By Gaetane Borders
Recently, a co-worker of mine suffered a terrible loss. Her mother passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. My company normally sends out bulk emails to everyone under such circumstances so that people can write notes of condolences or attend funeral ceremonies. Since the ceremony was out of state, I could not make the trip, and figured that I would speak with her directly when she came back to work. However, it did not go quite as I had planned. See…when I saw her for the first time after her mother’s death, I was at a loss for words. For someone like myself who has the gift of gab, this was disconcerting. I thought to myself “What can I possibly say to her to make her feel better?” Telling her that I understood how she felt would be a lie. Telling her that everything would be ok would be insensitive. Not saying anything at all would be downright offensive. So I did neither. Instead I welcomed her back and gave her a heartfelt hug while holding back tears. Although she appeared to appreciate the warmth, I felt truly disappointed in myself for feeling so awkward.
I imagine that this is how other people may feel as well when a friend or family member experiences a loss. What do you tell a parent whose child is murdered, or to someone whose mother was killed in an act of domestic violence? The immediate knee-jerk reaction is to attempt cheer them up. But for the person grieving, those words are typically not comforting. I learned this from a bereavement counselor friend of mine who mentioned that, too often, people fill up silence with words to avoid uncomfortable emotions. Silence, he said, is sometimes more powerful and soothing than meaningless words. However, he warned that avoiding the mourner is wrong because this will make them feel that you are apathetic. Instead, simply saying, “I cannot imagine how you must feel right now, but I am here for you whenever you want company or need to talk” will be reassuring.
Although many of us do not know the best thing to say when someone dies, there are things that we can do to help our friends and loved ones during their grieving period. Here are some other things that you can do:
- Write a letter or note expressing your thoughts. You may find that the easiest way to share your thoughts.
- Offer to cook meals for them over the upcoming weeks. This is a very simple and thoughtful way of providing support.
- Call them to check in even months after their loss. Sometimes people think that just because a few months and weeks have passed that the mourner is no longer sad.
- Acknowledge all feelings. Their grief reactions are natural and necessary. Do not pass judgment on how well they are or are not coping.
- Offer to help with making decisions. It is often difficult to think clearly at the time of a death.
- Identify friends who might be willing to help with specific tasks on a regular basis. Performing tasks such as picking up the kids from school or refilling prescriptions can be a big help.
- Get groceries or necessities.
- Offer to accompany them to the gravesite as a means of support.
- Remember Holidays & Occasions - these can be really tough. Whether it’s Christmas, birthdays or anniversaries (including the anniversary of their death), people who have been seemingly strong can crumble as they have to face their loss all over again.
- Depression is often part of grief. Be aware of any changes in appetite, mood, and sleep patterns, as this may be a sign of clinical depression. If you are concerned, make sure to help them seek professional guidance.
Remember that there is no right way to grieve and mourn. Be very careful not to impose your ideas, beliefs and expectations on someone else, no matter how much you think it might help. Instead, be willing to listen with an empathetic ear, as this will surely be a source of comfort.
Gaétane F. Borders
President, Peas In Their Pods