In our youth obsessed culture we don’t talk much about death even though it is something 100% of us face. Many of us die in hospitals or nursing homes, removed from view. Even the word “death” is sanitized. Instead of saying someone has died, we say that person has “passed away” or “departed.” As a result of our avoidance and discomfort with the subject, we are often profoundly unprepared to aid people we love when they are grieving the death of a loved one. Here are some things to keep in mind.
1. You can’t fix this
We are accustomed to being pro-active problem solvers and when someone we love is in trouble we mobilize quickly to help. But grief is not a problem to be solved. It is a process—a long, slow one—that can’t be rushed or avoided. This can make us feel impotent and useless but the most important thing you can do is just be there. Once I had a friend who lived in a nursing home. I always took something when I visited I thought might improve her life—a book, a puzzle or some other activity—until the day she took my hand and said, “Janet, please stop bringing things. All I really want is your company.” Lesson learned. Just be there.
Allow the person who is grieving to talk about whatever they need to talk about. They may want to talk about their feelings or share memories or regrets. They may need to discuss practical matters or concerns. Or they may want to talk about something completely unrelated to the death. There may be anger, tears and sometimes laughter. Don’t try to fix anything. Let them set the direction of the conversation and just listen.
3. Don’t say, “Call me if there’s anything I can do.”
They won’t, no matter how sincerely you mean it. Most of us are better givers than receivers and a dazed and confused grieving person may not even know what they need. This is a time you can be pro-active. Look around. See what needs doing and do it. Cook a meal, clean, shop, do some laundry, take the dog for a walk. Answer the phone or the door while they take a nap. You will see it if you look.
4. Give them options for activities.
For example, “I’d like to take you to lunch on Monday.” If they don’t want to go out let them say so. Or, “I’m bringing you lunch. If you don’t feel like company, I’ll leave it at your door.”
And avoid overwhelming them with choices. Instead of saying, “Where would you like to go?” try “Do you feel like Italian or seafood?” If they offer another alternative, go with that.
5. “Tidying up” too soon is a mistake.
I’ve seen well-meaning people throw out what they perceive as clutter or dispose of the deceased person’s belongings soon after a death occurs. I suppose they think “out of sight, out of mind” will help the griever get on with his or her life. It doesn’t. You can’t distract someone from grief. Removing mementos or pictures or avoiding mention of the loved one’s name will not prevent the griever from thinking about the death. Let them take the lead on when they’re ready to get rid of things.
6. Things to avoid saying
- “I know how you feel.” No, you don’t.
- “He or she is in a better place.” The only place the grieving person wants their loved one is with them.
- “God called his angel home because He needed him or her.” Seriously? What about the grieving person’s needs?
- “You were lucky to have him/her for so long.” Whoever thinks they’ve had their loved one long enough?
- “Everything happens for a reason.” Right. Name one reason that will make the griever feel better.
- “He or she fought the good fight.” This implies that the deceased didn’t fight hard enough.
- “Now you can move on with your life.” No explanation needed for this one.
- “You’re still young. You’ll find someone else.” No explanation needed for this one, either.
Instead of trying to make the person feel better (see #1), acknowledge their pain.
- “I’m sorry for your loss”
- “I’m here for you”
- “You don’t have to be brave right now”
- Say nothing. A hug can speak volumes. Or just listen (see #2). Let them know you are a safe haven for their wounded heart.
7. Understand that holding up well is not necessarily a good thing.
Our society rewards stoicism and we admire people who “hold up well” in the face of overwhelming loss. But those unexpressed feelings don’t go away. They just pop up in some other unpleasant way like physical illness or clinical depression. Depression is a normal and predictable response to loss—in fact, an absence of sadness is cause for concern—but clinical depression is a serious disorder. Be sensitive to the fact that some of us are more private grievers. (I hate to cry in front of anyone and it never makes me feel better.) Respect the griever’s boundaries but watch for signs that indicate danger such as significant weight loss or gain, sleep disturbance that lasts for weeks or months, feelings of hopelessness, inappropriate guilt and thoughts of suicide. It is a myth that people who talk about suicide never follow through. Depression is often worse in the morning. Grievers awaken to the reality of their changed lives and the day can seem interminably long. Show up with breakfast or plan an outing for the morning.
8. Be there for the long haul.
Everyone shows up immediately after someone dies. Be the one who’s still there when all the food has been eaten, the funeral is over and everyone else has gone back to their lives. Life returns to normal for everyone except the griever and that’s when things get lonely. One of the most important things we can do for each other is show up and not run away when times are hard.
And finally, a reminder to all of us to cherish the time you have with those you love. As we age the reality of death becomes more and more clear. Don’t miss an opportunity to be with people who are dear to you or to express your feelings for them.