Never Empty Handed - by Clare Elsaesser

By Amy Hackworth. Painting, “Never Empty Handed,” by Clare Elsaesser.

Although I’d always felt sympathetic when I heard of a child who’d passed away, my heart ached a little more fiercely when I heard about such tragedies once I’d become a mother. Before I had a chance to push it away, the thought of losing one of our children made my chest tighten and my stomach drop.

And then one of my dearest friends said goodbye to her almost-two-year-old, and I came a little closer to understanding the grief that comes with losing a child. I learned that the sympathy I’d felt for other parents before watching my friend Molly lose her little Lucy in 2008 had been wholly uninformed. I’d had no idea of the heartbreak, the emptiness, the despair, the reality of grief. And still, I don’t really know what a grieving parent feels, but I have watched from a closer distance now, and my sympathy has matured.

For this small series on supporting our friends when they are hurting (see previous posts here and here), Molly and her husband Vic shared some of the things that helped them most when their little Lucy passed away. The first thing Molly said was that it really is the thought that counts, but it only counts if the person knows you’re thinking of them. Reaching out in almost anyway helped Molly: Facebook notes, texts, cards, emails. Imagine how hard it must be to think that the rest of the world is going on with life while you are truly heartbroken. And then imagine how comforting it must be to know that friends have not forgotten you, but remember your suffering and send their love. A friend of Vic’s from law school whom Molly has never even met sent them a handwritten card every week for a few months, then once a month for two whole years, offering her support in a very real and very consistent way.

Vic shares that when you don’t know what to say, it’s perfectly all right to just say, “I don’t know what to say, but I love you, I’m thinking about you.” And when you can’t lighten the emotional burden, lighten other burdens like laundry, dishes, meals, grocery shopping, and babysitting.

Molly’s quick to warn that this wouldn’t help everyone, but I’ll always remember the story of her friend who knocked on Molly’s door one morning in the first few months after Lucy passed away and got Molly out of bed. “Grab your swim suit,” the friend said, “we’re going boating.” They spent the day on the lake with a small group of friends and the support and summer sun were just what Molly needed. I think I remember and admire this story so much because it’s the kind of thing I’d be too timid to do myself.

In this poignant story from NPR, two parents respond to Newtown and share their experience with grief after losing their 20 and 24-year-old sons in a car accident. The first comment corresponds with something Molly said about giving friends the opportunity to talk about their loved ones, and I’ve heard other friends share this idea, too. Part of the comment reads, “The standard response to hearing of my brother’s death is ‘I’m so sorry,’ followed by an awkward silence. I have found that the response I’d really like to hear (and almost never do) is ‘I’m so sorry…What was he like?’ What a joy it is to get to share about his out of control hair, how he perfected the art of playing a practical joke, and how his teenage exterior never fully disguised his tender heart — to get to focus on how he lived his life, not how he lost it.” What beautiful advice. Molly, too, relishes the chance to talk about Lucy, and loves hearing others’ stories, too. “Tell me a story about Lucy,” is a phrase Molly especially appreciated. “I love to say her name or hear other people say her name,” Molly said. “It’s almost like taking your favorite word out of your vocabulary. You can never fill that void in your heart, but hearing the sound of her name helps.”

Our hearts ache for friends who have lost their children. How have you helped support your grieving friends? And if you’ve been there — oh, we all want to hug you and cry with you. What helped you most in the moment? What’s helping you now?

P.S. — Molly received a book on grief called Tear Soup, and it’s become her guide for grieving and loving those who grieve. She turns to it for its accurate and comforting advice and wisdom for herself and for friends.