Helping Bereaved Parents

How do you help parents who have lost a child? A mother and father in Jana O'Brien's community shared this practical list from their own experience of losing their son.

Doug and I were cracked open today when we learned another teenage boy from the community died. It brought us back to that very day and the first few weeks that followed and the utter shock we experienced when Corey died. For all those close to the family who want to do something to help but don't know what to do, here is a checklist that I just put together for loved ones of the grieving parents immediately following the death of a child. It's my public service announcement for bereaved families, and I hope it helps someone out there tonight:

  • Help them pick a funeral home and make the call. Set up the appointment for mom and dad to meet them. (The coroner will be calling soon and will need to know where to send their beautiful boy.)
  • Start a Go Fund Me or You Sharing page to raise money for the funeral. Funeral expenses are around $20K! 
  • By now, someone should have contacted the church (assuming there’s a church). We had a reception at the church immediately following the funeral for the general crowd but then had immediate family and very close friends at a local country club for dinner. Have someone organize/get pricing for the restaurant/country club dinner and book a place. Someone else can plan the menu, etc. The parents can’t make these petty decisions right now. Hopefully, the Go Fund Me page will raise enough to cover the costs. 
  • Buy some soft black slippers for mom to wear at the wake (it’s a lot of standing).
  • Ask mom what her dress size is and favorite stores to shop at and go buy her three outfits to choose from. Return what she doesn’t wear. 
  • Have a girlfriend go with her to pick out the flowers for the services. 
  • Check life insurance to see if they have a clause for their kids on the adult plan. 
  • Someone take the other children shopping for funeral clothes. 
  • Get the husband’s suit and shirt dry cleaned if needed. Buy a new tie if needed. 
  • Check with parents if they want this but it helped us a lot: Call the mom and dad’s doctor’s office and leave a message for the nurse that this tragedy has occurred and mom and dad are requesting anti-anxiety meds to be called into the local pharmacy. Tell them a follow-up appointment can be scheduled in a couple of months, but something is needed immediately. If they’ve seen their doctor recently, this shouldn’t be a problem. I still use Xanax to sleep a couple nights a week, and it helped with panic attacks in the first couple of weeks. 
  • Run the vacuum (there is a lot of foot traffic in and out). Don’t ask where is the vacuum; just go find it. Take out the trash. 
  • Keep the kitchen clean.
  • Keep a grocery list of “out of” things, and the next person who asks what they can do gets the grocery list. 
  • Keep a pot of coffee going with disposable cups for all the people coming and going. 
  • Get a stack of paper plates/napkins/utensils and keep it on the counter. 
  • Start a meal train through one of those online meal train sites (not every night or it’s too much food).
  • Put two coolers (one for hot, one for cold) outside the front door, and leave instructions on your meal train site to leave the food in the coolers and to please deliver by 5 p.m., etc.
  • Clean out the freezer to make room for freezer food. 
  • Check the fridge every couple of days for the first few weeks to clear out nasty leftovers. 
  • Assign someone to make the poster boards with pictures for the wake. (We had categories: family vacations, friends, dad’s side of the family, mom’s side of the family, the growing up years). Someone needs to go buy the poster boards and photo tape. Funeral homes have easels. 
  • Assign someone to sit at the computer and go through all the files of digital photos and put them in a Dropbox so that you can send them to Walmart or Walgreens to be printed for the poster boards.
  • Put all these digital photos on a thumb drive, and the funeral home will play the slideshow at the wake. 
  • Assign someone to make the “program” for the church after they’ve picked out all the songs and readings. They will need someone to do the readings. Ask who they want to do the readings (usually a cousin or close friend).
  • A close friend or family member should be working on a eulogy. 
  • Assign someone to order sandwich trays or food/snacks to have in the private family room for the family to eat during the wake. 
  • Put a basket at the house for cards that mom and dad can just keep all the cards in one place. They won’t remember reading the cards, but it’s nice for them to go back weeks or months later and read all the cards. 
  • If you notice something needs to be tidied up at the house, tidy it! Straighten shoes in the entryway, clean a toilet, buy Kleenex, and have extra boxes around the house. Re-stock the toilet paper. 
  • Have water bottles at the ready. (Lots of people coming and going.)
  • Don’t ask “what can we do”; just do it. Mom and dad can’t think for themselves right now. They can’t even remember if they asked you for something. Just make sure things get done that need to be done. 
  • Don’t’ try to “fix” them or “cheer” them up. They don’t want that right now. There’s nothing to say; just be there for them. Don’t’ be offended when they snap at you or can’t answer your questions. 
  • Buy mom and dad’s favorite alcohol and stock it. 
  • Sometimes they won’t want to eat; just heat up the food and put it in front of them. 
  • Make a couple of days lunches for their other children when they go back to school 
  • Sitting around with nothing to do? Strip a bed and wash the sheets. 
  • Have their son’s friends over to tell stories with their other kids in the room listening. 
  • Have a family member help them organize bills and pay the bills that are essential right now. 
  • Take the dog for a walk. 
  • Offer to drive the parents where they need to go; they probably shouldn’t be driving themselves right now. 
  • Assign mom and dad a "person" who is in charge of their needs at the wake. (i.e.: switch mom's shoes out for the comfy slippers after an hour or two in her dress shoes, tell mom and dad it's time for a break and hold the line up until they get back, walk the line and tell people that mom and dad want to hear stories about their son, give them lemon drops to suck on, sips of water to drink, etc.). 
  • Send a card. A day, a week, a month, a year later. Send a card. The old-fashioned kind with an envelope and a stamp. Tell them a favorite story about their child in that card. 
  • Don’t tell them you understand what they’re going through because your 95-year-old grandmother died and you were close with her.
  • Don’t tell them “it’s God’s plan” or “everything happens for a reason”. That doesn’t help at this moment in time. Just be there. 
  • Don’t tell them that “so and so’s kid died of the same thing”. They don’t care right now. Just be there. 
  • If you’re a close family or friend, don’t “stay away” to give them space. Stop by and see if there’s anything you can do. Sometimes just sitting there is good enough. An empty house is scary the first week or two for these bereaved parents