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.