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Linda Waxler's practical advice:

No one is ever prepared to approach and talk to a bereaved parent. And no parent is ever prepared for the death of a child. It is our worst nightmare; we believe it is unsurvivable.

Our son Jonathan died in 1995 at the age of 26. For a long time, I have been convinced that many of us need training in dealing with parents who have lost children. There are so many misconceptions and fears. As a result, people tend to avoid the parents thinking, “I don’t know what to say.” Not only do we have to deal with our overwhelming grief but also with people avoiding us and friends abandoning us. It’s almost as if our grief is contagious. So I am prompted to document some important points with the hope that readers will be better able to deal with friends and acquaintances who are living this nightmare.

1. Grief is not really a process that one goes through a step at a time. Grieving is a roller coaster ride and it is circular. The first couple of years, we are numb. When the numbness goes away, we are shocked to see that the world has gone on without our child. When we come out of this numbness we are new people, slowly beginning to adjust to what has become our “new normal.”

2. We are parents without the right number of children. Adjusting to this could take years. Some of the emotions that grieving parents feel are fear, anger, guilt, sorrow, loss of future, isolation, abandonment—these are not steps that we work through but feelings that come back over and over again with different intensity and in different forms. There really is no “closure.”

3. When a parent loses a child, his heart is literally broken. A huge hole is left. This hole will never heal — only the jagged edges around the hole may heal with time. Our grief, not always in the same form and maybe not as intense, will be with us the rest of our lives.

4. It does not matter how our child died, whether he was 1 week old or 60 years old, or if we do or do not have surviving children. The loss of a child is an act against nature. The right order is that a parent should die first.

5. It takes a long time for most grieving parents to accept the fact that their child is dead. We can only allow the truth in a little at a time. This may take years.

6. Bereaved parents are no stronger than anyone else. We survive for many reasons. We may have other children; we need to be there for our spouse and other family members; we may feel that if we die, our child’s memory will die with us; but mostly we survive because we see no other choice. We loved our children with all our hearts, the same way any parent loves a child. It is not because we loved our child less that we survive.

7. What you say is not important—the important thing is to say something. Ignoring a bereaved parent is only adding to her burden. Just ask “How are you doing?” And, when a bereaved parent returns to the workplace, make sure that you stop by once in a while just to say “hello.” Remember, our “new life” is just in the infancy stage and it is a very difficult road ahead. Our grief is forever.

8. Call the bereaved parent just to let her know you are thinking about her. Don’t be insulted if the person does not call you. For years after a child dies, there are many days when the parent just does not have the energy to pick up the phone. Grieving is not only difficult but saps most of a person’s energy for a long period of time. Letters are helpful also. Most grieving parents appreciate those letters more than you can imagine.

9. Some people are afraid to mention our child’s name because they will “remind” us of our sorrow or because we might cry. You will not remind us because we never forget ; we are living it every minute of every day. And don’t worry if we cry; we will stop. You might want to cry a bit with us. We want to talk about our child. Mention his name. One of our biggest fears is that he will be forgotten and one of our biggest joys is to hear his name.

10. Everyone grieves differently. There is very little a bereaved parent does or feels that is not within the normal range. We seldom ask for help but if you listen and watch carefully, we will give out signals that will show what we need.

11. Never think that a grieving parent is holding onto his grief. We do the best we can and we move along as fast as we can but it is hard work—probably the hardest thing we will ever do.

12. Remember there will always be certain times of the year that will trigger immense sadness and overwhelming grief. Birthdays, anniversaries of the death, holidays, Mother's Days and Father's Days, weddings and funerals are just some. We can never prepare ourselves for these days. Sometimes they end up being easier than we thought they would be and sometimes harder. A simple “I am thinking of you and I know this day must be hard” goes a long way with bereaved parents.

Can you help? Yes! One thing you can do, besides being there for support, is to contact Compassionate Friends, a wonderful organization that forms groups of bereaved parents around the world. Here a parent can find comfort in the fact they are not alone and their feelings, no matter what they are, are shared by other members of the group. We learn we are not insane—our feelings are normal for bereaved parents. We cry together but we also laugh together. Ask for information about the group and offer to go with the parent to the first meeting. With the help of this group, I am becoming a new person and I am working hard on adjusting to my “new normal.” I can no longer see my son’s face except in pictures or hear his voice except on a family video but I am beginning to realize that Jonathan’s being and soul are nestled in the hole in my heart and that for as long as I live, he will be with me wherever I go.

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