She took our hands and said:
“I’m Irish, and in my culture when you grieve, I grieve. Your sorrow is my sorrow.”
It was a simple statement and it opened my heart and tears. She was connecting to the heart of the matter and to us.
*When someone you know and or love loses a loved one, what do you do?
*What do you say?
*How do you care for the grieving?
*Do you find yourself at a loss for words?
*Does tending to a grieving person make you feel uncomfortable or unsure?
Grief is one of the deepest emotions that we all will experience at some point in our lives. It’s complex because you can’t fully control it, it has its way with you. I visualize grief as a deep river running beneath the earth and it rises up through the surface sometimes releasing great geyser gusts of sobbing and other times it sneaks up and releases a few gentle tributaries of tears when you’re grocery shopping, driving, listening to music or doing some other mundane task. It can catch you off guard. Grief is like that.
I recently experienced a sudden and shocking loss of a family member and when I heard the tragic news, all my past grief and losses came rushing to the surface. My way of handling grief was right there waiting for me. And I very slowly remembered my way through.
What came rushing back to me at first was remembering how people were around me when my Dad died and then much later my Stepdad. When I was young and lost my Dad, my grief got lost in the shuffle; the focus was on my Mom. I only remembered one person addressing my grief and that was an uncle. He sat with me and my siblings, put his arms around us and told us he was sorry we lost our dad and that he would be there for my family. And, he kept his promise throughout the years as he and my aunt checked in on my Mom.
Other well meaning people, did not keep their word and the empty “let us know if there’s something we can do” was like a hallowed mantra echoing through the halls of the funeral home.
There is much you can do and say for the grieving.
I’m writing this post as a way of educating and making grounded suggestions on how you, if called upon, can support a grieving friend of family member. You don’t have to allow your own fear of death or being with someone that is grieving stop you from being supportive. You will experience death someday and want support too. In order to grow and be a connected human being, you’ll be required to lean in and learn…I’m here to help you.
Here are some “do’s” from my experiences with death and dying:
What you can do for a grieving person
1. Show up for them in person.
When someone experiences a loss, they can feel alone, left and abandoned; you being there in the physical can be a great comfort. It not only demonstrates you care, but you are someone that can be a grounding presence, run errands, and help make decisions.
Attending a funeral service, church service or memorial is another way for you to support and honor the person that has passed and the grieving.
2. Make contact, any contact
Call, leave a voice mail, send a card with a heartfelt note. Handwritten notes are still appreciated because it’s physical, tangible and can be read slowly.
3. Later is when they’ll really need you.
The “let us know if you need anything” can feel hallowed to the grieving person. Don’t use this. Let them know you’re going to check in on them in a few weeks and keep your word! I cannot tell you how many people don’t do this. My home was very quiet and empty after my Dad died. No one came or called. As a child I began to feel like people were afraid of my family because we had a death in the family.
4. Help them think
When someone dies, thinking and reasoning function go out the window. If you’re a family member, jump in and make suggestions instead of asking questions. The grief stricken are fully in their emotions and being asked too many questions is overwhelming.
I learned so much about my family member at his service, stories I didn’t know. And I was able to share my own personal stories with his family and co workers. As one of his peers said “telling stories keeps those we love alive”.
7.Tend to the children
If there are children grieving, make sure to address them, hug them and let them know you know they’re grieving. A loss at a younger age may be the first time someone experiences death. It’s at this time adults can support, guide, and allow a child to feel all their feelings.
8. Quick suggestions on what to say:
I’m very sorry for your loss.
You have my sympathy and love.
I’m sorry you’re hurting so deeply.
What NOT to do or say to a grieving person:
1. Don’t ask:
- “What did they die of?”
- “How did they die?
- “I didn’t know they were ill, tell me more…”
The person is gone. Asking such questions is not about the grieving person, it’s about your own curiosity. This is insensitive because it creates a situation where the grieving person has to relive the death and this can be traumatizing. Don’t ask for details. If they want to tell you because it’s cathartic for them, allow them space to tell you. Otherwise, don’t ask.
2.Don’t ask about the funeral immediately
I was amazed how many people wanted to know about a service and it had not been 12 hours since the person had passed. Again, See #4 in the above section about how to help. The grieving are grappling with the idea that their loved one is no longer here. Give them some space or ask an extended family member questions.
3. Refrain from saying…
- They’re in a better place
- They’re still here with you in spirit
- They are happy and free now
Your personal faith beliefs may or may not ring true for the grieving person and even if they do, they just wants their person back. Platitudes are not helpful and do not ease any pain.
4. Facebook doesn’t count
If you’re a close family member or friend* and you send a condolence or a T&P (thoughts and prayers) on Facebook…you haven’t supported a grieving person fully. This is easy and convenient for you to do, however, close and connected relationships are not built on convenience, they’re built on extending yourself. This lets the other person know they matter to you.
A quick comment is not a condolence, it’s a convenience (for you).
*A caveat here is if you’re not in someone’s inner circle or are close to them this can suffice as a condolence.
Grief is an emotion we will all experience at some point in our lives. Do your best to be a helpful support to the grieving as you may require support someday.
My next blog post will be about how to care for yourself during a time of grief. I thought I had a plan for myself during a recent time of grieving and I didn’t follow my plan as intended. I’ll share my mistakes and what is essential to your well being when caring for others or being in your own grief.