As news stories across the country discuss the unexpected and as yet unexplained death of Philadelphia Eagles’ coach Andy Reid’s adult son, Garrett, Wayne Loder finds himself again contemplating the “$7 million question” that people ask about grief: “What can we do to help someone cope with the loss of a child?”
Loder doesn’t know the answer, but he certainly knows the pain. In 1991, his son Stephen Loder, 5, and daughter Stephanie Loder, 8, were killed in a car crash. He's been dealing with that question in the two decades since.
He has grieved the deaths of his parents and his wife Patricia has lost a sibling, said Loder, who is a public awareness coordinator for the Illinois-based national organization The Compassionate Friends. The organization offers grief support for parents, siblings, grandparents and guardians through nearly 650 chapters across the country. The death of one’s child, whether a minor or an adult, is different, he said.
“There is nothing that you can say that will make it better. So you have to just be there and try to let them know that you care,” said Loder. As for wanting to help someone, he warned that “Let me know if there’s anything I can do” will never get a response. If you truly want to help someone, be specific. “They don’t know what they need at that point; a person is just in shock.” Pick a task and offer to do it.
Garrett Reid, 29, was found dead in his dorm room at the team's Lehigh University training camp Sunday. Police said the death was not suspicious and an autopsy is expected to determine the cause of death. His funeral was scheduled for Tuesday.
Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie told reporters that the coach planned to return to work by the end of the week. He was quoted in an article in USA Today: "I expect Andy to be coaching this week and back. I know he feels that way. And he is very, very focused on both his family and his profession." He told the newspaper that Reid just wanted to talk about "how incredibly excited he is for this football team. That's been obvious from the beginning of training camp. But he wanted me to know that.
"Second, he treasures these practices. And he feels bad that he is not going to be at practice today and probably tomorrow."
Although that announcement has raised some speculation about work-life balance and the grieving process, returning to work right away is not such an unusual action.
"Grief is a very personal thing," said Loder, who noted that "what works for one person will not work for another. Some go back to work right away — that's a way of escaping from reality and continuing to do something normal in what is now an abnormal world. Other people can't go back to work. They can't function, can't think properly, can't process the information" because of shock. "If going to work works for you, then that's the way to go about it."
"Philadelphia Eagles Head Coach Andy Reid was a figure of strength, elevating his stature in the eyes of his players when he addressed them in an emotional team meeting five hours after learning of the death of his eldest son, Garrett, Sunday," wrote Jim Corbett in The Huddle, a USA Today blog about pro football.
Loder said he and his wife grieved somewhat differently. She talked more about the loss, while he often sat on his lawnmower tractor and cut the grass for hours as a way of "getting away and thinking about things." An advantage to talking, though, he said, is it brings up "the good things and when they are recalled, that's how you start to get better."
Those who want to help someone cope with a loss as devastating as the death of their child should be mindful that the biggest fear a parent has is that the child will be forgotten. But even close friends and relatives avoid speaking the dead person's name, as if it would trigger pain. Instead, that contributes to the sense that the child is, indeed, forgotten, said Loder.
He also noted that it's a myth that parents who are married and lose a child will probably divorce. A 2006 study affirmed earlier findings that less than one-fifth of couples who share that loss divorce. And only 40 percent of those who do split up cite the death as one of the reasons, he said. That's important for families to know as they cope with the immediate aftermath of their child's death, because they're already devastated by one loss and should not have the sense that the other loss is nearly inevitable, too.
A survey sponsored by the group noted that just more than half of parents employed outside the home that had a child die found their employers very helpful in supporting them during the immediate crisis. Most of the others said employers were neither helpful nor unhelpful in that time; 8.8 percent said they were unhelpful.
The Compassionate Friends offers a brochure of advice for people who hope to comfort someone who is grieving. Among the advice is not to impose time limits on how long someone can or will grieve. "You will grieve for that child for the rest of your life," Loder said. "It just gets a little softer and easier to handle. But to expect it to go away after a couple of weeks, a couple of months or even a couple of years is asking way too much."
Also important is mentioning the child by name and being patient with those who grieve and remembering them all on important days like anniversaries and birthdays.
The Associated Press reported that Garrett Reid was sentenced to nearly two years for a 2007 high-speed car crash while he was high on heroin. Andy Reid took a leave of absence that year to spend more time with his family, the article said.
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