet, in the sunshine. Coffee in hand, thinking, praying, writing, and maybe crying too. I needed that . It was lovely—my signature healing time after that loss.
My Quiet Time after Our Second Loss
This time around, after losing our daughter, Portia, I wasn’t ready to sit at a coffee shop. I held too many tears inside to handle a public place, no matter how quiet and cozy. A friend had given a book. I had started it, recognized how much it was going to make me cry—and how desperately I needed that catharsis.
So one sunny but cool Sunday afternoon, I took a blanket outside in the backyard while the others rested in the house. I lay on the blanket on the grass, and alternately read and cried and blew my nose. Read and cried. And read and cried and blew my nose some more. All of it—the warming sunshine, the book that drew out my tears, my strangled groanings, the tissues piling up next to my blanket—I needed time and space for all of this. Denying myself this outlet would have caused me to bottle up and explode in some other way. (See this more in-depth look at the value of pushing into the pain of grieving.)
My Husband’s Quiet Time
My husband’s quiet place of escape is the woods. When his father suddenly passed away, he went to the woods. When Josiah passed away, he went to the woods. The day after Portia came and went, I sent him to the woods again. (Not really. Knowing he needed time to process, and knowing his place was in the woods, I suggested he go and assured him I would be okay at home with my mother there. I relieved him of his sense of responsibility to me.) So he went. He packed up a chair, a book, a coffee, and of course, blaze orange to be safe. And he spent the day far off in the woods somewhere.
On a recent Saturday, he again took another day to go to the woods. This time reading the same book I had read. He found a spot remote enough that he could let loose without fear of strangers seeing or hearing him. He returned home that evening calmed, satisfied, refreshed, and spent.
The point is, whether people grieve best by reading, writing, praying, crying, or even raging, time and space must be allowed for it. You can help your grieving friend by making sure she is able to take this time and find this space.
Grief is a very personal thing, and people handle it very differently. At times, grief counseling may be beneficial to help families cope with a loss. It can also be expensive.
After the loss of our firstborn, a church member made the extremely generous offer to pay for any counseling sessions we might need. At the time, we felt fine. Our family and friends were supporting us well, and God was carrying us through that time. So we never took him up on that offer.
With our daughter’s subsequent diagnosis, however, we realized we would need help withstanding this second blow. Processing our grief with therapists has been helpful this time.
Families may or may not want counseling. But to offer it—or to recommend certain counselors, or even to babysit their children so they can go—makes a helpful resource available to them.
10. Books and Resources
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Not everyone loves to read. And not all books are created equal. Nor do all books speak to everyone the same. Regardless, there are good books, websites, and resources available. The right book can make a difference.
After our first loss, I stayed up ‘til 1:00 a.m. reading a book I had received. While the author’s writing style wasn’t my favorite, her experience with infant loss was similar enough to my own that I sobbed through the first half of the book. Then I took a break, went to bed, and never finished the book. It had served its purpose and helped me to grieve.
A Brave Lament
After our second child’s diagnosis, a friend sent us another book. A short, “easy” read, A Brave Lament: For Those Who Know Death helped facilitate the grieving process for both my husband and me. Not only was this book meaningful, I also treasure it because of the person behind the gift.
Even Broken Can Be Beautiful
Another friend gave me a copy of Sarah Rieke’s book, Even Broken Can Be Beautiful. I may not rave about this book as much as the previous one, but it also was beneficial. Sarah’s story was relatable, and I appreciated her attempt to see the beauty God could bring from her devastation.
Yet another friend recommended the book Buried Dreams: From Devastating Loss to Unimaginable Hope by a mother who also carried to term two babies but lost them to similar diagnoses. (I just started it, so I can’t give a review yet.) However, on the author’s website (vaporandmist.com), I found comfort in reading about another mother’s experiences so similar—FAR TOO SIMILAR—to my own. Her resources page also lists a lot of books I would like to read but haven’t gotten around to yet. Perhaps some of these resources would benefit you or someone you love.
For further reading, check out these articles from other writers. They provide additional ideas and helpful perspectives for knowing how to help mothers, and families, who have suffered loss.
8 Ways to Support a Grieving Mom — Mommy Mannegren
10 Ways to Help Families with Grieving Hearts — Family Life
What I Need as a Grieving Mother — Four Plus an Angel
What other questions do you have about helping families who are grieving the loss of a child? If this is you, what did you find most helpful?
Please share your questions or suggestions in the comments below.