How to Support a Bereaved Parent

July 10, 2023

bereaved parent support, infant loss, baby loss, neonatal loss

I have always loved summertime, and still do. But the early summer months are bittersweet, as they are now forever a reminder of the short time we had with my daughter. A reminder of waking up early before the mugginess of the day was in full swing, then entering the coolness of the NICU where time would go by quickly or slowly, depending upon what sort of day she was having.

In those final hours, when we knew we were going to lose her, we lost track of whether it was day or night. Time expanded and contracted in the months after we lost her. I look back and wonder how I filled my days: who I spoke to, who I spent my time with, how I carried out the simplest tasks of day to day life. Explaining to people what had happened or hurrying back home to hide my tears and pain.

Everybody’s pathway through grief is different. There is no right or wrong, no precise chronological timeframe to guide you. Some grieve in silence, others mourn with peers, join support groups or vent on online forums or social media. Before I lost my daughter, I shied away from saying anything to anyone who had had any sort of loss. It felt awkward, uncomfortable. It was easier to say or do nothing. Looking back, I remember the things that people did – and still do – that I truly appreciated.

Speak up or show up

No one “knows” what to do at a child’s funeral. It’s a surreal experience. No one wants to be there. No one wants to go through the awkward protocol of saying “I’m so sorry” and figuring out meaningful words that haven’t been said a hundred times before. But the very fact that you are there is enough. Words are not always needed. A hug, a kiss, a touch, a smile, each goes a long way.

We were touched by every face we saw at the funeral. Every single call, card, message and e-mail was received with immense gratitude.

Go easy on the flowers

I had always loved having fresh bouquets of flowers in the house. After my daughter’s death, we were inundated. They were beautiful, and I was thankful…but I hated them. The smell of some flowers still reminds me of those first awful days.

Family, work colleagues and friends asked what we needed, so we asked for help with the celebration of life after her funeral. They spread the word and brought in everything we needed. Any monetary donations went to the NICU she had been in, as well as to other charities relating to premature birth and neonatal loss. We were given enough funds to purchase medical equipment for the NICU in honor of Isabelle. Friends raised – and continue to raise – money and awareness for our preferred charities and the NICU.

Acknowledge grief in the workplace

Going back to work, I was painfully aware of many colleagues’ pitying looks. I loved everyone for not wanting to cause unnecessary stress or send onerous tasks my way, but it also contributed to me feeling even more useless than I felt already. I had failed at being a mother; I had failed at keeping my daughter alive. And now I couldn’t even cut it in the workplace.

If you have a colleague who comes back to work after a loss – mother or father – don’t let it become the elephant in the room. Be direct with them about how much they want to take on. Don’t make assumptions or discuss ‘what’s best’ without their input.

Ask questions if you have them

It may seem intrusive, or even gruesome, but ask the questions that you want to ask about our babies. If you didn’t know us at the time, ask about our baby’s life and the circumstances of their death. I did not know my daughter for a long time, and she never came home with us, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think about what she would be like today, what kind of daughter or sister she would be, how she would be feeling about starting a new school this year. Acknowledging her existence brings her back to life, especially when someone uses her name.

No time limit on grief

Some days I can talk about my daughter’s life and death easily. At other moments, a memory or thought will trigger an overwhelming feeling of loss and pain, and I can barely speak. I never imagined grief to be so fluid, like a tide that recedes but can then come crashing down on you and knock you sideways.

Even if you did not know a mother at the time of her loss, you can still be supportive, maybe even more so than people who have been close to them for many years. I have felt discomfort among family members or friends when I have mentioned my daughter’s name, or an upcoming anniversary. I have sensed them wondering, “Will she ever get over it?” No. We never do.

I now have a core group of girlfriends who I met several years after my loss. They never knew my daughter, they didn’t know me during those raw, emotional days when my wounds were still very much open. But, in subsequent years, they have provided me with a safe place where I can mention in the course of a conversation a particular anniversary or how I am feeling today. A hug, a hand held, a tear wiped away in a moment of pain mean the world to a bereaved mother, even if it’s years after. I dearly love these friends – as well as the occasional stranger or fellow bereaved mother I have met – for understanding those momentary flashes of grief that occasionally rise to the surface.

Read next:
Christine’s story of loss, healing and giving back

Life after Loss: How to Start Your Grief Journey

bereavement support groupJoin our NICU Love & Loss Support Group for bereaved parents, a support group for those who have experienced a loss in the NICU or after a NICU stay. Learn More.


Christine testerAbout Christine Tester

Christine Tester is Hand to Hold’s Hospital Program Manager, overseeing our team of Family Support Specialists in hospitals across Texas and Hand to Hold’s activities in our partner hospitals. Christine has also worked as a volunteer Peer Mentor and as a Hand to Hold Family Support Specialist, helping families navigate their NICU stays with in-hospital bedside support and support groups. Christine grew up in a bilingual household, speaking English and Spanish. She studied Modern Languages at the University of Oxford, before working for many years in sports sponsorship and marketing in London. She now stays busy with her husband and three sons in Austin, TX. In her spare time, she enjoys watching her sons compete in sports and loves reading, travel, food, good wine and exercise.