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What to Never Do When Someone You Love Loses a Child

02/05/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Just a few days ago, I sent off my column for the New Year entitled "Beginning Anew." I don't know if you caught it or not. But, in case you didn't, the essence of it has to do with entering the threshold to a new time, and doing so purposely. This means paring down all that is off purpose, in order to what has sustaining value.

Sometimes, the paring down comes from a Force greater than us. Sometimes, what is stripped away is the very thing we feel we cannot live without. Sometimes, we lose a child. At these junctures, it may be very difficult to comfort ourselves with the thought that there is purpose in this death. Particularly, when the death is that of a child.

This is the plight of John, Kelly and Ella Travolta. Our hearts go out to them. When a child dies, it is the most natural thing in the world to reach out, to struggle for words, and ways of comforting the family. Unfortunately, there are things that you can do which do not comfort, but only deepen the pain of the death. Lest this be inflicted on John Travolta's family, and those you know, I share the following.

Before my own son was killed nearly 18 years ago, I had studied the bereavement process, done grief work with Elisabeth Kubler Ross, and worked with a number of bereaved parents. That said, I knew nothing. Not until my own son was lost. In fact, a few hours after he died, I remember saying to my friend: "This is surreal. I feel like I've gotten trapped in the audience of that Oprah Winfrey show on bereaved parents. This can't be happening in my life!" I also remember telling my 8 year-old daughter that her brother was gone. I will never remember her tears, or words, when she said: "Mommy, it's raining in my heart."

So, if you know someone who has lost a child, and you feel inept, like the friends of the John, Kelly and Ella Travolta must feel, know that you are not alone. No words, no acts can take away the canyon in their heart. Trust me. The process takes a lifetime. Death of your child is something you do not ever 'get over.' You either give up on life when it happens, or you choose to grow through what has happened, and go on to deepen your contribution. Before Elisabeth's death, I shared with her that I've found a Sixth Step to her five step bereavement cycle. The sixth is all about creation. It does not happen overnight.

What Not to Do.

1. Never, ever say "He/she is in a better place." That may comfort you, if you are a believer, but it does not touch the fact that your friend is sitting in the middle of the worst experience a parent can have. Instead, if it is honest, simply say something like "There are no words for what you must be experiencing." Stay out of your head, and go into your heart.

2. Never, ever keep a stop-watch on someone's grieving. You do not know, anymore than they do, how long healing may take. Instead, focus on staying present with the bereaved. Here is the time to listen.

3. Never, ever trivialize what has happened with your own story. Instead, keep your focus on their loss.

4. Never, ever refer to who died in impersonal ways. Instead, use the name of the child. You may feel uncomfortable, but bereaved parents, especially over the long haul suffer a private pain because they fear the world will forget their baby.

5. Never, ever forget other children in the situation. Not only have they lost a sibling, but they lose their parents psychologically during grieving, regardless how aware the parents may be. Instead, spend time with the child. For young children, bring color crayons, and suggest a picture. This may be something they would like to tuck into the garments of the child who died, if there is to be burial, or cremation. Do not interpret the child's reaction to mean they are not grieving. Children grieve in different ways. Let them.

6. Never, ever forget that holidays and anniversaries carry a particular pain. (Nearly no one remembers the second anniversary of a child's death. It is a great time for a card that says you've not forgotten. Instead, remember when you are celebrating rites of passage with your own child, e.g. graduations, weddings, grandchildren, that this brings a sting to your friend, no matter how much they might love your crew. Don't be afraid to mention the name of the child who has died at these times. Let your friend know you appreciate this must 'bring up' a lot for them.

7. Never, ever forget that, as long as you are speaking from your heart, that your love is invaluable. You cannot err. Relax. Breathe. This, too, shall pass.

8. Never, ever assume that it is impossible to begin life anew. Instead, know that it may take a great deal of time and concentrated work, but, just as spring follows winter, life can be reborn with a focus, and support, and guidance from those who have been through the wringer.

9. Never, ever discount your own sense of things. If your friend is starting to isolate, or act in unusual ways, get professional help. They may be suffering complicated bereavement. Instead of saying nothing, investigate parental bereavement groups, such as Compassionate Friends. Be a friend.