Tuesday, August 24, 2010

How to help a friend who has lost a child

We just got back from a friend's house where my children acted like the kids from Nanny McPhee. Seriously, so bratty, like I don't spend half my day telling them not to jump on furniture or run in the house. I was mortified and embarrassed and angry and could barely stand to look at them.

Then I saw I had an email from Gillian. 
God is obviously in my business today. 
And my pride and concern for my image as a 'good mother' suddenly doesn't seem so important.

Gillian is a friend of a friend, and we email regularly. I miss her son desperately, even though I never met him. He was born three weeks before Eva Rose was, and he went to Heaven four years later. She has blogged about it beautifully, and she is blogging here today about how to help a friend who has been through the hell she has. 

Pardon me, I'm off to hug my kids now.

Thank you, sweet Gillian.


If you are a mom, I know what your worst nightmare is--losing your child. Or at least that seems to be the case with most moms I meet. Before you become a mom you cannot imagine loving someone as much as your used-to-be-normal-turned-fanatic friend loves her child.

Then, you have a child. And you understand. Your whole world changes. Your priorities change. Your schedule changes. Suddenly, everything revolves around this tiny being who has entered your home. Sleeping, showering, eating, all become luxuries that are quickly shunned should your baby need you. It doesn't make sense, but we push ourselves to the backseat to make sure this little charge is cared for, clothed, and adored. To think that anyone or anything could harm him is unthinkable. You couldn't recover. He is more precious to you than life itself.

I wish I weren't writing this post. I wish I had no idea what it felt like to lose a child. When I became a mom, I never imagined my life would include this tragedy. I thought my life would continue on in its chaotic yet comfortable pace for the next 18 years or so.

In November of 2007 I was a very busy mom of two adorable little ones, Joseph and Holly. I spent my days chasing them around, trying to get them to eat, breaking up toy wars, et cetera, before collapsing on the couch at the end of an exhausting day.

Joseph had turned 3 a few months early and Holly was almost 2. It was the week after Thanksgiving and I was busy with organizing childcare for our church's Thursday morning Bible Study. I was a little preoccupied with that and just trying to stay afloat with the kiddos when my world suddenly stopped.

My husband Allen, who was in his first year as a pediatric resident at Emory in Atlanta, had noticed a few things about Joseph that concerned him. I chalked it up to him knowing too much and reading too many bizarre stories in his textbooks. I kind of blew it off, but because he wanted me to, I took Joseph to the doctor to see what he thought. We were referred to an ophthalmologist, but on the advice of an attending doctor of Allen's we ended up taking Joseph to the ER the next morning. It was there we received the unbelievable news that our healthy, vivacious child had a high-grade malignant brain tumor.

To say I was shocked would be a vast understatement. I knew it was me there in that room with the doctor but I couldn't believe it was real.

After nine months of bravely fighting his tumor, Joseph died, the day after his fourth birthday.

I could write for days about our experience and everything that happened and all my emotions but I'm going to try to keep this post to how you can be a great friend to someone who has been through the nightmare of losing a child. (If you would like to read more about Joseph's story you can visit our blog: Pray for Joseph.)

I would have had no idea how to be a friend to me, but thankfully God placed dear friends in our lives who knew just how to love us and be a comfort. I am so grateful for that. Here are some things that helped us immensely:
  1. The most powerful and best thing you can do for your friend is to pray for her. That should be number one on my list. When you don't know what to say to your friend, you can always go to the Perfect Counselor and ask Him to do for her what nobody else can. There is no way we would have gotten through everything with Joseph without the many fervent prayers of friends (and strangers!).
  2. Organize meals for this friend. Someone organized meals for us, for months. They set it up so that the person bringing a meal left it in a cooler on our back porch. That way if we were having a hard day we didn't have to talk to anyone if we didn't want to.
  3. Call them, email them, write notes, but don't be offended if they don't respond. They will cherish and appreciate every act of love but just may not have the energy to respond. I have friends I truly don't deserve, who have kept calling me, kept loving me, kept on emailing me after weeks of silence from me.
  4. Resist the urge to say anything positive, like, "Well, at least they are in a better place" or "Well, it's good you still have another one," etc. In fact, be as negative as possible. The most helpful words to me were, "Oh, what a nightmare!" "How horrific," etc. One godly, wonderful friend used to just cuss every time we got together. It made me laugh and oddly enough was so encouraging because I felt like she really "got" how awful I felt.
  5. Do say something. Even if it is months after the child has died, feel free to bring the topic up. They haven't forgotten and they are still hurting every minute of every day. Even if it's just, "I am so sorry to hear about your child," or "I was thinking about your child yesterday and wanted you to know he/she is remembered." If you knew the child well, you could bring up a happy memory of him or her, or something that you loved about that child. My biggest fear is that Joseph will be forgotten.
  6. If they have other children, offer to take the children out for an afternoon or a day. We were blessed to have grandparents nearby after Joseph died. They would take Holly for us so we could grieve and cry and not have to put on a brave face for her. We were also exhausted-- emotionally, spiritually, and physically so we really needed that time to just rest.
  7. Help them with yard work, housework, any kind of work! One sweet small group skipped church one Sunday morning and, while we were at church, planted flowers in our yard and cooked us a bunch of meals to store in the freezer (and left us with a spic-and-span kitchen!)
  8. Remember the anniversary of their child's death. You will be engraved on that friend's heart forever if you remember this day-- with a note, an email, a text. It doesn't have to be a huge bouquet of flowers or anything. Just remembering means so much.
  9. Still invite them to things like dinners out, book clubs, or parties. They may not feel up to going but they will appreciate the invitation. I had one friend who kept on inviting me to do things (and I probably said no to half of them), but it did so much for my mental health to get out and do some normal things once in a while.

Everyone grieves differently, that is for sure! So, these things helped me but I am sure someone else who has lost a child would include different things that helped her.

Thanks, Missy, for inviting me to post (and for being a great friend whom I've never met!).


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