Special needs parenting is a place of grit, a place where we experience working out our salvation and God’s embrace in a way that many people don’t understand or know how to react to. I do not know of a better person to speak on this topic than Elissa Bjeletich.
In addition to being a published book author and rockstar podcaster on Ancient Faith Radio (her show, Raising Saints, is bursting with helpful information), Elissa is a mom to five kids on earth, and two with God. One was lost to miscarriage, the other to SIDS. Also, some of her children who remain on earth have had major health challenges that have required surgeries and long hospital stays to fix.
Here is the piece she wrote on supporting a friend who is grieving the loss of a child. While parents require different types of support depending on the source of their grief (whether it’s an overwhelming diagnosis or the actual loss of a child), Elissa’s suggestions below are profound and useful, and I believe they hearken to a thoughtful, humble mindset, which would be welcomed across the board.
Without any further ado, here’s Elissa.
The Valley of the Shadow of Death: Supporting Grieving Parents
by Elissa Bjeletich
Prince Harry recently sent a letter to a grief-stricken mother. He’d met her son at an awards ceremony last year, and when the boy passed away, Prince Harry wrote:
“I was so very sad to hear the tragic news. Carson made such an impression on me at the Wellchild awards last year with his warm smile and hugs. He showed so much happiness with such a positive outlook, despite the challenges he faced. Carson was a wonderful young boy and I am delighted to have had the chance to meet him. I wanted to let you know how sorry I am to hear of your loss and pass to you my heartfelt condolences.”
As a mother who has lost a son, I wholeheartedly approve of this letter. We struggle so much to know how to speak to grieving parents, and this is an example of a really successful communication.
He speaks of her son by name.
So often, we are afraid to speak the name of a lost child, as if bringing them up will somehow reignite a parent’s grief. Rest assured, we think of our lost children by name all the time, and hearing you say the name and knowing that you are also thinking of our child, helps to bring us out of our isolation. We are grateful when we hear you speak that precious name.
He recalls specific events and qualities about her son.
When our children die, they disappear. They’re no longer here with us, and sometimes it feels like we are the only ones who remember them. We yearn for some kind of permanent mark to establish that they were here, that they were an important part of this world. It is so reassuring to know that our children are remembered by others.
He recognizes her loss and offers genuine sympathy.
He doesn’t avoid her pain or dismiss it; he offers his condolences, simply and kindly recognizing that while the world has lost a wonderful boy, this woman suffers the loss like no other. Her maternal grief is special and tremendous.
He doesn’t attempt to fix or limit her grief.
He doesn’t ask for anything. Prince Harry’s letter is not about Prince Harry. He’s not looking to be reassured or to have his friend back. He doesn’t suggest ways to get over her grief or offer an appropriate timeline. Why would he? That would be absurd. And yet, when we lose our children, it doesn’t take long for our families and friends to tire of the new ‘us.’ It takes a lot of time and energy to process the loss of a child. We all know that we are watching profound, earthshattering pain, and yet we lose patience with the process. We get tired of waiting for this grief to heal up or at least to make some progress toward healing. Know that bereaved parents are impatient to heal too, and tired of being stuck in this dark place, but the timeline is what it is; there is no hurrying it along.
Bereaved parents retreat into a dark place, and as much as they need you to spend time with them and to listen to them, they aren’t really in a place to reciprocate. It can be hard work to maintain a friendship with a grieving parent, but know that your efforts are appreciated and that they truly make a difference.
We never know what to say in this situation, so let’s follow Prince Harry’s model. Let’s say the child’s name, recall specific stories, and acknowledge the parents’ grief without imposing limits or requests.
Outside of that, we might prefer listening to talking, because it’s hard to know what’s useful and what’s not. When my son died, well-meaning friends assured me that, “God needed another angel.” Perhaps some parents would find that helpful, but to me it sounded like God was being accused of kidnapping my child to bolster His ranks. (Notably, people don’t become angels when they die. Angels existed before we ever did, and they’re bodiless, amazing creatures. My kids used to tell well-meaning folks in the grocery store not to say that their brother became an angel; they would add that he didn’t become a giraffe or an elephant either.) While it’s useful to acknowledge grief, it’s not ok to tell someone that you ‘don’t know how they get up in the morning’ (are you suggesting I not get up tomorrow? are you hinting that I should commit suicide?) or worse, to say that God must have known that I was strong enough to take it. I know that you are afraid to lose your child, and that you are reassuring yourself that God won’t take your child because you’re not strong like me, and I see how you must think that this is a compliment, but it doesn’t help me. Don’t tell us that our child’s death is part of God’s wonderful plan. Don’t invite us to blame Him for this tragedy.
Here is a helpful rule of thumb: if it begins with ‘well at least,’ don’t say it.
This includes, ‘well at least he died very young, before you got used to having him around’ as well as ‘well at least he lived long enough to…’ and ‘well at least you can have more children.’ If you find that you are thinking or saying, ‘well at least,’ stop. Keeping quiet does more than prevent a mistake; you’re creating an opportunity to listen.
Bereaved parents are stuck in dark places, and most people cannot bear more than a quick peek into the abyss. They stop coming. What a grieving parent truly needs is a friend who will come into the dark place and sit quietly, patiently beside them. The parent may need to rant or to cry or to talk about something else. Their needs shift and change all the time, and a quiet, patient friend who can take whatever comes is of tremendous value.
When my son died, sometimes I just wanted to laugh cynically. I had one friend who would join me occasionally for a drink, and we’d sit and laugh over the absurdity of all of it. I still find it funny: people would complain that their babies never slept, and here I was with a baby who never woke up; people complained that their children grew up too fast, and there was my baby, not growing up at all. It was terribly sad and it was also ridiculous and unfair, and sometimes laughing about it with my friend was the best medicine for me.
When we lose our children, we need friends who are strong enough to take what comes: one day it’s anger, the next day it’s tears or sarcasm or just quiet despair. We are broken and brokenhearted, and working through a loss so profound and complex that we will literally never be the people we used to be. It’s a process; we have to grow to accommodate this grief. It doesn’t go away, and it doesn’t really lessen, but eventually we grow into a person who can carry it. That takes a long time, and it’s not a problem to solve but a process to endure.
When you lose a child, you learn which of your friends is willing to walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death with you, and which are not. If you can be that friend to someone, if you can be the patient lifeline that keeps someone connected, please do. Surely you will benefit from the experience as well, and our Lord will reward your efforts.