How to talk to a bereaved parent(?)

On the night my son died we got our first card through the letter box at 7.00pm.  We had only been home back from the hospital for an hour and a half and at first I was shocked that someone already knew.  I was terrified to open it.  If I open a card of condolence I am officially a bereaved person.  Of course, hours earlier I had held my child’s body in my arms so I knew I was already bereaved, but it was mine and it was private.  I opened the card and it had the most comforting words that told me someone else cared about Jude and about us and I really felt that he had touched the person who wrote it.  This was my first lesson in talking to bereaved parents.

Before December 2011 I had never lost anyone close, I lived a pretty charmed life and in many ways I was still very childish and naive in my outlook.  I shied away from stories of tragedy and ill health and I must admit, to my shame, that I never wrote a sympathy card to anyone.

The second card came two hours later and it was hand delivered by three of my friends who live nearby.  They posted it and then stood at the end of my path.  I  immediately asked them in.  They only stayed for ten minutes but later they would tell me that they were so glad that I opened the door, so am I.  From the start we opened the door to all the people who came, we asked people round for coffee (and wine) and we met everyone’s eye when they said they were sorry.  This was how we wanted it and this is how we communicated that to our friends.  Thank God.  We were clear about how we needed people to be with us and that has been so important in helping us to heal.  Lesson number two was don’t expect people to know what to do instinctively, show them what you need them to do.

My friend flew over from Australia for Jude’s funeral.  This was a huge deal and we were so grateful that she made the effort for us all.  Before she came, she had time to think about how to deal with us, as an academic she turned to books and articles to see “how to talk to bereaved parents”   She was so worried and nervous about saying the wrong thing that she read up on it.  Unfortunately there are no books tilted “How to talk to Fiona about the death of Jude”  and so all the things she thought she shouldn’t say, “at least you have Isla,” “He had a happy life,” etc were exactly the things she needed to say to me.  Lesson number three was that we all deal with things differently and there is no manual.

There are still one or two people who don’t know what to say because they have waited too long to get in touch.  They are probably waiting until we are feeling better and therefore easier to deal with.  All that’s happened though, is that too much time has passed.  I am a different person and they haven’t travelled the road with me so it will be awkward when we eventually do meet up.

The biggest lesson I have learned is not expect people to know how to react.  It is such an unusual situation and I know people will be nervous about saying the wrong thing in case it upsets me.  Saying nothing is the only thing that can upset me, avoiding my eye or pretending I’m not there will upset me.  Nothing can my make my situation worse but some kind words, a hug, or a chat about what people remember about my amazing boy will always make it slightly better.

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3 comments on “How to talk to a bereaved parent(?)

  1. What lovely friends you have Fiona. The right thing to do is always to come, to knock, to get on the plane.. I wanted people to come too, but I think there is a natural tendency for people to keep their distance – people would say, oh I’ don’t want to intrude… As though we were all inside doing something really important – when all I was doing was sitting looking at the walls thinking WTF.

    I also found it very comforting that Catherine’s life had been happy and full, except for the last few hours. We also decided very early on, within days, that we wanted to try for another baby, and I really needed people to say, 40 ain’t that old, go for it! The “what to say” crib sheets probably say “Don’t say you can have another baby”, “dont’ say she had a happy life” etc because it upsets some people and it can sound trite. I think the best advice is to be there and to listen. Listening offends nobody, and bereaved mothers carry a lot of pain, and have a lot to say.

    And most importantly, being a good friend is about being there for the long run… bereaved people can be sensitive – no wonder… but I find I am always more forgiving of anyone who has consistently demonstrated concern and care for us.

  2. Thankyou for writing this Fiona, I realise you’ve stopped now and are exploring other ways to support your broken heart so I’m not sure if you’ll get this. You’ve written about leaving the hospital with empty arms. Our daughter Freya died in June last year and we insisted on bringing her straight home with us. She lay on the sofa, friends and family coming to visit, her dog lying by her side and the funeral began from home. It was beautiful. If you speak to other families please let them know that this is possible albeit with some hefty talks with hospital staff. With love Belinda, saying Jude’s name out loud.

    • Thank you Belinda.
      I’m so sorry to hear about your daughter. I’m glad that you managed to have the kind of goodbye that you did.
      Xxx

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