Today I listened to a teleconference called Living with Grief. I found myself nodding in agreement many times as a panel of grief counselors, doctors and funeral directors discussed how best to help families and support their grieving process. Again and again, a central theme was expressed: let the griever lead. Encourage expression of feelings. Validate these feelings because it is normal and right to feel horrible when someone you love has died.
The important of stories was stressed as well. Telling the story of the actual event is helpful in releasing shock and disbelief, but more importantly, sharing stories about your loved one keeps the connection alive. Laughing with someone while remembering something he or she said or did is so important, even if it makes you cry. At my husband's Celebration of Life, one of my children spoke about an embarrassing moment that now actually emphasizes some of the unique qualities that Alby had – the ability to be completely at home in his body and to be absolutely silly with great dignity.
Often, after someone dies, friends and acquaintances don't know what to do or say. They fear that if they mention the dead person, they will upset us. And we, who are so bereft, long for normal conversation about our lost one; we want to tell the stories. We want to hear your stories. We want to give voice to the relationship, to express memories. We need to do this.
One of the most distressing things to me, especially in early grief, was to have someone say, "So and so wants you to know they are thinking of you." I would feel a flash of anger, then of extreme isolation. If they are thinking of me, do they not have a phone? Couldn't they pick it up, call me, and tell me themselves? Wouldn't that be a more genuine expression of friendship and concern?
Ignoring the bereaved, even if your intention to "not to upset" us, feels like invalidation of what we are experiencing. Instead, if you know someone who is mourning a loss, take a different approach. Pick up the phone and call. If you don't know what to say, try honesty. Say, "I don't know what to say, but I was thinking of you. How are you doing today?" Then, just listen compassionately. This is actually a very large gift to someone in emotional distress – to be heard and given an opportunity to express how they are feeling. If you have time, you could even offer to come over, have a cup of tea and shoot the breeze about that wonderful, quirky person who is now gone.