There have been many articles, books, blog posts and a great deal of advice on what to say and do when someone loses a loved one. I’m not sure mine will offer anything new, but perhaps it might make an impression simply by being packaged in a new way. Here are some suggestions about what to do (and not to do) to help your grieving loved ones:
Offer Condolences, Not Advice That’s it. A simple “I’m sorry for your loss” and / or “I’ll pray for you” is really all we need to hear. As well meaning as it is, having someone say your loved one is “in a better place” or that they “aren’t suffering anymore” can be hurtful. Especially in the beginning. To be quite honest, we don’t care. All we know in that moment is that we want our loved one back. Sticking with an honest “I’m sorry” is a safer, gentler way to go. We don’t want to hear about your great Aunt Betty who lost her husband and it took her 18 years before she got over it. We don’t want advice on the best way to grieve or insight on how long it should take.
Withhold Judgment Understand that grief is a very personal, very individual thing. Some people put it all out there and tell everyone they come into contact with about their loss. Others choose to keep it private and hold back from public displays of grief. There is no “right way” to mourn. Allow each person the space they need to grieve but be there to support them in whatever way they need without judgment.
Offer Specific, Concrete Help It’s difficult to hear “let me know if you need something” for several reasons. First of all, in that moment, sometimes we just don’t know we even need something. There is a period of absolute numbness and shock and we often don’t know exactly what our needs are. Ask specific questions, ones that can’t really be answered with a “no” – “Can I take your kids out for dinner on Thursday or Friday?” “I’m going to the grocery store. Would you like to come with me, or should I just pick up some food for you?” “When would you like me to feed your pets?” “Would it help if I arranged for someone to clean your house?” Secondly, in some ways, it’s almost as if our brains have stopped functioning normally, and direct, pointed questions help us to not have to think so hard. Finally, we may not be comfortable accepting help, especially if we have been fairly independent for a long time.
Simply Help without Asking Some people have difficulty asking for (or accepting) help. If you see that the yard needs to be mowed, or the driveway shoveled, or the mail piling up, just mow it, or shovel it or bring it inside. If you ask “may I”, you are quite likely to get a negative response. So simply do those small, impersonal tasks that you know need to be done without asking. Even if we don’t seem appreciative, we are.
Take Our Cues Much like you have to with animals and small children, you often have to take cues from a grieving person. There are good days, bad days, and everything in between. Sometimes our ability to interact with people changes from moment to moment. If we seem to be uncomfortable discussing the one we’ve lost at a particular moment, it’s OK to say “let’s talk about something else”. There have been moments where I’ve been barely holding it together and when someone shows a moment of kindness, I break down. That may be OK in our home or someone else’s, but some of us don’t want to have a crying jag in the frozen food aisle at the grocery store.
Don’t Take Offense Understand that our emotional distance isn’t personal. One thing I’ve found is that sometimes I’m rude without meaning to be. It may not occur to me at that moment, but later on when I’m replaying a conversation or an exchange in my head, I become upset with myself because I may have come across as disrespectful. I have occasionally walked away mid-conversation without saying a word and not realized it until later. Honestly, we may be just so deep in our own grief that even common courtesies are a struggle.
Listen Some of the most helpful people have been those who simply asked an open ended question and then just sat back and listened. Sometimes we may talk about something specific we miss about our loved one, sometimes we want to cry about the unfairness of it all, and sometimes we want to discuss the “price of tea in China”. If we’re talking about something inconsequential, it may be because we just need to take a mental break. By discussing some trivial matter, we are giving our grief a temporary respite. [Note that if you believe someone may be ignoring their grief completely, that is something entirely different and may require professional help.]
Just Be Sometimes we just want you to sit with us and not say a word. A hug, a hand to hold, a shoulder to lean on – each of these is healing in its own way. It is very helpful to know that we have a strong support system, even if they can only be a safety net rather than a safety harness. Just knowing someone is there to catch us if we fall is sometimes all we really need.
Thank you to my support system, those of you who have done without asking, who continue to stand by me, who have listened to me complain and whine and cry, those who check in with me every day or nearly every day just to see how I’m doing, and those who have provided hugs, rubbed my back, or offered to hold me and rock me all night. You are appreciated and loved.
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