There is nothing worse than losing a child, and over the years I have known far too many people who have endured such excruciating agony. Last year alone three of my friends and two acquaintances suffered this unfathomable loss – and then my niece’s baby girl died in late November.
When I read last week of the 21-year-old woman who perished in a car accident in Kelowna, I immediately thought of her mother and father and my heart went out to them. The following day I read that it was a fire chief’s daughter and he was one of the first responders on the scene. I don’t even know them, but I cried.
I posted the gut-wrenching story on Facebook and among all the condolences to the family there was a comment from my new friend, Larry Barter.
“The greatest gift one can provide these parents is to be available,” he wrote. “Often people will avoid the survivors because they don’t know what to do or say.” He then offered a few suggestions such as: I’m sorry for your loss; I have no idea what you are going through; I don’t know what to say or do; what do you need?
Larry knows the inconceivable sorrow of losing a child because he lost both of his. Taylor, his eldest son, died 10 years after a terrible car crash had left him severely brain injured at the age of 19. Michael, his younger son, died of a broken heart when he took his own life at the age of 18 – a year and a half after his brother’s devastating accident.
“Our tragedies didn’t just affect us,” he said. “They also impacted our family, friends, colleagues and community. Even strangers were thinking: if it could happen to the Barters it could happen to anyone.”
Some individuals offered tremendous support and compassion, others didn’t respond at all.
“There were people I knew who would sooner cross the road than talk to me,” Larry said. “What my family and I needed was not to be ignored, but to feel included and connected.”
At the time, Larry was the regional director of alcohol and drug services. He is now a clinical counsellor and understands that this kind of avoidance stems from survivor’s guilt. While this reaction might be understandable to people who don’t know what to say, it’s not the least bit helpful to those who are grieving.
Other things that didn’t provide solace were well-meaning comments such as: everything happens for a reason; he’s in a better place; time heals all wounds, you can always have more children; and God has a plan.
Hearing “I know how you feel” was not comforting either.
“Linda Woods hosts a support group for bereaved parents called The Compassionate Friends of Kelowna,” Larry said. “I sat in a room full of people who had also suffered the loss of a child, but I didn’t know how they felt. I only knew what I was going through.”
Asking mourners how they feel and what they need is infinitely more supportive.
“My advice is not to avoid people when they’re in such pain,” Larry suggested. “And don’t try to fix it either. You don’t have to know what to say, just let them know you care and you’re available.”
After years of therapy over the loss of his beloved boys and the life he once had, Larry eventually got to a point where he consciously decided that he wanted to live and love and contribute.
“I will always feel an emptiness and loss without them,” he said. “But where I used to feel like I lived 90 per cent of my life in darkness, I now feel like it’s 95 per cent light. When the darkness comes in now, I know it will pass.”
Loving his sons and keeping their memories alive has helped him get to that place, yet he couldn’t have done it on his own. He needed counselling, and he needed to connect with others.
It may appear that the people mourning a loved are doing just fine. Larry doesn’t want us to be fooled by their facade, and to keep letting them know we’re here for them, for as long as they may need us.
Lori Welbourne is a syndicated columnist.