Insight to Supporting Bereaved Parents

A funeral during the Siege of Sarajevo in 1992.

A funeral during the Siege of Sarajevo in 1992.

The loss of a child is devastating. According to a University of the Rockies research study, bereaved parents consider grief therapy to be mildly effective at best and ineffective at worst.

For her doctoral dissertation at the graduate school specializing in psychology, Julia A. Lesselyong was inspired to explore how clinicians can improve the quality of treatment for parents who have lost a child. She observes that most bereaved parents are psychologically healthy people who have been struck by tragedy.

In 2006, Lesselyong’s brother was in a fatal skateboarding accident. Through her family’s struggles, she is striving to create meaning and goodness out of the tragedy. While her study focuses on professional clinicians, it also provides insight for friends and family.

Participants in the study reported that some expressions of support or responses from others were not helpful. Each of the parents interviewed said the most unhelpful, if not detrimental, response from people trying to be supportive was to say “I know how you feel,” especially when they had not lost a child themselves.

Parents also described that they felt people avoided them or were reluctant to respond with brief expressions of sympathy. One participant described this as, “People just look at you differently. You get looks…a visual connection like ‘Aw…those people just lost a child. I don’t want to deal with that.'”

One of the questions addressed “Recovery from Grief.” Responses varied, but there was a common theme that the term “recovery” should more accurately be replaced by “adjustment” to grief. “What I’ve learned is that grief doesn’t go away,” one participant said. “It walks beside you. You learn to live with it.”

Support from family and friends were considered most advantageous when it consisted of listening and offering little advice. Most participants said it was helpful to grieve at their own pace with no time limits.

In closing, Lesselyong’s study says, “Therapists can be instrumental in helping bereaved parents manage and adjust after the loss of a child. Most clinicians will never fully understand the experience of bereaved parents. However, by being a respected, educated participant in the grief process, they can help improve the quality of life for parents after the death of a child.”

University of the Rockies is a graduate school specializing in master’s and doctorate degree programs in psychology. Accredited by the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools (www.ncahlc.org), classes are offered online and at the University’s Colorado Springs, Colorado, campus.

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