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How to Support a Grieving Family

Families grieving the death of a child have many needs. You may wonder the best way to help. It is hard to know what to say or do.

Everyone grieves differently.

Father holding two children protectively

Simply being there is one of the best things you can do to support a grieving family.

Help a grieving family by being there

The simple presence of another person can be a comfort. Being there can mean many things. The most important thing is to show that you care.

When talking to a family member, ask that person how they are doing today. Adding “today” to the question allows the grieving person to answer the question rather than hiding behind a pleasantry. Do not be afraid to ask. Be ready to listen.

Do not forget to ask siblings how they are doing. People often ask siblings how their parents are doing. Also, people sometimes ask parents how the other parent is doing. Every person in the family is grieving.

Family members may want to spend time doing something “normal,” such as going on a walk, out to dinner, or to a movie. Do not worry if you do not know the “right” thing to say or do—just be there.

How you can help a grieving family:

  • Be there.
  • Talk less. Listen more.
  • Remember the child.
  • Accept that all emotions and responses are normal. Do not negate feelings in an attempt to comfort.
  • Offer specific and practical help.
  • Keep track of meaningful dates.
  • Help siblings.

Talk less and listen more

People grieving the loss of a child need someone to listen and hear them. Be fully present and free of judgment. Acknowledging a bereaved family member may be as simple as saying, “I’m sorry.”

If you do not know what to say, it is OK to say that. Try something such as, “I don’t have any words right now. But I’m so glad you are letting me share this time with you.”

Remember the child who died

A bereaved family wants to hear that their child is not forgotten. People often avoid saying the child’s name or talking about the child out of fear that it will make sadness worse.

But it brings families comfort to know that their child is remembered. Mention the child in natural conversation. Talk about specific memories, special characteristics, or funny stories. Even if you did not know the child, acknowledge the child’s life. Maybe say, “Tell me a story about …”

Accept that all emotions and responses are normal

Culture often teaches that people need to be strong in grief and that showing emotions is a sign of weakness. Not everyone looks sad. Accepting all expressions of grief is one of the most important ways to support those who are grieving.

  • Understand that grieving is personal.
  • Allow family members to show emotions without judgment.
  • Give space for change in emotions day to day, moment to moment.
  • Do not expect a certain response or for grief to be better “by now.”

Offer practical help to a grieving family

Be specific. Many people offer general help. “Let me know if there is anything you need” is a common phrase. The offer may be sincere. But the family may not respond. They may be too overwhelmed to think of something specific. They may not want to impose on others.

A specific offer shows a real interest in helping. Some suggestions include:

  • Do household chores, such as laundry, house cleaning, or taking care of the family’s yard.
  • Take a sibling out to do something fun.
  • Offer to help with homework.
  • Bring dinner on a specific date.
  • Provide ongoing or regular help, such as picking kids up at school.

When you extend an offer, be sure to follow through.

Keep track of meaningful dates

Losing a child to cancer is not something any family forgets. The grief process is lifelong. Most support comes in the early weeks and months.

In the months and years after a child’s death, certain days will be more difficult for families—holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, or other special days. Keeping track of these dates and offering support can be a good way to help a bereaved family over time. 

Simply checking in on the date can be comforting. A simple text saying, “I am thinking of you today,” can mean a lot. Offering to bring food or help with a specific task on or before the significant date may also be a comfort. But know that these invitations may not be accepted. Some families prefer to spend these days alone. 

Help siblings of the child who died

Siblings who have lost a brother or sister to cancer have a range of emotions. These include anger, guilt, fear, loneliness, and isolation.

Friends can only help with so many of these feelings. Some siblings may need a professional counselor. But friends can help in different ways, including:

  • Be there to listen.
  • Help them keep their regular routines.
  • Invite them to special outings—the movies, the beach, a baseball game.
  • Understand that like adults, the sibling’s grief process may be long. Continue to extend invitations and show your support.

Grieving families need ongoing support from their friends and support communities. For families who have lost a child, the grief does not end. Pain and loss are always there. Commit to being there with them on the journey.  

Key points about supporting a grieving family

  • Families grieving the death of a child have many needs.
  • Talk less and listen more.
  • Accept that all emotions and responses are normal.
  • Offer practical help.
  • Keep track of meaningful dates.

Reviewed: August 2023