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Enduring the death of a child: What it's like and how to help a grieving parent

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Neil Heslin
Neil Heslin, father of 6-year-old Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting victim Jesse Lewis, wipes tears as he testifies during a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee February 27, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

In a recent Moth Radio Hour, Prinna Boudreau told the heart-wrenching story about the death of her 10-month-old daughter.

When she arrived at the hospital that day, her daughter was already dead. She sat in a rocking chair, waiting to hold her daughter one last time with her husband and mother by her side. 

My mother "grabbed me by the shoulders, she looked into my eyes and she said, 'This is the worst thing that will ever happen to you, Prinna. It doesn't get any worse than this,'" Boudreau said. "I'll never forget those words."

More than 57,000 children under the age of 19 die in the US each year. On The Daily Circuit, we looked at how this loss affects parents and what you can do to help someone in your life experiencing this type of grief.

Grieving the death of a child, explained

John: "It is like a physical wound with scar tissue. It gets covered up, but emotions and events pick at the scab until it opens itself up again. We lost our son to SIDS 24 years ago and have survived as a couple. We have a 25 year-old and a 22 year-old."

Michele: "My 10 year old son died tragically and suddenly in 2007. Your whole life becomes marked by that date, the 'before' life and then what life is like now, on the other side of that fence, looking back at what life once was. That fence was so clear to me when he first died, I could see it, and would 'look back' at my friends on the other side and think 'they have no idea.' And the cloak of grief was so heavy, I was quite sure it should be visible to the whole world around me, which of course it was not, but the weight was unbearable."

4 ways to help a grieving parent

1. Sit with their pain and sadness. "The people who helped me the most were the ones who had no problem crawling in the ditch with me and lying with me in the middle of my pain without needing to fix it or make it better," wrote Angela Miller. "The ones who could listen without changing the subject. The ones who would remember to say my son's name long after everyone else had stopped saying it. True empathy and love are the two things that saved me. People who can offer a bereaved parent true compassion are absolutely priceless."

2. Help the family with everyday tasks and take the initiative to organize. "Don't ask what I need," wrote Meagan Golec. "I don't know what I need. Your asking what I need puts the burden on me to figure out what will make me feel better so you can do that thing and feel good about supporting me. What I need is for you to take the initiative to find out what other people in my situation said they needed after the fact. Then do those things. For years. It has been more than two years since my son died.

Michele also mentioned the importance of help from the community: 

My community carried our family through. My girlfriends assigned someone to be at our house, helping with my toddler, in 4 hour shifts. They had arranged to pick up and drop off my preschooler each day for school, and take her on playdates. Our neighbors got a group together to provide meals to us daily for 6 weeks. It was remarkable, amazing, and overwhelming. Our community functioned for us when we could not function ourselves. It propelled me to start the same sort of meal service for community members in the following years. If someone was going through a birth, death, traumatic life event, I'd get an email and then organize my 14 volunteers to provide meals to the family in need for a specific amount of time. It felt like a way to give back for all the grace given to our family.

3. Be patient and understand that grief has no timeline. The idea that there are strict and linear elements to grief doesn't fit what people go through, Okun said. 

Boudreau said she felt the pressure to fit a timeline, but it was coming from a well-meaning and loving place. 

"I felt like my friends and my family wanted that for me," she said. "They wanted to see me get back to how I had been before... People wanted to see you moving through it each year."

4. Don't stop talking about the child that died. One caller tells her story:

If you've endured the death of a child, what kind of support and comfort helped most? If you're someone who wants to comfort a family who is going through this, what do you want to know? Leave your stories and questions in the comments below.