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Module 4What families need

What can clergy do to be effective in supporting grieving families?

Don’t let your own sense of helplessness keep you from reaching out to a grieving parent. If you feel uncomfortable, be honest about facing the issues around the death of the baby. If you are in the middle of an uncomfortable discussion, as a professional, you need to set aside your emotional responses to reach out to the bereaved family.

What follows are some guidelines about how to effectively support families who are grieving. Your own experience and perspectives will guide you in how to apply these guidelines.

  • Follow the family’s lead. This means being willing to talk about what they want to talk about, watching to see what is comfortable and what is not, asking questions to understand where they get stuck, allowing their process unfold as it will. Avoid the temptation to tell them how to grieve.
  • Use first or third person suggestions. Using first or third person suggestions is one way to share your experiences. For example, say, “When I felt overwhelmed, I went to sit by his grave,” instead of, “You should go to the cemetery more often.,” or “One mom I knew put everything away the first week,” instead of, “You should really think about putting away those painful reminders.” It is very important to be careful about how you give advice. Telling the family what worked for you or other families is great; telling them what to do is not.
  • Guide the family toward independence from intensive support. This means that the family might need your support and guidance during this critical period, but that you expect the family will get beyond the despair and gradually regain a sense of control and self-sufficiency. Sometimes, people get stuck in the process and get too comfortable or dependent on additional help. Everyone has their own timetable so it is difficult to identify when someone gets stuck. If a family needs too much help making decisions or wants more input than you feel is reasonable, you need to address it. If this occurs, consider referring the family for additional support from a bereavement professional (See module 7.). The goal is for the family to become whole again and to reconnect with a sense of normal which has been lost. Particularly in the initial phases of grief, when confusion reigns, you may need to help families identify alternatives when they have trouble making decisions. The conventional wisdom is that no major decisions should be made during the first year after a major loss. This is because most people often feel foggy and confused during that time. You might be able to provide some objectivity.
  • Provide alternatives when discussing decisions.
  • Respect confidentiality.
  • Remember responsibility to refer (see Module 7). Always be safe and involve another person if you have concerns.

You can:

  • give permission to grieve.
  • acknowledge their loss.
  • accept expressions of grief.
  • offer continued support.
  • Be mindful and respectful of the grieving process.

You cannot take away the pain or bring the baby back.

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