Grief is a complex individual. She comes in many forms, has various levels of severity, and assumes multiple personalities. On Death and Dying, a book written in 1969 by Elizabeth Kubler Ross and coauthored by David Kessler, introduced the five stages of death: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance (www.grief.com). These authors detailed what could be expected at each of the stages of loss and offered advice for successfully processing through each level.
While grief can be overwhelming for the individual who is experiencing it, it often proves to be a difficult process for those attempting to provide support to the bereaved as well. Questions related to what to say, how to say it, when to say it, or what to do, can be baffling for those watching a loved one suffer with grief. That is the purpose of this post, to offer some insight on how we can better extend love and support during this emotional time.
What do I Say?
The factor of not knowing what to say tops the list for most would-be-supporters. We are unsure of what to say and afraid of saying the wrong thing. This dilemma often keeps us away when we really want to be there for our friend or loved one. “I’m sorry for your loss” or a similar expression of condolences is usually the standard response. Most, if not all of us, have expressed sympathy using the mentioned standard response, with ease. However, we frequently struggle with what to say beyond this statement. The solution to this puzzle is not as complex as most believe: you do not have to say anything more than this. Your presence is an expression of support in and of itself. If you do not know what to say or fear saying the wrong thing, just be there and allow the griever to talk if he/she wants to and be sure to listen with a sympathetic ear.
Things to Remember When You Do Speak
Everyone is at a different level in their relationship with God and some may not have one at all; remain aware of this. Quoting scripture relevant to their loss may comfort some, but it may anger others. Even the most faithful follower of Christ may not want to hear that their beloved “is in a better place” or “to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord”. Tread carefully, paying attention to facial expressions and body language. If they are not receptive to scripture don’t force it on them.
Have you seen that person who acts stoic before, during, and after the loss of a loved one, holding back tears and going about like it’s business as usual? If you have, you may have made the mistake of commenting on the bereaved’s strength, believing it to be a compliment to him or her, but it may not have a complimentary effect. These words may put a lot of pressure on them because they imply that to cry and “fall apart” is weak, when it is human to be vulnerable and there is strength in submitting to this vulnerability.
What Support Looks Like
How can we support the griever, what can we do to help? There are many seemingly small things that we can do that that will play a large part in helping our friend, relative, or neighbor to get through this complicated process. I’m going to share five such ways below.
1. Don’t hold them to your prescribed time expectations. There is no magic number for how long anyone is supposed to grieve. Allow them to take as much time to heal as they need to, without judgement and without getting frustrated with them.
2. Educate to understand. If you are not familiar with the stages of grief and what they entail, become familiar with them. Recognizing these stages and the different emotions that go along with them will help you to be more understanding and thus more supportive.
3. The funeral or memorial service allows the mourner some closure, but the hurt lingers, and the memories will live on. We can help them to channel the pain and honor their loved one by helping them to memorialize them. Some suggested ways to do this include: planting a tree in remembrance of the departed that they will be able to watch grow over the years, writing letters that express their feelings and any things left unsaid, and/or hosting a balloon release, candlelight vigil, or other remembrance gathering and making that an annual event.
4. Don’t assume that you know what they need. Everyone’s needs are different, so ask them what they need and if they cannot immediately think of anything, assure them that when they do come up with something that you will be there to offer your support.
5. Don’t forget about them after the funeral. The days prior to the funeral and the days immediately following it, are surrounded by family members and friends. However, as time goes on and people continue with their lives, the bereaved may feel all alone. Continue to call and/or visit them periodically, reminding them that you are still there for them.
Death is certain and the grief that follows it can be a harrowing obstacle course to get through. Knowing how to support and offering this support can make a tremendous difference in helping the bereaved to navigate this course successfully.
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