I've had so many loved ones express their heartfelt concern in not knowing what we have needed in this time of grieving the loss of Levi. I'm sure it is very difficult to discern what grieving parents need from their support system. Life brings with it the very sure reality of death, and so I thought I would share, for all those who find themselves in the support system of grieving parents, some things that do and don't help, things that are and aren't needed. Of course, these are my suggestions in my own situation and with my own preferences. It is always best to just ask the grieving person if something would/would not be helpful/needed if you are unsure. And for those who have been forced to drink this bitter cup, I would like to share things that have been helpful for us in a future post.
For the support system:
-Your prayers mean so very much, and knowing that you are praying is a great support. I don't pretend to know how it all works, but I do know that God uses your prayers to tangibly aid those who are suffering. Your prayers are effectual, and God uses them to provide His comfort, peace, and a host of other basically miraculous things in the midst of a crisis. Keep praying. Keep praying past the point where the initial shock has worn off for you, because the parents are only just beginning their intense struggle towards healing.
-Ask about the baby. Use his/her name. We want so badly to talk about him. All. the. time. And right away in any conversation. He is always at the forefront our minds, just like any parent who has just had a baby. Ours is just no longer with us, sharing the same air. If a conversation goes very long without any mention of the baby, we tend to feel like it he isn't a welcome topic. We know it is difficult and less-than-desirable to talk about someone's dead baby...It's not comfortable, and I'm sure it's hard to know what to say. So, we tend to retract from bringing him up ourselves because we don't want to make people uncomfortable or sad. So, take the lead, and bring him/her up. Tell them when something reminds you of their baby. Tell them about how their baby affected you. There are no memories of the baby to share with people, so the only thing we have to share is the sad reality of the loss, the footprints of his tiny, lifeless feet, the journey with the Lord since the loss, and the impact that their life and death has had on the world.
-Initially, meals are such a major practical help. There are days at the beginning where you don't remember or bother to shower, brush your teeth, or do even the most minimal, normal daily task. Meal planning, preparation, and making shopping lists are way out of the picture. But, alas, you still need to eat, even if you have no appetite. Even 6 weeks after losing our little one, it is difficult for me to think ahead (or to think clearly enough) to grocery shop and make meals. I just went on the first grocery shopping trip since losing Levi a couple weeks ago (one month after he died).
-Pursue relationship with the parents. I know it must be really hard to choose to enter the darkness and pain surrounding the parents who have lost their baby, and it is a great blessing for people to choose to do so. In grief, it is difficult to reach out to others. It's far more natural to become a regular ol' hermit, not make phone calls or pursue getting together with people, but that's not because company is not wanted in the valley. At least for me, I needed and need friends and family to pursue me through phone calls, texts, asking to come over, etc. It's so necessary and important to talk through all your feelings, everything that happened, what God's doing, etc. with people over and over again and continually for a good long time after the initial tragedy occurs. We noticed the very natural and understandable drop-off in most peoples' communications with us after the first week/week and a half after we lost Levi, and it was a difficult transition. After a week or so went by without visitors or calls, I found myself pouring out what happened to Levi to a neighbor I had never talked with two doors down and then again to our mailman. Yes, our mailman. Embarrassing. I'm pretty sure he's going to avoid me for the rest of time. When it seems like things are getting back to normal, press on and continue to pursue, pursue, pursue, because I can promise that things are still far from normal for them. When the initial horror and sadness have passed, and it seems like the parents are doing much "better," press on. They are still in the trenches.
-Mementos, meaningful gifts, and gifts that memorialize the baby are so very sweet and precious to parents. We received a keepsake box from the hospital with handmade gowns, blankets, his matching hospital bracelet, and a tiny hat, all just Levi's size. It is so very dear to us. Sweet friends gave us little treasures, a Build-a-Bear a couple had made for us and named "Levi Bear" so that "our arms would not feel so terribly empty" [sigh....how sweet and thoughtful was that?!], a Willow Tree figurine of an angel holding a little brunette boy in her arms, a crocheted hat to match his big brother's... These are all things we will treasure forever. So, when you see something or think of something that would honor the baby, be meaningful to the parents, or reminds you of their child, grab it up! So maybe this is just me, but do you remember being asked what you would take with you if your house was on fire? Why do I remember this? Was it some morbid childhood game? Anyway... I used to think I would take my pictures (since that was in the caveman days before digital cameras). Today, it would be my Griffin and the keepsakes for Levi...his footprints, the keepsake box, the teddy bear....
-Share with them how their loss has impacted you. By default, being part of their support system and being their loved one, you've suffered a loss too. What is God doing in your life through this? What impact have those little feet had on your heart, in your world? This means so very much to us. When you lose a baby, you so badly want to see God use their life and their death for good, to bring about something beautiful. You long to see, taste, touch the fruit that has grown from the seed in the cold, hard ground. I want to see and understand what has come from Levi's life and death, if only just a small fraction of it. I want to know more and more ways that he mattered, and not just to me.
*(added after a suggestion by a mother who lost a baby many years ago and has walked this road much longer than I have:) Remember the baby's death and birth days/"anniversaries" and due date for those who have lost babies in pregnancy. Not only will February 29th (Levi's day of death) and March 1st (Levi's day of birth) be difficult days each year, but the 29th and the 1st of every month in this first year are very large hurdles as well. The Lord was gracious and made Levi's day of death Leap Day, and so we will not have a "death anniversary" to get through each year...just once every 4 years. Levi's due date was July 20th, which I'm anticipating will be a rough, rough day, trying to just remember to breathe through a day that commemorates all the dashed dreams, all the crushed anticipation and excitement, all the hopes for my life with my Levi baby. For those who lost a baby during pregnancy, ask them what their "flip day" was. (Their flip day is the day of the week when they went to the next week in pregnancy, when they turned from 20 to 21 weeks for example. Almost every pregnant woman will be able to tell you their flip day, and it can be an especially hard day of the week for those whose pregnancies came to a sudden and bitter end.) Thursday is my flip day with Levi; every Thursday, I think about how many weeks I would be and how many weeks would be left until he was due. I think about how big my belly would be and what size fruit Levi would compare to. I think about what things I would be experiencing, and I look back at belly pictures of my pregnancy with Griffin to imagine what I might look like. So, all that to say that it is very touching when people remember these different "anniversaries" and text/Facebook message/call/(and even better...)visit to help you get through those days. Upon the year anniversary of the baby's death and birthday, I can envision it being extremely important for loved ones to make an extra effort to memorialize the baby and support the parents. Try to be with them, send a card or a thoughtful gift in memory of the baby, or something. As Levi's parents, we want so badly for him to be remembered, not to be forgotten just because he wasn't able to spend time much time alive with us. He matters just as much to us and to the Lord as the little old lady who lives to 110. So, it is very appropriate to remember his birthday just as you would Griffin's. Those who have lost a baby count that baby as one of their children, which is why it becomes difficult to answer the question, "How many children do you have?" And the special days that commemorate the baby that didn't make it are just as important to the parents as the special days that celebrate their living children. I haven't walked that part of the journey yet, so I can't speak from experience here, but I am more speaking out of what I can envision being helpful.
-Don't avoid them or the topic of the baby, the loss. This is basically covered in the paragraph at the top.
-Don't take it personally if you feel like your conversations are one-sided. Grief is a very self-centered thing, and the griever is likely keenly, painfully aware of this. It will get better, and the griever will slowly begin to think of/ask about your life again. Just give it time, and try to be patient and understanding. I know this must be hard. Know that the grieving parent is probably aware, sad, and frustrated that they can't seem to think of/talk about anything else but the baby, the loss, for very long. I know I very often feel like a self-centered friend in this season, and I feel so guilty for that a lot.
-Also, don't take it personally or be offended if the parent isn't able to share in your joy to the extent that you rightly desire as a loved one. This is related to the above issue. It is very, very hard to feel the proper positive emotions for others when you are in such a dark place yourself. Try, try as the griever might, their emotions aren't stabilized or responding normally for some time. I've had very dear friends have beautiful babies in the month after we lost Levi, and although we are thankful for God's blessing to them and we rejoice in the precious gifts they are, our joys are very muted and we struggle to express the correct emotions at the correct time, if that makes sense. Know that the grieving parents want so badly to rejoice fully, completely with you, but they are being bridled by deep sadness and their own, unwillingly self-centered grief.
-Don't try to "fix it". As they are your loved one, it is natural and comes out of good intentions to want to see the grieving parents healed, whole, and happy. But, you must, although it is difficult, allow them to go through their process with the Lord in grieving and healing. Yes, their baby is with the Lord, the very best place to be. Yes, the baby will never know a tear or day of suffering. Yes, the grieving parents still have so much to be thankful for...salvation, each other, family, food, shelter, etc. etc. But the reality is that they have a gaping wound that needs time to heal. Having many other unscathed body parts doesn't change the fact that the giant, bleeding wound is throbbing and sore. Yes, they are still thankful for the gifts in their life, the grace they have been given, but the loss is big, ugly, and painful. C.S. Lewis says that when mothers lose babies, they are given the spiritual mercy of knowing their baby is with the Lord in perfect peace, and yet their role as a mother of that child must be sacrificed. It's my natural, God-given role of motherhood to Levi that must never be satisfied. So, while I understand that my baby is in the best place possible, I ache with the separation, the harsh division of our lives, the ugliness and wickedness of death. This is not a season of celebration. I recently read an article from, I believe, "Christianity Today" about the very recent trend away from funerals being a time of mourning and towards funerals being a time to celebrate the fact that the deceased is in heaven. Please hear me when I say that I do understand this, and I'm not saying it's wrong. I am saying, though, that death is a consequence of sin, and it is an ugly result of the fall. It is very appropriate to grieve and mourn the death of a loved one, and you do not need to feel forced to celebrate at that time. Of course, we intellectually take comfort in the fact that Levi is with the Lord, but we do not celebrate him being taken from my expectant body by death. Jesus showed us his approach to the death of a loved one with his friend Lazarus. So, try not to press too heavily on the grieving parents' to celebrate their child's arrival in heaven. Let them weep as Jesus wept. Let them be "deeply moved" as Jesus was "deeply moved."