Walking Alongside the Grieving
By Victor M. Parachin
The days and weeks afterwards were almost unbearable. there were many times I wished I’d gone, too. The shock and trauma made me lose my short-term memory and I had to write everything down. I was permanently exhausted – nobody tells you how tiring grieving is. Sleeping was difficult, and when I did drop off, I would wake thinking Luke was still beside me. Friends and family helped me survive, day by day.
Those words are written by Sophie Day whose husband, Luke, died in a tragic accident while they were on their honeymoon. It is the last sentence which is critical: “Friends and family helped me survive, day by day.”
When there is a loss to death, grievers need to be surrounded and supported by those around them. By their presence and through their words and actions, the bereaved are able to take the steps which will lead them successfully through grief. Yet, many who wish to give support feel empty, helpless, and wonder what they can say or do to ease the pain and help mend the hurts? The Bible notes: “Without good direction, people lose their way.” (Prov. 11:14, The Message) Here are some simple but effective ways to comfort a grieving person.
1. Acknowledge the loss.
As soon as you hear that a friend, family member or colleague has experienced the death of a loved one respond. Don’t let discomfort prevent you from reaching out. This can be a phone call, a personal visit, an email, a written not, or even an initial text message. When responding, include both your condolence as well as sharing a memory of the deceased if you knew the person who died. Martin M. Auz and Maureen Lyons Andrews, authors of Handbook For Those Who Grieve, include sample condolence letters, one of which was this letter written to a coworker who lost a family member:
“Dear Evelyn, At this morning's staff meeting, Mr. Murphy informed us of the death of your father. Everyone was saddened upon hearing the news for we all knew the closeness between you and your dad. I would like to extend my personal sympathy to you and your family. I only met your father once–at the company open house two years ago–but I was struck by how proud he was of you and your position within the company. And whenever you spoke of your father, there was always love and respect in your voice....”
2. Show up.
In addition to the initial contact and condolence, make yourself physically present offering unconditional love and support. Go even if it is inconvenient. Colorado resident Art Daily suffered a terribly tragedy while driving home with his family from a youth hockey game. A large boulder dislodged from the canyon wall and struck their car killing his wife and two sons. Amazingly he was left unharmed. “As I look out and back at what has taken place in my life since the boulder crashed down onto Highway I-70, I understand better than I did the importance of the touch of other human beings and what we can do for each other when things go terribly wrong. People, and their abiding love, faith, and hope, are what carried me and helped heal me in the beginning and down through the years,” he said and added: “Often what meant the most to me were simple, heartfelt comments like ‘I am so sorry’ or ‘My heart is broken for you.’ Those words … comforted me more than I can describe.”
3. Listen with compassion.
Writer Brenda Ueland says: “Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force...When we are listened to, it creates us, makes us unfold and expand. Ideas actually begin to grow within us and come to life.” Many people worry about what to say, but knowing how to listen is far more helpful to grievers. Approach your grieving friend with this simple question, “Do you feel like talking” and then allow the griever to speak. Your role is to listen this way:
Accept all feelings and expressions. If your friend expresses anger, just listen, don’t correct. If your friend begins to cry, allow her to cry. Avoid responding with sentences containing the words “should” or “shouldn’t.” Accept and acknowledge what you hear without judgment or criticism.
Allow silence. If there are silent moments during your visit, just sit quietly. Forced conversation is almost always superficial and aimless. Your silent presence is sufficient.
Be patient. It isn’t unusual for a grieving person to tell the story over and over and over again. Allow for that and be a patient listener. Grievers need to repeat their story because it is their way of processing and coming to terms with the loss. Also, each retelling peels off a layer of pain.
4. Avoid empty platitudes.
Almost every new griever has had the awkward experience of receiving a condolence comment which was unsatisfying, confusing, and disappointing. The biblical character Job was frustrated by his friends finally declaring “miserable comforters are you all” (Job 16:2). In their book, Saying Goodbye To Someone You Love, authors Norine Dresser and Fredda Wasserman explain why many well-meaning people offer condolences which don’t feel right to a griever. Here are some examples of phrases that the bereaved hear and in italics how they may be really hearing what’s just been said. These empty platitudes should be avoided:
“He’s at peace–not suffering anymore.”
Of course I am relieved that he is not suffering. I wished for that daily, but I’d take him back in any condition just to have another day together.
“He’s in a better place.”
Yes, that is comforting to know about HIM, but as for me, I think the better place would be to have him right here with me.
“He’s with God–God needed another angel.”
What about my need for him? Why would God do this to me and my family?
“It was for the best.”
Best for whom? Who makes that judgment?
“It was his time.”
I wonder when you would think was the right time for the person you love to die?
“He wouldn’t want you to be so sad.”
I think he would understand my sadness and my need to feel what I feel.
“Don’t worry, you’re so pretty, you’ll meet someone new and get married again.”
Don’t you get it? Grief isn’t healed by finding a replacement.
“You’re young; you will have other children.”
Do you think that one child can take the place of another?
“I know just how you feel.”
No you don’t You don't have a clue how I feel.
“It’s great to see you laughing and finally over your grief.”
I may be laughing on the outside, but on the inside I am filled with pain.
“Are you going to grieve forever?”
Well, I’m probably going to be grieving in some fashion from time to time.
5. Offer positive condolence expressions.
This means using sentences and phrases which convey only your empathy and ongoing concern. Some examples include: I am sorry to hear about the death of (use the name of the deceased). This must be very painful right now... Your loved one is no longer suffering, but I’m sure you are.... This must be very difficult for you... I can’t begin to imagine how this must feel... It’s hard to know why this happened... I don’t know what to say but would like to help in any way.
6. Recommend a grief support group.
While the vast majority of grievers will never need one-on-one professional counseling, most can and benefit from participating in a grief support group. There, they will be with others who will effectively listen, guide, support, encourage, educate, survive, and thrive together. After the death of her twenty-one year old daughter in an automobile accident, her mother began attending a bereavement support group. She found it extremely beneficial identifying these benefits:
- “The group served as a sounding board. I could always find someone to listen to my concern and my questions...
- “The companionship I experienced in the group kept me from feeling isolated and alone.”
- “The group gave me the opportunity to express my feelings of anger without fear of judgment and without raised eyebrows staring back at me.”
- “When my family and friends grew weary of hearing my expressions of sadness and despair, I could count on group members always being there to listen, discuss difficult topics, and wipe away the tears.”
- “Group participation provided me access to important information about valuable resources such as grief books and magazines, web based resources, and seminars.”
- “Additionally, the social enhancement of a support groups allows attendees to connect with one another. We maintained contact through our monthly newsletters, telephone friends, internet forum, and mailing lists. We often formed lasting relationships.”
7. Follow up.
A month after the death, grievers no longer receive much support as people return to their own lives. Yet, the months following a loss are precisely the times when a griever is most in need of friendship. Continue to check in with your grieving friend. Remember to reach out on special days such as Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays. Festive days for others are times when grief is heightened for the bereaved.
Always pray regularly for your grieving friend, that he or she will continue to heal from hurt, move from darkness to light, and transition from pain to peace.