How can I help someone with a life-limited child, as a friend?

Heather Tilley is a Family Support and Bereavement Counsellor at Shooting Star Chase and has over a decade of experience in helping families with life-limited children. Here she shares how friends can help from that crushing first diagnosis to life after loss.

Stay in touch
Don’t avoid the family. Your friend will already have a sense of losing the child they had expected. All their expectations have been shattered – this is a loss. They need their friendships to remain stable otherwise this is another loss they have to deal with.

Think before you speak
Parents often feel vulnerable and insensitive comments can compound those feelings – however well-meaning.

Listening is much more important than what you might say or do. There is nothing you can “do” to change the situation but “being there” is invaluable and can make a real difference. Just acknowledging how difficult life is at times and having space to talk about this is important.

Be straight-forward
Sometimes the parent may not want to talk about the situation or even see their friends. You’re not a mind-reader so simply asking, “do you fancy a chat about Sam today?” is the best way to approach the subject.

Offer support for the siblings
Often parents are reluctant to ask for help. Being specific about help can feel very supportive for parents, eg: “I know John is staying late to play football at school on Wednesday, would you like me to pick him up for you?” BUT don’t take over – always offer choice.

Do talk about your life
Parents are still interested in what is happening in their friends’ lives – sometimes it can be a helpful distraction. Just avoid the trivial small talk.

Still invite
Don’t stop inviting parents to social events but be understanding if the invite is declined, parents cancel at the last minute or need to leave early to attend to their child.

Remember the dads
Often the focus for support and friendship will be on the mother but fathers also need opportunities to talk about their situation or be given a distraction from what is going on in their life.

It’s not all negative
Parents will often talk about the positive changes in their lives for both themselves and their well children (siblings). They may want an opportunity to talk about their child in positive terms and the joy the child brings to them as a family.