Has a Bereaved Parent Ever Said This about You?
My Friend Just Sat There and Listened
Bob Baugher, Ph.D.
Des Moines, Washington
As a grief counselor and death educator for many years, I have listened to hundreds of bereaved parents speak about their grief. Often they tell me what helped and what didn’t. Mothers and fathers who have suffered the death of a child can be scary people to well-meaning friends and relatives. As we look into the eyes of a bereaved parent, we search our brain for something to say, something to do, something to ease our uncomfortable, awkward feelings. Often times what comes out of our mouths is not pretty—at least not in the eyes of a bereaved parent.
Virtually all parents have told me that, by the first year following the death of their child, they have heard just about every cliché in the book--“At least he didn’t suffer.” Or if he did, then, “At least you had him for 15 years.” Or if it was a baby that died, “God needed another angel” or “At least he’s in a better place now.” Why is this so common? I call it “brain pain relief.” Most people cannot handle keeping their mouth shut for long in the presence of a grieving person. The pain in their brain screams out to be relieved. “Say something—anything. You’ve got to find some way to make this not hurt so bad.” This often translates, “You’ve got to find some way to make me not hurt so bad.”
What can you do when you are face to face with a bereaved parent? There are many books out there on “How to Help,” but most nonbereaved folks don’t have time to read them. In this article I’m going to give a few simple, but specific guidelines. These come straight from the folks who know best: the hurting moms and dads who raise their hands in my workshop to share a snippet of their lives and who conclude with something like, “…I feel so fortunate that my friend has been there for me [and not offered clichés or advice].” I usually urge the mom or dad to get back to that caring friend and thank them and point out the specific behaviors that were so comforting. Many people who support bereaved parents don’t realize what a good job they are doing. So, if you are a bereaved mom or dad who’s had episodes of good support, call those folks after you’ve finished with this article and tell them exactly what they’re doing right. (Okay, so you’re reading this at 2 am. Call them in the morning—and, put this magazine down and get to bed).
What is this magic behavior that parents love you to do? I’ve already given it away in the title. “I knew that, already” you say. Sure, everyone knows it, but guess what? Few people actually do a decent job with “just sitting there.” Why? Because we cannot stand silence. In the Death Education course I teach I spend an hour giving my college students a lecture on “How to be a good listener to a bereaved person.” The first thing I write on the board is “Show you care.” Number two is, “Shut your mouth.” Number three is “Permit silence.” When I demonstrate sitting for a full 60 seconds saying nothing, it drives them crazy. Like most people, they can handle five or ten seconds. But 60? It’s tough. Try it some time. When you are with—I mean really with—a bereaved mom or dad, you do not have to fill the airwaves with words. Trust me. You don’t. I don’t have to tell you that the death of a child changes your worldview. Everything else is trivial. So when you and I come into the presence of a hurting parent and try to find something to make it better, we fail. We always will. When they cry, we need to let the tears fall.
Do you understand that the clergy have uttered well-meaning phrases to bereaved parents that literally have driven some of them from their religion? Fortunately today many people of faith have read books, taken workshops and courses on death and now know better. Of course there are still those folks of the cloth who don’t get it. Perhaps a parent can hand them this article.
What is the lesson here? When a parent is showing their grief, say little. Do not—I repeat do not try to fix it. The death of a child is completely and utterly unfixable. Do whatever you can to show support—touch, hug, be silent, do favors without asking, send them an “I remember” card on their child’s birthday or on the one-, two-, five-, ten- or more year-date of the death. If the mom or dad does not want to talk about what they’re going through, follow their lead. Sometimes a parent needs to talk about other things just to get through the moment. But, if you want to see a face light up, say something like this, “You know, I was thinking of [their child’s name] yesterday and it reminds of a story about him [or her].” One of the most beautiful sounds for a bereaved parent is when someone says his or her child’s name.
So, let’s summarize (You really know this already, but here are reminders):
1. Say little—nod your head, say “uh-huh” “I see” “Oh.”
2. Don’t judge, offer clichés, or launch into your own life woes.
3. Empathize. Sometimes supportive statements help:
“Really.” “That must’ve been hard.” “My God.” “Oh, no.”
4. Sometimes caring questions can help, such as:
“How are you doing? “How are you able to go on?” “What else should you be
doing now?” “What else are you worried about?”
“What are your needs at this point?” “What help are you getting?”
5. At any time, it’s OK to just sit and let the silence be. While it may be awkward, silence conveys very powerful messages. It says, “I’m here, I’m not in a hurry,
I’m patient, and I’ll wait for you to talk more when you’re ready.
If you do a good job of permitting silence, someday a bereaved parent may be in a workshop in which they are asked, “Who has helped you?” And guess what? That mom or dad may jump up and tell a story about this wonderful person in their life who really “got it.” With an appreciative heart that parent will describe a caring friend who didn’t judge, interrupt, or try to fix it. This parent will be describing you when he or she says, smiling through glistening tears, “My friend just sat and listened to me.” This is the greatest gift you give a bereaved parent.
Now get out there and shut your mouth.
Published in The Compassionate Friends Magazine We Need Not Walk Alone, Autumn, 2006.