How to Help a Friend who is Grieving

Do you have a friend or family member who is grieving the loss of a baby? Has a coworker just received a terminal diagnosis for her child? Do you want to help but aren't sure just what to say or what to do? If so, thank you for caring so much.

Just the fact that you recognize that there are right and wrong things to do and say is half the battle. I hope that I can share with you some things that will enable you to help a friend who has lost a baby.

If your friend is expecting a baby with Trisomy 18, 13 or a similar disorder, see Supporting a Friend with a Poor Prenatal Diagnosis.

What the grief of losing a child is like: The Journey

First of all, losing a child is like nothing you have ever experienced. Although you may have lost other close friends or family members, there is no comparison. I have found that the grief of friends who have lost a spouse at a young age is similar in many ways, yet different.

So please try not to make comparisons with what you have experienced, unless, of course, you have also lost a child. And also avoid comparisons with "close calls" you or someone else has had. This is still quite a different thing.

Most people are at a loss about what they should say. And so they choose to stay silent and avoid the situation. But there are things you can say that can be very helpful. Take a look at the section on What to Say to a Grieving Friend for some help with this.

A friend who had also lost her daughter told me, "I just never knew I would think about it every minute. I never knew it would affect every bit of my life." The intensity of the grief catches us by surprise, even those of us who are going through it. So it is no wonder that when someone is grieving she thinks, feels, and acts differently than ever before, at times doing things that seem completely illogical and even abnormal.

Try to avoid the trap of comparing what you think you would do in that situation with what your grieving friends are doing because their grief is affecting every bit of their life. That is why grieving people draw close to others who are grieving - it's the only time they feel "normal".

For many women, after losing a baby, it takes 18 - 24 months before they work through their grief enough to get back to a somewhat "normal" life. For men it often takes 3 - 6 months for this to occur. That is not to say they are "over it" by then, but just that they no longer think about it every minute.

That's right, for most of the first year, a bereaved mom is thinking about her child just about all the time - certainly at least several times a day!

See how my friends helped me in my grief

Unfortunately, in Western society, most people think a few weeks is how long this sort of grief lasts. And so, after that time, they don't mention the child's name (or worse, avoid the entire subject) for fear of "reminding" them. This actually hurts MORE because the grieving mom feels that she is the only one who remembers her child since no one mentions her.

And, because no one mentions her, she also hesitates to bring her up because everyone seems uncomfortable about it. The very thing the bereaved mom most needs: to talk and talk and talk about her child - is the thing we take away from her with our silence! No wonder the grieving seek each other out.

Yes, you mentioning her child's name will probably bring tears to her eyes, especially during the first year. But they are GOOD tears - tears of gratefulness that you care about her baby enough to mention him or her.

Which brings me to my next point: if your friend feels that she can cry with you, you are doing the biggest service you possibly can for her. If you don't look away, or change the subject, or act uncomfortable, you will help her heal by being with you. Help her to mourn by mourning with her.

The emotions of grief are not all sadness. There is usually a lot of anger at one point or another. There is often anxiety, irritability, inability to cope, and often there is an anti-social period. And there is so much up and down, feeling like a yo-yo jumping between feeling OK and the pit. The grieving mom doesn't even know how she will feel from one moment to the next. There is much confusion, and fear that she will never feel happy or normal again.

If you can be there, willing to listen to whatever emotions she has, without judgment, you will be giving a huge gift as well. This takes time and energy. The anger, guilt, and other emotions are very real. Don't tell her "you shouldn't feel that way". She feels the way she feels. Help her to work through the emotions. And don't be shocked if she talks of wanting to die. This is very common, and it will help her if she can confide in you without fear.

What to say to a grieving friend

And realize that these changes are not permanent for your friend; they are grief. She will come out of it a different person in many ways - hopefully better - but also in many ways she will become herself again someday. God bless you if you have the patience to wait and to help her get there.

Although nothing magical happens after the first year - she won't miraculously get a lot better - it is true that the first year is very hard. EVERYTHING is the first time without her child. Every holiday, large or small, is very difficult because holidays are family times and an important member of her family is missing.

Remember her at each holiday - acknowledge her loss and that it is likely to be a difficult time. Ask her what she is planning to do to "get through it" (which becomes the grieving person's goal for most events the first year). Don't be afraid to ask - remember, you're not reminding her, you're remembering her child.

As you might imagine, Mother's Day is especially hard. Send a card acknowledging her motherhood, especially if this is her only child, and just let her know you are thinking of her and that you remember her child.

For quite a while during the first year, grieving moms experience weekiversaries and monthiversaries. That is, they often feel increased grief, irritability, and pain on the day of the week their baby died and on the day of the month. Their subconscious begins to relive the experience each week and each month. Be sensitive to this and offer extra support at those times. The intensity of this experience usually lessens by the end of the first year, when the anniversary becomes most significant.

Make a note on your calendar of her child's birthday, date of death, and due date if the baby was born quite early. Those days will all be very difficult, and a simple I'm Thinking of You card at those times will provide much healing. Realize that even years later, after she has apparently "healed", she will be thinking of her child on those dates, reliving the experience and the sadness. Knowing that someone else still remembers her child years later will bring her much peace and comfort.

See how Job's friends helped and hurt his grieving process

Also realize that any sort of event or gathering may be very difficult for a grieving person. One of the steps of healing is spending a lot of time focusing on the child who has been lost. This needs to happen every day, and at first, takes up most of the day.

As healing occurs, the time she will need to "be with" her child becomes less and less. But we can't rush this or force it. And often, attending social gatherings is just too hard. After a few minutes, the grieving mom is ready to focus on her child again, and she can't. So she either stays and is miserable and then falls apart totally afterwards, or she leaves and does what she really needs to do.

It takes a long time for most grieving people to trust their own instincts about what they need to do (after all, someone is always telling them, "come on, you should go, it'll be good for you.") You can help your friend by encouraging her to listen to her instincts and to follow them. Often you can help her by asking, "What do you want to do?" Listen as she sorts out her feelings, and support whatever she decides. And finally, point out the progress she has made, no matter how small.

What it is like seeing healthy babies being born: The Circus

Baby showers, pregnant women, newborns, even weddings are just devastating for moms who have lost babies. Seeing others' joy is in such contrast to their pain. Be sensitive to that - and it lasts much longer than people realize.

I hope that by reading this, and some of the links from this page, you will feel better equipped to help support your grieving friend. You may also find it helpful to read my Grief Journal for months corresponding to where your friend is her journey; that may help you understand her pain better. And be sure to read The Help of Friends which illustrates how Job's friends (and mine) helped and hindered the grieving process. May God bless you for your friendship in this difficult time.

What to Say to a Grieving Friend
Supporting a Friend with a Poor Prenatal Diagnosis
Grief Resources | My Grief Writings

Stories - ours and others:
Resources and Information

This page updated October 20, 2004.