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How to really help after a loss

Last Modified: November 12, 2017

Healthy Mind, Community

How to really help after a loss

We’ve all been close to someone who experienced a tragic loss. Many of us have experienced such loss ourselves. In those difficult hours, days and weeks after someone passes away, it can be challenging to find the right words or gestures to express our sincere condolences. Lydia Miller, staff chaplain, Parkview Regional Medical Center, offers her observations from years of coming alongside families in their time of grieving.

What are some words of comfort to offer after the loss of a loved one?
In working with grieving families, I have learned it’s best to keep things simple. Saying, “I am so very sorry,” “I love you,” or “I am holding your family close in prayer,” are good phrases. Mentioning the deceased by name to the survivors, speaking in short sentences, and using plain language, like “death,” “died,” or “dead” are also helpful during times of grief and loss. It’s important to realize that not one thing you say will change the outcome or level of grief. Words matter, but removal of pain is not within our capabilities.

Offering the wrong words, although not intended to be so, can be detrimental. Philosophical or religious phrases, such as, “Another angel was needed in Heaven,” “This was God’s will,” or “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” can be hurtful to surviving loved ones.

Is it appropriate to cry?
It is very appropriate to cry with someone who is grieving. Grieving hurts. Showing genuine emotion and empathy can be helpful. Having said that, it is best to refrain from losing all emotional control. Often, families who are grieving share that one of the most  draining tasks immediately following a loss is feeling like they have to console others. If you feel like your emotions will be overwhelming to you or to the family members, it is best to reach out in other ways.

What are some things I can do for a friend after they lose a loved one?
Realize that most people who are grieving do not know what they need or want. Grief is exhausting in all senses of the word, and making the simplest of decisions can be overwhelming. Practical gestures are best. Cook, bake, offer to clean, put together a basket of paper products, snacks, fruit and beverages. Shovel snow or offer to run errands. If there are children involved, offer to babysit or provide activities (i.e. board games, coloring books, crayons, puzzles, etc.). Some of the greatest acts of kindness shown to my family during our time of grief were meals (even if I didn’t feel like eating, my kids still needed nourishment) and friends who just showed up and took care of raking our leaves and cleaning up our yard. These simple acts meant so much more than words.

How can I offer comfort at the funeral home, burial or memorial service?
Once again, there are no magic words that will lessen the pain. In fact, many grieving family members share that they don’t remember the nice words that people say, but they do remember the people that were present. Contributing to memorials, sending flowers or gifts when appropriate are lovely gestures that are also appreciated. When visiting with loved ones at the funeral home, remember to be brief in sharing your memories and condolences. Save the long stories and memories for a later visit or write them in a card or note. Be respectful of the family’s time and mindful of the amount of energy and fortitude needed to get through visitation and a funeral of a loved one.

What are some things I can do a week, month, few months after the loss?
One of the most difficult phases of grief is anger. For some, the first “wave” of anger happens upon the realization that others have seemingly moved on with their lives and have returned to “normal”, when the survivor’s entire world has been turned upside down and  there is no “normal” at all. During this time, please be patient and continue to reach out. Invite the person out to lunch or a movie and include them in other activities, even if they say “no” for a time. Send cards, notes, or messages sharing a favorite memory of their loved one. When you are talking, don’t be afraid to mention the deceased person’s name. Don’t take a grieving person’s angry outbursts or emotional distance personally. Allow the grief-stricken to vent, and be ready to listen. Or, be comfortable with silence — your quiet presence may be just what a grieving person needs. Most importantly, be mindful that everyone grieves differently and there is no timeline. Grief is a journey.

What if I don’t handle death well. How can I still be supportive?
Death is hard. Death can be scary. For some, death brings back horrible memories of traumatic events. In these cases, the thought of being present at a viewing or funeral can be terrifying. There are many other ways to offer support if you are unable to attend (see above for practical ideas). Be gentle with yourself, take time to acknowledge your own losses, and remember that there are many stages to grief. If you are unable to be present initially, there is plenty of time and opportunity to provide support for weeks, months and years to come.  

Grief is often described as waves in the ocean crashing down upon us. At first, they are fast and furious, leaving us breathless and fatigued. The enormous waves are cruel and unrelenting. We are barely able to catch a breath before the next one washes over us, knocking us to the bottom of the ocean floor again and again. After a time, the waves still come, but our friends and loved ones help buoy us when we feel as if we are going to drown. As they hold us up, we learn to catch quick breaths in between the waves. Although they still come, with the help of God and our loved ones, the waves become more manageable and farther apart. We learn how to swim a little stronger and to appreciate the breaks in the waves. 



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