Years ago, my friends Janell and Scott faced a shattering loss when their son, pedaling home from school, was struck and killed by a drunk driver. As a friend who wanted to help, this devastating event also launched my vocation as a pediatric hospital chaplain. More important, it opened my eyes to a family’s capacity to find a way back from despair to wholeness.
I’ve been asked whether a family’s needs surrounding serious illness or loss of a child are any different than similar circumstances with an adult—and they do differ in some important ways.
We typically associate health crises and loss with adults, often older adults who’ve enjoyed, we hope, a long and fulfilling life. But with kids whose lives have barely begun, it feels so unfair.
So How Do We Help?
The prospect of stepping into a bereaved person’s space can be frightening. None of us comes fully prepared to face another’s grief. There are no easy formulas. Yet the first—and, perhaps, most important step—is to show up and trust that you have something to offer.
We hear the term healing a lot these days. Unlike cure, healing refers to an internal process drawing on one’s emotional, physical and spiritual resources. It’s about becoming free to move beyond brokenness. Healing may not change an outcome, but it increases wellbeing by nurturing feelings of safety, confidence, wholeness and hope.
The good news is we all possess healing skills that we can share: simple, powerful abilities that begin with a quiet presence and capacity to listen without judgment. When we value a bereaved parent’s questions about meaning and hope, we invite that person to consider the possibility of a future worth living.
Parents who lose a child are likely to respond quite differently from one another. Each might need a separate confidant with whom they can share grief or anger—another perfect opening to offer support.
Parents with a hospitalized child typically experience complete disruption of their lives. A mother spending weeks in a newborn intensive care unit worries about her other children at home. Who will deliver them to their dentist appointments? Who will be there to watch the baseball game or dance recital? There are so many ways others can provide respite.
Need for Hope and Support
When a family creates a CaringBridge site for their child, they are making a request that others can answer. They are saying, “We need support from our friends and loved ones. By connecting with us, you show us that we’re not walking this path alone.”
Those who lose a child often express a desire to honor that child’s life with something important. This can take many creative forms, from advocacy for children, to music, art, scholarships, child-focused foundations and more.
Meanwhile, my friends Janell and Scott, like many who face a life-changing crisis with their child, transformed their son’s death into a remarkable story of hope. Janell became a champion for Mothers Against Drunk Driving. She and Scott immersed themselves in Stephen Ministries, a grief ministry, through which they advocate for other parents. Today their lives are bursting with grandchildren, hockey games, graduations and joyful reunions.
They have confirmed for me a realistic meaning of hope. Time has shown me that hope is available to each of us. Unlike specific expectations, hope is about being expectant of future good. Hope believes that fulfilling life can emerge from even the most difficult circumstances. Hope is a gift we can bring to one another when we need a helping hand to hold the light.
New to CaringBridge and Wondering What We Do?
CaringBridge is a nonprofit social network dedicated to helping family and friends communicate with and support loved ones during a health crisis through the use of free, personal websites. Know someone who could benefit from starting a CaringBridge site to keep loved ones informed and get the love, and support they need?
A former director of chaplaincy at Children’s Hospital Minnesota, Mary has written five books, including “If I Could Mend Your Heart,” and presented at women’s leadership conferences, Parish Nurse Association Minnesota, the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, Augsburg College Integrative Medicine Symposium, and numerous grief, loss and support organizations.