It can seem like there’s plenty of advice about what not to do when it comes to grief. I’ve written a number of emotional posts about how some people get it ‘wrong’ when talking (or not!) to a beavered parent, such as this one and this one. While my rants are only one element of my complex grief emotion, I am, in the main, very accepting that people can’t be expected to ‘get it right’ all the time when dealing with such a sensitive issue (though I have heard some true howlers!).
But there are times when it’s worth knowing just what bereaved mums like me want from our friends and acquaintances particularly in the early days.
Some people simply don’t know what to do for the best around a bereaved mum and many fall over themselves trying! It can actually be a little confusing and somewhat overwhelming if you drastically change your behaviour towards that mum after the death of their child – either suddenly being their ‘best friend’ or dashing past and ignoring them completely. But then what on earth should you do?
I have compiled a short list of things I feel would help anyone who encounters a bereaved mum (more specifically towards an acquaintance mum rather than a close friend as you would be in regular contact anyway). These are just my suggestions, based on my unfortunate personal experience of being that mum who walks into the school playground to collect just two of her three children, and of course you should do whatever you feel appropriate in the circumstances.
Stall literally means to ‘pause the process’, and that’s very relevant to this situation. Before you act, pause to consider how to proceed and then, if it feels right, do one of these actions. They are in no particular order – it’s not a rigid rule – it’s just a little prompt to remind you of the simple things that can make all the difference to a mum who is likely feeling detached from anything and everything.
Smile – Talk – Approach – Look – Listen
It’s always a good idea to show you’re pleased to see the mum whose child has died (even if you’re not because you’re either upset about the death yourself or stressed about what to say), but be careful not to go over the top with your welcome. The bereaved mum will likely feel nervous and anxious about being outside for some time after her loss, so a cheerful hello, while well-meaning, is a bit too much, too soon.
Saying ‘Good morning’ as a way to help her feel better or diffuse an awkward moment is not wise either. The world has changed for her now, beyond all recognition, and she’ll be feeling like no morning will ever be ‘good’ again. Being greeted in the same way by the same people may make the mum feel like the bereavement is being ignored or is not to be spoken of. Smile warmly, say hello, and pause to talk for a moment if you feel it’s appropriate.
On your very first encounter with a bereaved parent you should try to talk to them. In fact, you should try to talk to them as soon after the event as possible. Can you believe there are still people two years on who know us well enough and see us pretty much daily who have never once offered a word of condolence? Their silence speaks volumes. Thankfully they are in the minority.
When I say ‘talk’ I also include ‘write’. If they are not someone you see on a daily basis then write a card and pop it in their door or send a message online if you know they are on Facebook or email. After Abi died, we used Facebook as our way of communicating with people who knew us and received countless messages of support this way from friends and strangers. This also helped us with the first face-to-face encounter.
Even so, as convenient as social media is, remember we are human and life (and death) is about people communicating in person not hiding behind messages online, so avoid using it as your ‘get-out’ clause for further conversation in the real world.
There are many common things we all say in this kind of situation, but it’s best to keep your sentiment simple. ‘I’m thinking of you’, ‘I’m so sorry for your loss’ and ‘I have no words to express how sad this is’… are all as comforting as you can be. Try to avoid the cliches such as ‘time heals’ or ‘God takes the best’ – this doesn’t help.
As hard as it is, try not to ask them if they are okay – this mother whose baby or child has just died will feel like she won’t ever be okay again and they will feel obliged to say an untruthful ‘yes’ or an angry ‘no’. Asking if they are ‘okay’ is way too superficial in any case. If you want to be sincere, ask specific questions, talk about their dead child and other children, ask if you can help in practical ways such as walking the dog or picking up some essentials. Even if they say no, it shows you care.
Also, if you have suffered a bereavement in the past or know someone who has, try not to distract the bereaved mum by immediately talking about it. At first, it can seem quite scary to know other mums who have lost babies or children, like it’s some terrible club. However, in time, when the initial shock has subsided, the mum might well be interested in your experience as they will want to feel like they are not alone. So, by all means mention it, but offer to talk over a coffee rather than burdoning them with the details of your own grief in the street. The mum will take up your offer if and when she feels able.
There are no words you can say that will help make this terrible tragedy any easier for the bereaved mum, and plenty you can say that won’t, so the best thing I think to do is to approach her and give a gentle touch on the arm or a quick squeeze of the hand. Bereaved mums can feel like little lost lambs, so someone to simply sit or stand with them in a bustling and claustrophobic playground, can really help.
The only time it might be best to avoid a bereaved mum would be if they were openly distressed and being comforted by someone. I lost it a few times in the playground and would have hated lots of people trying to talk to me or cheer me up (I don’t like ‘fuss’!). We’ve all been there, some days we just don’t want to talk to anyone. However, if the parent seems upset and is alone, you might want to go up to them and ask if they’d like to talk or just give their arm a little rub and stand with them to show support. You can often say far more by not saying a thing.
Discrete hugs are generally always welcome, especially in the early days after the bereavement. I say discrete as it’s best to avoid making too much of a ‘scene’ with your embrace. The parent is likely to feel like all eyes are on her anyway so the extra feeling of attention might not help matters. I’m not a particularly huggy person, but I’m definitely more tactile since Abi died. I received countless hugs after she died and was grateful as it helped me know that people were sharing my pain without having to speak the terrible words.
Sometimes, if the mum is actually feeling okay that day they might not appreciate an openly public hug, drawing attention to them and highlighting their loss even more. If you’re unsure, approach, chat first and ask ‘Would you like a hug?’ If you want to make a special point of expressing that you’re thinking of them, you could write a card and pop it through their door or into their hand as they pass you in the playground.
Eye contact is everything – it’s words, hugs, tears all rolled together – so look the mum in the eye, but avoid looking overly sympathetic. I had an awful tendency to do this before my own grief experience! Because I didn’t know what to say, I would try to convey my sympathy with my eyes and it’s really not an effective way to help someone. You know that feeling when you’re feeling low and one person asks you if you’re okay and you crumble into tears? Don’t be nice to me or I’ll cry? It’s that. Be honest with your expressions, not overbearing.
Just listen. A good friend of mine met me for a coffee. I prattled on as I do but found I suddenly broke down. She didn’t try to hug me or say comforting words, she moved her seat closer to mine and held my hand.
Yes, sometimes we just need to let our tears tumble and having a connection through a held hand is wonderfully comforting. It’s not trying to squeeze the pain away or talk over the tears, it’s being, I suppose, mindful of the moment. It is hard not to feel flustered but don’t be afraid of the tears of grief. Don’t feel you have to fill the void with platitudes. Just pause. Be quiet, add a few comforting words and take the cue from them. It will help them more than you know.
What do you think?
I would like to say that I sincerely hope that you never have to encounter a mum who has lost her child, but sadly this happens all too often, so I then can only hope these tips have helped you. Dishing out advice on this subject is never easy because grief is such a personal experience. My suggestions are all, of course, simply cues to communication which are pretty much common sense, but from talking to others I feel it’s helpful to have a rough guide.
I have written these from my experience from a mum’s perspective, about mums, but I know there are dads out there who feel it too and can feel forgotten. It would be great to hear a dad’s perspective and any tips on approaching them. Please do add your own suggestions in the comments.