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Supporting a Bereaved Family

Helping a family who has lost a child to cancer is one of the most important roles a friend can play. But it is often hard to know what to say or do. Everyone grieves differently, and each family member has different needs.

Father holding two children protectively

Everyone grieves differently, and each family member has different needs.

Be There

Grief is a personal journey. Only those who have experienced the loss of a child to cancer can truly understand. But the simple presence of another person can be a source of comfort. Being there can mean many things, but the most important thing is to communicate that you care. Often, family members want to spend time doing something “normal” like going on a walk, out to dinner, or to a movie. Don’t worry if you don’t know the “right” thing to say or do, just be there.

How you can help a grieving family
  • Be there.
  • Talk less, and listen more.
  • Remember the child.
  • Accept that all emotions and responses are normal.
  • Offer specific and practical help.
  • Keep track of meaningful dates.
  • Help siblings.
  • Think long term.

Talk Less, and Listen More

It is natural to talk when nervous – filling pauses in conversation with words to reduce awkward silence. People grieving the loss of a child need someone to listen and hear them – who is fully present and free of judgment. Acknowledging a bereaved family member may be as simple as saying, “I’m sorry.”

Remember the Child

What a bereaved family wants to hear is 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. However, 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 didn’t know the child, acknowledging the child’s life is important.

Accept that All Emotions and Responses Are Normal

The full range of emotions bereaved family members experience is normal. Culture often teaches that people need to be strong in grief and that showing emotions is a sign of weakness. At the same time, not everyone looks sad and some may even seem dispassionate. Accepting any and all expressions of grief is one of the most important ways to support those coping with loss.

  • Understand that grieving is personal.
  • Allow family members to show sadness, anger, detachment, frustration, and any other emotion without judgment.
  • Do not question validity of feelings or responses.
  • 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 Specific and Practical Help

If offering help, it’s best to be specific. Many people offer general help. “Let me know if there is anything you need” is a phrase heard repeatedly. The offer may be sincere, but the family may not respond – because either they are too overwhelmed to think of something specific or they do not want to impose on others.

A specific offer shows a genuine 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.
  • 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 – and most support comes in the early weeks and months. In the months and years following 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 the long term. Simply checking in on the date can be comforting. Offering to bring food or help with a specific task on or before the significant date may also be a source of comfort. When offering support, understand that these invitations may not be accepted as some families prefer to spend these days alone.

Help Siblings

Like the adults around them, children who have lost a brother or sister to cancer experience a range of emotions including anger, guilt, and isolation. Friends can only help with so many of these feelings, and some siblings may need a professional counselor to support them in processing their emotions. However, friends can help in different ways including:

  • Be there to listen and show that you care.
  • Help them maintain their regular routines. Many siblings simply want comfort by being able to maintain their normal routine of school, activities, and friends. Online organizers such as Lotsa Helping Hands can help friends sign up to take kids to school, pick them up from practice, or have them over for play dates This can provide significant emotional and organizational support to the siblings as well as the parents.
  • Invite them to special outings—the movies, the beach, a baseball game. Suggest activities that they like but haven’t often been able to do because the family has focused on caring for and now grieving for their sibling.
  • Understand that like adults, the sibling’s grief process will likely be long. Continue to extend invitations and show your support.

Think Long Term

Bereaved families need ongoing support from their friends and support communities. For families who have lost a child, the grief does not end. The pain and loss is always there, although families learn to cope and adjust to a new way of living as a bereaved parent, sibling, or grandparent. As a member of their support community, commit to being there with them on the journey.  

Reviewed: June 2018