What Can I Do?

More than I care to, I get an email from someone asking what they can do for a friend who has recently lost a child. In the last six years, since the death of my first daughter, I have probably gotten this email just over a dozen times from just over a dozen different people. Each time, I go cold inside as I am propelled backward in time to a place that I wish I didn't know, but that is so much a part of me, the place that makes it possible for me to have an answer to the questions that these emailers are asking.

Unfortunately I got this email from a handful of people in my circle of friends just two days ago, and it occurred to me that this should not be a secret. People need to be told how to handle the unthinkable, and having been through it, I want to share what I unfortunately know. I answer these questions from my own experience. My first child died, she was an infant, it was unexpected. I am sure that some of what I'm sharing can be applied to other types of grief or loss, but these are thoughts about what was helpful or not helpful in the early and very raw days following the loss of my daughter. I share this with you in the hopefully unlikely event that you will find yourself the the place of wondering, "what can I do to support my friend who has lost a child?"

DO meet your friend where they are in their grief. You may have advice on how to approach the grief process, and it may indeed be good advice, but in the early days, your friend needs you to support him or her.  They need you to walk the road beside them. It may change moment to moment, and you may feel like you have multiple personality disorder trying to keep up with the changing mood of the moment, but what you are going through in trying to keep up is minute in comparison to what they are up against. Be there. Show up. Love them. That is enough.

DO say the child's name.  Say it often. Say it loudly. Don't be afraid. They NEED and WANT to hear their child's name.  Talk about their child, allow them to talk about their child. Never apologize for tears, they are healing.

DON'T share thoughts you have about how you would be handling the situation. It is natural to imagine yourself in their shoes in order to get your head around the depth of their pain. Though the sentiment is genuine and the intent is certainly loving, the grieving ears may hear such things as, "I don't know what I'd do if I lost ___" or "I can't imagine what it is like for you..." as rubbing salt in their wounds. Of course you don't know what you would do and you can't imagine what it is like, because you still have your world in tact.

DON'T say the words "at least..." Whatever you do, if you feel those words tickle your lips, stop talking. Just stop.  Nothing good comes after those words. Whether you are intending this or not, those words are minimizing the pain of their grief.  They are saying, "it could be worse." For the grieving person, it couldn't be worse. Or if it could, they don't want to know how.

DO help them with their day to day tasks.  In the earliest days, the simplest tasks indicate that time is moving ahead. For the person who is grieving, the world has stopped. Each moment passing means that they are a moment further from the last time that they held their child. This will change. For some it changes quickly, and for others it takes some time. Grief does not move on any sort of regular time table. So help your friend with things like grocery shopping, house cleaning, yard work, paying bills, laundry, anything that you do from day to day, they may need help with. It's not that they can't do it, it's just that grief can paralyze. There may be times that they feel like they need to do that stuff to feel "normal" again, and other times (like when they get a bill in the mail for the ambulance ride to the hospital where their child ultimately died) that they will not be able to bring themselves to write the check and mail it, or make a call to dispute it. Remember that you are walking the road beside them.  Some things that were particularly helpful to us, we had friends bring everything from toilet paper, to bottled water, to styrofoam coffee cups. There were always people around in the first couple of weeks, and we were happy to not have to worry about all the things we would normally worry about if we were "entertaining." For the first couple of months, our neighbors called us every time they went the grocery store. They made sure we were stocked up with the staples.  Do not underestimate the power of this gesture. You may not be able to find the right words to say, but you can support your friends by making sure they are cared for in their environment.

DO put important dates on your calendar and ACKNOWLEDGE them. A birth day, the child's due date, a baptismal anniversary, the date of the child's death. Send a card, say a prayer, give them a call.  That said, do not send sympathy cards on a birthday. This one is tough to explain, just trust me on it.  Just a nice blank card with the words, "we're thinking of you on this date as you remember the birth of ___." That's perfect.

DO Check in regularly. For us, most of our friends sort of disappeared and got on with their lives right away after the funeral.  We had been surrounded physically for about four days, and then suddenly everyone was back to their lives.  Our lives still had the brakes on. It is understandable, for sure, but it was really really hard.  So, do what works for you, but if you put it on your calendar or to do list each week to check in, it will mean a whole lot. And then remember, you are walking the road WITH them.

DO Tell them you love them. Tell them you're sorry. And if you don't know what to say, say "I don't know what to say." They will appreciate that far more than the attempt to find the "right" words.  I have to tell you a secret, there are no "right" words, nothing about the situation is right.  You don't have to try to eliminate pain or be inspirational. You just have to walk beside them. Meet them where they are. Love them.


  1. Thank you, Colleen. Just thank you.

    ~ Cynthia

  2. Thanks for doing this Colleen, and thank you for responding with so much caring and detail to Julia and I. We appreciate it is so much. Its a wisdom I wouldn't wish on anyone. One of Julia's and my friend lost her mom the same month my dad passed away. We were young, but not too young to sit and have lots of painful, deep conversations about it. Was it worse to not be able to say goodbye? Was it worse to watch a parent deteriorate before dying? All those questions, all the unfairness of it. You cannot imagine anyone else's pain. No matter how similar the experience (or different), there are so many different points of views and relationship pieces that change the experience a little for each person. It just plain sucks.

    I wish I was still in touch with you when Brady passed away. I would have walked with you, cried with you, and brought you toilet paper. I will still (not the tp - sorry!) because there is one thing that is the same. The pain never goes away. Your heart just heals AROUND the hole. I believe the hole stays as a reminder of the piece of you that is lost.

    Much lovin' to you.

  3. Beautifully written, as always. And so helpful.
    I never told you this, but I don't know which bench is "Brady's Bench" so I have kind of made a lot of benches her bench. I never run or walk Nokomis, but I do lake harriet all the time. And there are certain benches that I run by and think of as her bench. And I think about you and her when I run by. And there are others that I think of as "Julia's bench" - another young person who I loved and lost.
    I think about you more often than you know. I'll try to get better about letting you know. :) Anyway. Thanks.

  4. This to me it the brilliance of your post:

    DON'T say the words "at least..." Whatever you do, if you feel those words tickle your lips, stop talking. Just stop. Nothing good comes after those words. Whether you are intending this or not, those words are minimizing the pain of their grief.

    I will remember it always.


  5. Colleen, thank you for this thoughtful post. You are an amazing person.

  6. I always tell people to bring something at first. Food, flowers, whatever they think is appropriate. But, do it again in a month. Send a card or a note in six months. And at a year.

    In those first days when you walk outside and the world is going on as if nothing has happened, it's...unthinkable. But at least people understand. But after a few weeks, even those who know, have to move on too. And I think most of us understand it.

    But there's something so special about someone remembering after time has passed.

  7. I hope that comment made sense. Sometimes thinking about this topic sends me back and I'm not sure I'm as coherent as I'd like to be.

  8. Great post on such a difficult subject.

  9. I love this Colleen... I also think a major DO is to ask the person three things only they knew about their baby/loved one. It is such a healing gift to be able to speak freely about our children... to say their name... to share a story... a simple moment... that is how their little spirits continue to grow and their legacies shine bright. Thank you for your voice Colleen!!!

  10. Wonderful and thoughtful tips. A former coworker's son was murdered on Christmas Eve several years ago, and people kept saying "Does she have another child? Oh, well that's good." Another coworker who lost her son to cancer would get so aggravated because it didn't matter. You've still lost your child. I can't fathom the grief.

  11. Ellie Holzemer RussellApril 14, 2011 at 9:13 PM

    Thanks for this post, Colleen. I actually think a lot about Brady and your situation. Can't believe she would've been 6.

    (Sorry if this posted twice!)

  12. Dear Colleen, I've been a long time radio fan and just discovered your blog thanks to Jason M. I have read a few days back and plan on reading more. All I can say is you were not only meant to parent twins, but you were meant for me to find this today. You see, I have been cooking and packing up a meal to take to a family that lost a 10 year old. I struggle to make sense, wonder why, wonder what else I can do. Your blog was just what I needed. Thank you so much. I will continue to follow your advise and your future blogs!


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