Recently I was asked to write an article about how we can support friends and loved ones coping with grief due to the loss of a child. Today’s headlines of families in desperate need of our support prompt me to share the following. The circumstances differ greatly, though the chaos and grief are consistent. MF

Years ago, my friends Janell and Scott faced a shattering loss when their son, peddling home from school on his bicycle, was hit and killed by a drunk driver. This crushing event also launched my vocation as a pediatric hospital chaplain. More important, it opened my eyes to a family’s capacity to find a way back from despair to wholeness– particularly when they receive loving support from others.

I’ve since been asked, “Are family’s needs surrounding serious illness, or death of a child any different than similar circumstances with an adult? My answer is, “Yes, in some important ways they do differ.”

For example, we typically associate health crises and death with adults, often older adults who’ve enjoyed, we hope, a long and fulfilling life. But with kids whose lives have barely begun, it feels so very unfair. This sense of unfairness can leave parents struggling with questions such as, “Why couldn’t we have done more? Or, how did we fail to see the signs of trouble?”

So, how can we help?

The prospect of stepping into a bereaved person’s space can be frightening. None of us comes fully prepared to face another’s grief. There are no easy formulas. Yet the first—and, perhaps, most important step—is to show up and trust that you have something to offer.

When a family chooses to create a CaringBridge site for their child, they make a statement of need, a request that willing others can answer. They are saying, “We need the support of our friends and loved ones. We want to be assured that we’re not walking this path alone.”

We hear the term healing a lot these days. Unlike cure, healing refers to an internal process that draws on one’s emotional, physical, and spiritual resources. It’s a process of becoming freed to move beyond brokenness. Healing may not change an outcome, but it increases a person’s sense of wellbeing by nurturing feelings of safety, confidence, wholeness and hope.

The good news is we all possess healing skills that we can share.

These simple, though powerful abilities begin with a quiet presence and a capacity to listen without judgment. When we value a bereaved parent’s questions about meaning and hope, we invite that person to consider the possibility of a future worth living.

A mother who loses her newborn offers another example of needs surrounding pediatric heartache. I’ve known many mothers who mourned far longer than family members anticipated. While well-meaning others encouraged her to go home and get pregnant again, she would continue to feel as if she had lost a part of herself. This kind of loss requires awareness and patience of help mates. It also provides an opportunity to introduce this woman to another mom who has known the same kind of loss.

Parents who lose a child at birth or from a prolonged illness are likely to respond quite differently from one another. Each one might need a separate confidant with whom they can share their grief or anger. Another perfect opening to offer support.

When a family creates a CaringBridge site for their child, they make a statement of need, a request that others can answer.

They are saying, “We need the support of our friends and loved ones. By connecting with us, you show us that we’re not walking this path alone.”

Parents with a hospitalized child typically experience complete disruption of their lives. A mother spending weeks in a newborn intensive care unit worries about her other children at home. Who will deliver them their dentist appointments? Who will be there to watch the baseball game or dance recital? I’ve seen parents lose their jobs due to the level of chaos that accompanies a child’s illness. It takes little imagination to see the many ways others can provide respite.

Beyond the loss of control, money, sleep, and comforting routines, those who lose a child often express a desire to honor that child’s life with something important. In my experience, this can take many creative forms from advocacy for children to music, art, scholarships, child-focused foundations, and more.

Meanwhile, my friends Janell and Scott, like many parents who face a life changing crisis with their child, transformed their son’s death into a remarkable story of hope. Janell became a champion for Mothers Against Drunk Driving. She and Scott immersed themselves into Stephen Ministries, a grief ministry, through which they advocate for other parents. Today their lives are bursting with grandchildren, hockey games, graduations and joyful reunions.

They have confirmed for me a realistic meaning of hope.

Time has shown me that hope is available to each of us. Unlike specific expectations, hope is about expectancy of future good. It’s larger and more courageous than wishes. Hope believes that life can emerge from even the most difficult circumstances. It defies all boundaries and refuses to accept misery as an option. Hope is a gift we can bring to one another when we need a helping hand to hold the light.