Q. The 16-year-old son of friends committed suicide a week ago. My wife and I are thinking about inviting them to attend a social event coming up next month and wonder whether that is an appropriate thing to do. Is it too soon after the death, and would it seem as if we don’t recognize the depth of their grief? Or not?
The death of a child is unimaginable agony for the parents. Your children are supposed to outlive you, and the enormity of the loss just can’t be overestimated. The death of a teenager also ends the parents’ hopes for his/her future. These dreams will never be fulfilled. The cause of death in this case--suicide—only adds to the tragedy because it didn’t have to happen. Parents tend to feel rage at the child for taking this action. At the same time, they feel guilty that they didn’t prevent the death and/or recognize signs of depression.
Parents never “get over” this loss. But usually, after a long painful journey, they do eventually begin to live again and find meaning. It is unrealistic, however, to expect the parents to socialize at a party a month or six weeks after the death. The chances are high that the couple will view such an invitation at this point as insensitive. They may feel angry at you for proposing it, when the last thing they want or need is small talk with a crowd of people who don’t understand what they’re going through.
However, this does not mean there’s nothing you can do to support the parents. You can express your sadness at this tragedy. Don’t hesitate to talk about the child and your memories of him. These are healing things to do. Most of all listen to the parents and realize that periods of quiet time are okay. The fact that you’re there for them speaks eloquently. You can also connect in other ways, perhaps offering to bring over lunch or dinner at a time of their choosing. Or you might ask if they’re up to going out for coffee or dinner with just the four of you. A 2006 survey of grieving parents found 82.3% of respondents named friends as the people who were most helpful to them. In the same survey by The Compassionate Friends, a foundation that offers support to those who have lost a child, sibling, or grandchild, 44.8% of respondents said coworkers were helpful.
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Florence Isaacs is the author of several books on etiquette, including My Deepest Sympathies: Meaningful Sentiments for Condolence Notes a.... She writes two advice blogs for Legacy.com: Sincere Condolences and Widow in the World, a new blog for bereaved spouses and partners.
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