When a Child Dies: How to Help a Grieving Family

It happens: children can get very sick or very badly injured, and sometimes they die. The loss of a child is generally viewed as the worst of all possible losses, with a devastating, long lasting impact on the parents and family. The death of a child affects hundreds of people – in addition to the parents and siblings, there are grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, neighbors, teachers, classmates, family friends and colleagues who will also feel the pain of the loss. Many of these people will want to reach out to help the parents, but may feel unsure of how to best do that. Here are some suggestions for helping bereaved families effectively.

It’s normal to feel helpless in the face of the profound grief of bereaved parents, says Susan Rudzki, a Squirrel Hill mother and grandmother who lost her own child, her son Gregory, at the age of 10, due to a misdiagnosed heart condition. Rudzki is a volunteer who has committed herself to comforting and supporting newly bereaved parents, through Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh’s Supportive Care Team, the statewide Pediatric Palliative Care Coalition and the SIDS Alliance. She also participates in an annual seminar for the physicians of Children’s Hospital, about how to talk to and support parents whose child has died.

Helping other parents, she says, is mostly about giving them hope. “If nothing else, talking to me gives them the hope that they can survive this,” she says. “Even when the pain is unbearable and they think they can’t survive, I’m living proof that it is possible. I’m just like them, I felt the way they feel, and I’m still here.”

If you know someone whose child has died, and you want to be helpful, Susan has some suggestions.

  • Do reach out to the parents and let them know you want to help. 
  • The best approach is to listen, without judgment. Let your friend cry, talk and express feelings. Sometimes the best response is silence.
  • Use the child’s name. It’s a comfort to hear it.
  • Remember that the death of a child affects an entire community of people. All of these people are grieving and need support for a long, long time.
  • Don’t ever say, ‘I know how you feel.’ No, you do not.
  • It’s best not to talk about God or offer religious advice. Keep your personal beliefs out of it.
  • Don’t be tempted to tell your story – it’s not helpful.
  • Do practical things to help, like bringing food, walking the dog or cutting the grass. Just help out quietly. Bereaved parents don’t even know what they need so don’t ask them; just do it.

When someone in a family has died, Susan Rudzki will stop by and bring boxes of tissues and beverages – water, soda and juices. ”It’s a way of saying go ahead and cry, it’s okay, and here is plenty of fluid to replenish your tears.” She also maintains that there is no timeline for grief, no schedule for “getting over it.” You never truly get over the loss of your child, she explains, but the grief changes over time and you learn to live with it. You also learn that your grief can bring unexpected lessons that deepen your compassion and sensitivity for others.

There are fortunately many resources in the Pittsburgh region for helping grieving parents, including online resources. The Pediatric Palliative Care Coalition, based in Pittsburgh, is an advocacy organization that promotes public awareness, education and improved care for children and families coping with chronic, complex and life-limiting illnesses; PPCC has an informative website and Facebook page with links to numerous resources. The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization has an online book, When a Child Dies, which offers simple, helpful ideas for supporting bereaved parents and siblings.  

Pediatric Palliative Care Coalition: www.ppcc-pa.org

National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization: www.nhpco.org