Dear Patti,

This year I met a wonderful woman, Lynn, who is a dog trainer and lives in my neighborhood. I’m an athletic trainer and we’ve been trading services. It’s been great fun. We also have been taking walks together with our dogs, playing tennis and have started to become good, genuine friends.

Three weeks ago Lynn’s teenage son died. There are different rumors; that he overdosed on drugs, was killed in a fight, or committed suicide. I have no idea what really happened. Nor do I care, except for how it affects my friend.

As soon as I heard the news, I called her but a family member answered and said she was unable to come to the phone. After two weeks I dropped by. Her sister-in-law answered the door and said Lynn hasn’t left the house, that she cries every day and often through the night and isn’t ready to have visitors. Her family takes turns staying with her and her husband. I’m glad to know Lynn and her husband have the support of their family. I want her to know I’m here if she needs me. Besides calling and sending flowers, is there anything else I can do?

  — Michelle

Dear Michelle,

The death of a child is an impossible grief, the ultimate tragedy. Countless studies show that losing a child is by far the most significant loss one can ever experience. When a child dies suddenly, it’s impossible to comprehend that the son or daughter who was alive only a moment ago is now gone forever, plunging those who loved them into an intense state of shock and disbelief.

After the phase of shock comes a deep awareness of loss. In the early days of grieving, it’s common for parents to experience excruciating pain, alternating with numbness which may persist for months. Many parents who have lost a child feel they are now merely existing and anything beyond that seems impossible. It’s normal for your friend to cry for a very long time to come. I’m glad she’s surrounded with family during this period of sorrow, but there’s no escaping the horrifying, gut-wrenching pain which comes from this kind of heartbreak.

It’s not surprising you’re at a loss as to how to respond. It will be a great source of comfort to her, however, just to know she’s in your thoughts. Send a sympathy letter letting her know you’re available if she needs anything and that she doesn’t have to respond until she’s ready. Lynn needs time. Ask those who are closest to her if there is any way you can be of assistance by calling or writing out-of-town family and friends, doing housekeeping chores, bringing meals or running errands.

When such a tragedy first occurs, many family and friends immediately reach out. Yet after a month, they go on with their lives, often forgetting to check in. If Lynn doesn’t respond for a month or two, let that be OK. Be patient. Write her once month, letting her know you’re thinking of her. Eventually she’ll respond. If the grief continues longer than you expect — months or even years — it’s important you never withdraw your support. While nothing can replace the son she lost, Lynn’s need to honor his memory can be fulfilled with the quiet knowledge that caring friends like you are there for the long-term and not just at the beginning.

When you first see her, it isn’t necessary to say a great deal. A warm embrace will convey much more. Let her take the lead in the conversation. If she doesn’t want to talk about her son, respect her decision. If she does talk about what happened, give her your full attention. A grieving parent will be thinking only about her child. Trying to distract her from her bereavement will seem to be minimizing her loss. If she cries in your presence, respect her tears. Don’t change the subject. Let her cry. Tears are healing.

The relationship between parents and their children is among the most intense in life.Remember that it feels unnatural to outlive one’s own child. All bereaved parents lose a part of themselves. I am so very sorry for this mother’s loss. n

Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, is a psychotherapist in private practice with offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email pcarmalt@aol.com. Visit her Web site, patticarmalt-vener.com.