I am saddened by the tragic news of yet another school shooting. This one took place in my neck of the woods, where people that I know send their young children to school with faith that their kids will return home safely. Tragically, many of these parents' children did not arrive home on Friday and will never come home again. These parents will be planning funerals instead of play dates; will realize that their children saw their last and final Christmas last year. Their lives will no doubt be irrevocably changed.
During the first week or so following the death of someone's child, we are pretty clear about how to help that parent. I am concerned, though, that in our culture, we are at a loss for how to help these parents once the first week or so has passed. This is where I feel that I can be helpful both as a clinical psychologist and as a grown woman who has seen the memories of lost children be obliterated unintentionally by friends who just don't know the etiquette surrounding death.
There is a tendency to avoid people who have faced major traumas because we are afraid of doing the wrong thing. I get that. This, however, is a problem, because it sends the wrong message. It sends the message that we don't care and furthermore it leaves the grieving parents feeling lonely and unsupported. And, I do know that social support is the #1 most important factor in helping people deal with crises. Even if you are afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing, go see and make phone calls to the grieving parents anyway. They need you. Let them cry in your arms. Listen to their stories and feelings, even if this means sitting quietly with them for hours.
When you visit, bring food and maybe even meals. In the midst of the pain and chaos, the last thing on their mind is taking care of themselves. There may also be other children in the house who need to be fed. Offer to take the other children out even for an hour or two. This will give the parents and the other children a break and may even give the siblings an opportunity to say things that they wouldn't say in front of their parents. They, too, need to talk.
Ask the parents to tell you stories and show you photos of the lost child if they want to do so. Remember, they gave birth to these children, planned for their arrival home from the hospital after their birth and raised these children for years, even if these kids' lives were sadly and tragically abbreviated. They have no need to have their kids' lives erased or obliterated and sadly, I believe that that is what happens in many cases.
The holidays just around the corner are also a time that you can be helpful to these parents. Visit them, invite them to your home and bring little gifts that they might enjoy. Even heartbroken parents have a right to some of the joys of the holiday. The taste of a delicious chocolate might even give them a few seconds of pleasure.
I am so sorry that I needed to write this article at this time of year, but I felt compelled. I hope that some of the advice here helps you throughout your life, because sadly, life is full of joy, tragedy and the bittersweet. My heart and love goes out to everyone.