Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Talking to the Bereaved

We seem unable to know what to do or say when a friend is grieving. Too often people resort to stock comments, meant to be comforting which actually are maddening and even hurtful to the bereaved. As a certified grief counselor, I’ve listened to clients cope with the hurt feelings these well-meant but clumsy clich├ęs cause.  Here is a list of things you shouldn’t say, accompanied by what the bereaved person thinks if you do:

“He’s in a better place.”  So, being here on earth with me is not a good place?

“It was his time.” How do you know that? It certainly wasn’t MINE!  This is right up there with the next one:

“God has a special plan for her.” This may be helpful to the deeply religious but for most of us, the idea that there was a good reason to die, especially when this is said about a young person, is ridiculous. There is not a single human being who has direct insight into any cosmic grand plan that does or does not exist. Do not say this to a person who just suffered the death of a loved one.

“Well, after all, she lived a very long life.”  As if you are not supposed to feel sad? Does it matter if your 97 year old mother died? After all, you’ve had her in your life for such a long time – wouldn’t it make sense to grieve? This comment is insensitive and dismissive.

“Call me if you need anything.”  Trust me, the griever is too busy coping with death to pick up the phone. This does not mean that he doesn’t need anything. It means he is too upset to ask.

“You have to be strong.” The person saying this is telling the griever that they are uncomfortable with their emotions. In my opinion, strength is highly overrated. Grief is no time to be stoic.  Sadness, anger, fear and anxiety – all emotions that are symptoms of grief –  cannot be hidden by pretending to be strong.

“Are you over it yet?”  OY!  This was actually said to me by a weird firewood delivery man 3 months (yes, THREE) after my husband died.  I could not even speak. 

      Here is the truth about grief.  You will NEVER get over the death of someone you love.  You WILL be able to live again; you can grow, love, change, experience new things for the rest of your life. At the same time, you will always miss them. There will be random times in the future where you will suddenly feel terribly sad that they are no longer here. This will happen whether your loved one was 10, 50 or 100 years old when they died.

      So, now that we know some of the things NOT to say, what can you say or do for someone in grief? 

      BE THERE.  Show up, bring some nice tea or a plate of cookies and don’t be insulted if your friend just stares at them. 

    “I am here for you.”  Say this and then demonstrate it. Do something that needs to be done – offer to pick up the newspaper or a gallon of milk.  Make dinner, drop it off with a hug and a warm smile.
        Actions speak louder than words.  Offer to mow the lawn, take the garbage to the dump, help with shopping.  I am forever grateful to the acquaintance who noticed my mailbox stand was falling apart and simply built me another, came over and replaced it. 
       Say their name. People are sometimes afraid to bring up their name, thinking that this will make the person upset.  THEY ARE ALREADY VERY UPSET, and they are worried that no one remembers. Talk about the dead person.  Make it okay for their loved one to tell stories, to share a laugh about something funny they did in life. 

“     "I don’t know how you feel but I am willing to listen.”  Bring a box of tissues and let your friend cry in your presence.  It’s okay to weep a little yourself too. 

        BE THERE later. People usually rally around the time of death and then seem to disappear. Remember that your friend will be grieving for a long time.  Show up later, in 6 months, in a year, as well as immediately after the death.

Kindness, compassion and showing up are the best things you can do.  Saying words that show you care are the best things you can say.

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