Monday, July 6, 2020

Helping A Friend with Child Loss

[Reviewed and updated September 10, 2023]

A real friend is one who walks in when the rest of the world walks out.  ~ Walter Winchell

A reader writes: My dear, dear friend and her husband recently lost her two young children in a horrific accident. I so wish I could take some of her pain away. But, I just don't know how to help her. I try to spend time with her and her husband, just listening and holding her, but I feel as if there's nothing I can do for her. I mean, it's not like it makes her feel better, my being there. Her loss is just too big. Can you please advise me on how to help her???

I also have some specific questions:

1) She talks a lot about guilt, about she and her husband being responsible for what happened, (because they decided to go on this vacation). What can/should I say about this? Should I address this at all? I mean, the thought of them being responsible is absurd, but would she be able to comprehend this???

2) She talks a lot about being envious about other families who got to keep their children, to the point where I dare not even speak about my own children or, bring them to her house in case this is too hard for her. What should I do?

Please advise, I do want to help her, but just don't know how. And I've now reached the point where I wonder, can I even help? It's like she's in hell right now, and every time I visit, I enter, as well. But, yeah, I get to leave. But she stays. And this makes me feel so helpless. Please tell me what to do.

My response: I'm so sorry to learn of this tragic loss, but how fortunate your friend is to have such a caring person as you beside her as she travels this difficult journey. I applaud your willingness to be to be there for her in a positive way. As you say, being with your friend requires that you enter into the hellish place where she finds herself right now, and that is no easy task. Nevertheless, it is still the most precious gift you can give to her. Nothing you can say or do will mean as much as your physical presence, which really says it all: “I’m here. I care. Any time, anywhere.”

I greatly appreciate and admire your searching for other ways to help, and I'd like to refer you to some articles on that very subject. Note that each of these articles lists links to additional resources at its base:

In Grief: "Being There" for Someone in Mourning

Helping Another In Grief: Suggested Resources

As for your specific questions:

(1) It’s only natural that your friend is feeling guilty ~ parents are supposed to protect their children ~ but that does not mean that she is, in fact, guilty as charged. Feelings aren’t always logical and rational. See, for example, Grief and The Burden of Guilt.

(2) It’s also natural for your friend to feel envious of others whose children are alive and healthy. Again, such feelings are neither right or wrong, good or bad – they just are, and they need to be acknowledged so they can be expressed, worked through and released. If you can bear it and not take it personally, the best thing you can do is to let your friend say whatever she needs to say, without judgment or reproach. As the saying goes, “A friend is one to whom you can pour out the contents of your heart, chaff and grain alike, knowing that the gentlest of hands will take and sift it, keep what is worth keeping, and blow the rest away.” As for speaking about your own children or bringing them to visit, you might simply share your concerns with your friend and take your cue from her.

I think it’s also important for you to acknowledge to yourself the enormity of what has happened to your friend, and know that it would make any one of us feel helpless in the face of it, too. Your friendship is a priceless gift and your friend is blessed to have you in her life, but you cannot expect to be her sole source of support and you need not feel guilty about that. If you find that you cannot meet your friend’s need for ongoing support, or if her needs exceed your capacity to help, you can offer to help her find other resources and gently guide her to take advantage of them. (You can do some of this research ahead of time. See, for example, the Links page on my Grief Healing website. See especially the categories labeled Death of an Infant / Child / Grandchild and Traumatic Loss. See also Finding Grief Support That Is Right For You. You'll find links to additional resources listed here: Coping with Traumatic Loss: Suggested Resources.) 

To your friend, you might say something like this:

"There's so much going on in your life right now and I know you're needing some help to sort it all out. Although I'm not prepared to help you as fully as you deserve to be helped, I'd like to help you find someone who can do that for you."


"If you had a wound that wasn't healing, you wouldn't hesitate to seek professional help. Loss creates an emotional wound that also needs to be healed. This wound of yours doesn't seem to be healing. There are people who can help you with that process. Let me give you their brochure / telephone number / Web site address."

I hope this information proves helpful to you, my dear. Above all, please be patient with your friend. Grief work is some of the most difficult work she will ever have to do, and it will help her to know that you will let her do it at her own pace, and that you don't expect her to have to do it all alone.

Wishing you both the comfort, peace and healing you deserve. 

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