There are many ways in which families, friends and professionals in the field of bereavement can be supportive of those who are grieving. Several suggestions are listed below. Some I have learned through personal and professional experience; many have been gathered from the hundreds of experiences of those who have told me of the support they wish they'd had during the painful process of grief. They also expressed heartfelt gratitude toward those who could see what needed to be done and did it.
In assessing the needs of a grieving person, it helps to understand the circumstances. Don't assume that the death of a ninety-year-old grandmother will be mourned in the same way as the death of a five-year-old child. There are enormous differences in the grief process that depend upon the age of the person who died, how he or she died (for example, was it a sudden death, or did it follow a long illness?) and the gender of the survivor (in our society, it is usually more difficult for men than women to express their grief openly).
Please consider the following guidelines as suggestions only. Most importantly, trust your heart and your instincts.
"She isn't hurting any more,"
"It must have been his time," and "Things
always work out for the best," are remarks that are
seldom helpful. It's more important for the bereaved to
feel your presence than to hear anything you might say.
Remember, there are no ready phrases which will take away
the pain of the loss.
(You may have already said some of these phrases, hoping to be comforting. If so, don't be too hard on yourself or feel guilty; just avoid them next time.)
I call these phrases "door-openers." They invite the bereaved to talk, sharing their pain and memories with the listener. Your greatest gift is your invitation to talk, while you listen-offering no advice or judgements, please.
presence is enough. Especially with fresh grief, your
embrace, your touch and your sincere sorrow are all the
mourner may need. Be sure to call or visit the survivor,
no matter how much time has passed since the death. The
griever still appreciates knowing you care.
merely say, "If there's anything I can do, give me a
call." Make suggestions and specific offers of help.
For example, you might say, "I'd like to mow your
lawn next Saturday at morning at ten. Would that be okay
with you?" or "I'd like to plant the five
azalea shrubs that were given at Bill's funeral. Would
you like them in your yard, and could I do it next
Wednesday after two o'clock?" or "May I go
grocery shopping with you the first time out?" Each
thoughtful gesture gives something of yourself and keeps
the survivor from having to continually reach out for
assistance. It also lets the survivor know you think he
or she is important. Our self-esteem is often low during
the early months of grief, and knowing someone cares
enough to help does wonders for our morale.
might run errands, answer the phone, prepare meals or do
the laundry. These seemingly minor tasks loom large to
the survivor, for grief drastically depletes physical
energy. An offer to spend an evening just watching
televistion together can be very comforting, especially
to someone now living alone.
children are involved, send them special cards and invite
them on outings with your family. Children should not be
shielded from grief, but occasionally they need a break
from the sadness at home, while their parents may welcome
a day for grieving without them. Show your love and
support and invite them to discuss their thoughts and
feelings. They need good listeners, too. Don't assume
that a child who seems calm is not in pain.
bereaved person desperately needs a listener who is
accepting and supportive and willing to listen patiently
to often repetitive stories. The need to "tell the
story" decreases as healing progresses. And each
time the story is told, the finality of the death sinks
in a little more. When feelings of anger, frustration,
disappointment, fear and sadness are expressed, accept
those feelings. If the survivor keeps them bottled
inside, they will slow the healing process. Sharing
thoughts and feelings lessens the stress. The increased
stress experienced during early grief can lead to health
problems for some people. Help your friend stay healthy
natural reaction to hearing someone express grief is to
respond with, "You mustn't feel guily. I'm sure you
did everything you could." Don't try to rescue
people from their guilt feelings, which are natural and
normal during the grief process. (What most people
actually feel is regret. Guilt implies a purposeful act
that intends injury; we feel regret when we wish we had
somehow been able to change things.)
Expressing our "if-onlys" is important. However, if the survivor still talks repeatedly about a specific incident six months after the death you might ask, "What could you have done differently?" After the response, come back with another question: "Then what might have happened?" Keep asking non-leading questions until the person concludes that, with the knowledge he had at the time, he did the best he could. (Also, be aware of the difference between realistic and unrealistic guilt. If the feeling is based on reality, professional help may be called for.)
push the mourner to "get over" the loss. If he
needs to rake leaves or chop wood to release energy and
tension, let him. If he wants to pore over old pictures
or read every book on grief he can find, let him. We all
grieve in our own way; avoid being judgmental.
good days and bad days for some time. The highs and lows
are part of the process. These feelings have been
described as waves that sweep in uncontrollably.
Gradually the good days become more frequent, but bad
ones will occur even a year or more after the death of a
your efforts to be sensitive to the mourner's needs
during difficult times of the day or on days with special
meaning, like holidays, the loved one's birthday or
wedding anniversary, or the anniversary of the death.
Mark your calendar so you'll remember to reach out to the
person on or before those special days.
survivor must adjust to the fact that the loved one is
gone. If you attempt to protect her from her grief, you
will get in the way. Grief is hard work and others cannot
do it for us, though they can help with their support and
encouragement. But there is no easy way out. She must
walk through the pain to come out on the other side,
healthy and stronger.
are many support groups that exist to help grieving
people feel less alone with their grief work. They can be
very beneficial, as this poem explains:
expect the grieving person to be "over it"
within a few weeks. Great waves of emotion may sweep in
for many months and then, slowly, gradually, the
intensity subsides. It doesn't happen a day after the
funeral or even two months after it, as many people
believe. Sometimes the real grieving is just beginning by
then. It may be more than a year before you see the
results of your caring and supportbut when your
friend smiles again and feels less pain, the reward is
If the mourner doesn't seem to be recovering at all, despite your best efforts and the passage of time, suggest professional help to assist in learning new ways of coping. (Find out which professionals in you region are experienced in working with the bereaved. Don't assume that all counselors and clergy are trained in this area.)
the first few months after a death, there's a tendency to
focus on the survivors, while the survivors are focusing
on the one who died. By relating your memories of the
deceased, you are offering a precious momento to the
grieving person. Your love and concern are shown not only
in what you share, but in the fact that you took the time
to do so.
| Keep in
mind that a grieving person is under extreme stress;
don't press him to participate in outside activities
until he's ready. Trust him to know what is best.
| For the
rest of her life, a tear may be shed when a special
memory is recalled. Your friend is who she is today
because of having loved that person. Denying the
deceased's past existence denies a part of your friend.
Love her past as well as her present, and you and your
friend will be richer for it.
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