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CHAPLAIN’S CORNER - How to support grieving parents

By Chap. (Capt.) Joseph L. Wingo | 1ST INFANTRY DIVISION | July 11, 2017

     As a hospital chaplain, one of the most diffi­cult pastoral encoun­ters that I face is the loss of a pregnancy or a newborn baby. This can happen in a number of different ways, from miscarriages to what is called “neonatal death,” which happens in the first 28 days of life. Sadly, on average, 10 to 20 percent of all known pregnancies don’t make it to full term, and around 3 percent of all newborns die in the first month of life. Of course the loss of any child is a parent’s worst nightmare, but with first-time parents dealing with this type of loss, there are unique challenges involved.

     The first consideration is the fact that parents may grieve in different ways. About 25 percent of mothers and fathers consider a miscar­riage as a part of life and the emotional impact of the loss is not overly burdensome. Grief is still a part of their process, but after a short period of time they are ready to move on. About 75 percent of parents consider a miscarriage as a loss of a child and the weight of that loss can be very heavy. I have witnessed parents share their story about a miscar­riage that happened 30 years prior and they still continued to feel a sense of loss. As friends, we wish to support a couple in their grief, but find that we rarely know what to say or do.

     The key to supporting these couples is to meet them where they are at. Normally, parents or other affected family members enter into the stages of grief, which are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. A person can cycle through all of the different stages within a single day or be in a phase for weeks at a time. Remember that these phases of bereave­ment and grief can be felt for months and years. Anniver­saries of the lost child can be especially hard on a couple.

     A good way to start sup­porting a couple is to ask how you can help them without assuming what they feel or what they think. Some good questions are: “What would be most helpful for you right now?” or “Is there anything specific I can help with?” Don’t expect them to have an answer for you right away. It is normal for someone in deep grief not to be able to mentally process everything immediately — be patient. Words have power and the number one mistake I see is well-meaning people wanting to ease someone else’s pain by trying to say the right thing. Please don’t! As Emily Dickinson once said, “Saying nothing … sometimes says the most.”

     Statements like “You can always have more children” or “God just needed another angel in heaven” are never appropriate and can be very damaging. The best thing to do is to just be present and allow the parents to process their grief the way that is best for them. Let them do the talking and you do the listening.

     If you put these sugges­tions into practice, you will be a friend that a friend would want during this most difficult time.