Navigating the waters of loss & practical things to help your grieving loved one.
By: Rae Sells
I met Amy when I was 20 and living with my best friend, Leslie, in a little apartment in Elizabethton, TN. Amy was a newlywed and her husband was my soon-to-be-boyfriend’s best friend. She and I were opposites in every possible way. She was beautiful and well put together and I probably had on a tie dye that hadn’t been washed in longer than I care to admit. If you would have told us on the day that we met how close we would become, we would have laughed you out of the state. Flash forward to almost exactly one year later and that beautiful blonde would be fastening my pearls before I walked down the staircase to marry my husband. Our friendship is one of the most treasured things I have in my life.
Amy would have three kids by the time I finally got pregnant with my second daughter. I had joked with her that she needed to have a fourth so that we could be pregnant together. She called me one day and she said, “Well….it looks like you got your wish.” She had just found out that she was pregnant with her fourth and our youngest kiddos would only be five months apart.
This next part is written completely from my perspective. I would never presume to know Amy or Charlie’s point of view. This is the perspective of her best friend, Auntie, and someone who loves her and her sweet family deeply.
What would happen in the next few months were a blur. At Amy’s 20 week gender scan they found there were several issues with their sweet baby boy, Seth. The day after Christmas it was confirmed that Seth had Trisomy 18, which is considered incompatible with life. Amy chose to carry Seth as long as God would allow and even five years later, when I think back to that time, I remain in awe of her strength and grace. Amy was induced and I was just about to leave the house to go be with her when Charlie called to tell us that Seth had already passed away. I went to the hospital and Amy honored me greatly by asking me to stay in the room while she gave birth.
Being present in the room for Seth’s birth was one of the hardest experiences of my life. The room was quiet and the lights weren’t super bright like they usually are when you’re about to give birth. The doctor and the nurses were so amazing and gentle and respectful. There was a peace in that room that I cannot explain. I have never felt the presence of the Lord so clearly as I did that day. It felt like holy ground. I know that Charlie and Amy’s faith carried them through and continues to today.
Some days in your life are so significant that the memories of the day appear almost as snapshots in your mind. Or at least they do in mine. There are four moments in particular that are ingrained in my memory. The first is of Charlie rocking and patting Seth’s booty while they were cleaning Amy up after the birth. That’s just what you do with babies. It’s as natural as breathing. The second is the sound that Amy made when her mom came to embrace her after the birth. If I never hear that sound again that will be just fine with me. The third was seeing the tears roll down the doctor’s face after Amy had given birth. The fourth was the fierceness in which Charlie’s mom held my hand while we watched Amy deliver Seth. He was so small and beautiful. I stayed for just a little while and then left so that they could have time together with him, alone.
This was the first time I had been this close to loss and grief. I have had family members and friends pass away, but this was, by far, the most personal experience I have had with grief and a deeply hurting friend. Amy is much more like a sister to me than merely a best friend and I was absolutely desperate to be able to do something to help. I was terrified I would say or do the wrong thing. I reached out to friends that have lost children and begged for their wisdom on how to help Amy and Charlie. Mainly, I just didn’t want to say something or do something that would cause Amy anymore pain. As a general rule, people are super well-meaning when dealing with grief or other hard circumstances, but they can often say stupid things. Hurtful things. And they don’t mean to. They just don’t know what to say or do. So they offer platitudes and clichés and inspirational quotes. They try to fill the silence. Because the silence and the pain and the grief make them extremely uncomfortable. Grief is not pretty. Loss and deep pain make people nervous because they simply don’t know what to say. And most of the time you don’t really need to DO anything. You just need to show up. You need to make yourself uncomfortable to offer comfort to your friend. You need to hold that space with them. Grieve WITH them. Cry with them. Don’t shy away. They don’t have the luxury to escape their grief and the very least we can do for hurting people is to show up and hurt with them so they don’t feel alone.
So, what I’m writing next are some things that Amy told me helped her and that other friends who have lost loved ones offered me as guidance. I hope that they can be of help to you.
The Circle of Grief or the “Ring Theory”
This is probably the most important and invaluable thing I have EVER read about grief and loss. It is important. It is essential information. This is my explanation of the theory and I hope it’s clear enough that you can understand it. If I don’t do a well enough job of explaining it, then google “grief circle” or “grief ring theory”. The general idea is that when someone is grieving there is a circle of the people who are grieving. There are many rings to the grief circle. Envision a target. The center of the circle are the people most affected by the loss. In the loss of a child, then the center of the circle would be the parents and siblings. If the loss is of a parent, then the center of the circle would be the spouse and children. For this example, I will use the loss of a child. So, the center of the circle would be the parents and siblings. The next ring would be the grandparents and aunts/uncles. Next would be other family members. Then close friends and so on. When you are grieving you ALWAYS give comfort IN, and dump OUT. Meaning that if you are in the third ring, you offer comfort to the people on the inner two rings, and when you need to talk about your grief you dump OUT to a circle outside of you. I have talked to so many people that have lost loved ones and they almost universally agree with the ring theory of grief.
Social Media Etiquette
We live in a world where people can share their thoughts in a nanosecond from their phone…anytime, anywhere. This can be a wonderful thing. It can also be a very painful and inconsiderate thing. Under no circumstances do you EVER post condolences on any social media platform until the family has posted of the loss. EVER. Until they make an announcement you DO.NOT.POST. I have seen this happen numerous times where people start posting condolences on someone’s page and there are still family members that haven’t been notified that the person has passed away. The same goes with birth announcements. Until the parents have posted that the baby has been born you DO.NOT.POST. It’s not your place in either circumstance.
There are lots of things that have to be arranged when a loved one passes away. Most of those arrangements have to made by the family. There are things that someone else can handle. If you are close to the family and have the ability, volunteer to run interference for them. If you can give people your phone number for them to call and ask questions about arrangements, do it. It’s going to be hard for the grieving family to answer all the phone calls to ask how they’re doing, when the funeral arrangements are, where they can bring food. These are questions that you, as a close friend, can answer so that the family doesn’t have to. Since we knew the date that Amy would be induced with Seth, I set up a private Facebook group and added friends and family to it. I posted updates on her labor and other info that people wanted so that Amy and Charlie could concentrate on their family without getting a million texts and phone calls.
Another super helpful thing is something called a Meal Train. This is an amazing service that you can use for all sorts of circumstances. Death, birth, serious illness. There is something so comforting about having someone bring you a hot meal. You can use this website to set up meal deliveries for the family. You can personalize the page with any food allergies or dietary restrictions the family has and set up a schedule for the deliveries. People can put the meals they are bringing so everyone can see and they won’t get 42 pot roasts. There is also an option for people to donate money to the family to help with gift cards for meals or other expenses. The website is http://www.mealtrain.com.
This is a very personal decision that the family must make. If you know if advance that the family will be dealing with the loss of a child at birth, shortly after, or from an illness there is a wonderful organization that will come and take professional pictures for the family, free of charge. The organization is called “Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep”. The photographers are very kind and respectful and these images can be a treasured memory for grieving parents. If the family decides that they do want the photographers to come and it is ok with them, it might be helpful for you to be the one to call when it’s time. The parents might not have the presence of mind to make the call in the hours following the loss and it would take the burden off them for you to make the call and handle the paperwork.
Say Their Name
When our children are born one of the first things that people ask is, “What’s their name?” We spend hours researching and making lists of the perfect name for our babies. It’s not a decision we take lightly. We want our children to be known and this doesn’t stop when a child dies. I know that when you have a friend that has lost a loved one, your first instinct might be not to say their name because you don’t want to cause them pain. Please, say their name. They existed. They are their child. Just because you don’t say their name doesn’t mean they aren’t thinking of them, every minute of every day. Don’t let them feel like their child has been forgotten.
Sit with your friend and talk about their child. Cry with them. Let them know you are grieving with them. Let them tell you about them. I know it can be hard and uncomfortable, but HOLD THAT SPACE. Do not run away. Do not shy away because you are afraid of saying the wrong thing. You don’t have to say anything other than I love you and I am here. And then BE there. I remember one night in particular, a few days after Amy had gotten home from the hospital after Seth’s birth. Amy’s parents were there and Jon and I brought a meal over. After we had talked to everyone for a few minutes, Amy took me by the hand and we walked back to her bedroom. She locked the door and we sat down on the bed. She got out the special box that held all of Seth’s things. His footprints, the gown he wore, the blanket she wrapped him in, and the urn that contained his ashes. We sniffed the gown and marveled over how teeny his little feet were. And then she asked me if I wanted to hold him. She placed that tiny urn in my hands and we both just sat in silence and cried. I can’t even type that sentence without crying. This was a precious moment shared with the woman I love more than anything. That she would trust me with this most sacred moment took my breath. It still does. Say their name. Realize it is sacred and precious. Treasure and protect it. And always let them know you will never forget them.
This is a HARD one for me. I’m a fixer. I want to fix ALL the things. If you’re sad, I want to make you laugh. If you’re hungry, I will fix you 39 casseroles. If you’re burned out, I will take your kids and buy you a pedicure. Just BEING is hard for me. I want to DO something. Every year around Seth’s birthday I try to do something special for Amy. I either send her out for a day and keep the kids, get her a massage, buy her a little “happy”. This past May around his birthday I was fretting over what I was going to do for Amy. I was on the phone with my sister and I was talking 90 to nothing about what I could do for her. Should I send her to a spa? Should I get her a gift card for a pedicure? How about keeping the kids to send her on a date with her husband? While I was rattling away, my very wise and very blunt big sister interrupted me and said, “Rae….STOP!” I stopped, because I always do what my sister says. She said to me, “I know you love Amy and I know that you want to do something for her, but you CAN.NOT.FIX.THIS. There is absolutely nothing you can do to make this better. You can’t make her forget that she lost a child. You need to stop.” To be honest, it hurt my feelings. I got off the phone and cried. But she was right, as she always is. In my fury to make it better, I lost sight of the fact that nothing I can do can make this better. I can’t bring Seth back. A pedicure or a massage isn’t going to make her forget the fact that her son is not here. But what I can do is listen to her. I can talk to her about him. I can tell her that I love him and all her babies. And that I love her. You don’t have to fix it. Not only can you NOT fix it, you may end up making it worse. Your time, love, and acknowledgment are what your friend needs.
If you made it through this gigantic novel, thank you. I know it was long, but I hope that there is some little nugget in here that will help you help someone you love when they are grieving. I know that I didn’t do everything right when Amy lost Seth. Nothing anyone did could have made the loss of that precious boy any easier. But what I do hope, is that Amy and Charlie felt my love and that they know how much I love Seth. I hope they know that his Auntie will not forget him.