When we have friends or family who have lost a loved one we often experience a feeling of helplessness—not knowing what to say or do, and worrying that we might only make matters worse. Don’t let these feelings keep you from reaching out and offering support.
Here is how some experts expressed their thoughts. Dr. Leonard and Hilary Stanton Zunin in their book, The Art of Condolence, wrote: “No one has ever taught us the art of condolence … We want to comfort, to condole, but we don’t know what to write … say … or do.” Ted Menten in his book, After Goodbye, said “The question, ‘What can you do?’ is easily answered by simply rearranging the same words— ‘Do what you can.’” The Zunins are right—most of us have never attended the class—Condolence 101. The Zunin’s book continues, “Yet, we know intuitively that in offering comfort and sympathy to another, each of us gains.” So, using Ted Menten’s simple formula and following the Zunin’s advice—put your awkward feelings aside and simply be there for those who are grieving.
You may think that saying “I’m sorry” and just being there are inadequate. But these simple words and actions really are enough. To simply say, “I’m sorry”; acknowledging another’s loss is very important. These simple words accompanied by a touch or a hug or whatever gesture you feel is appropriate, sends a message of support that really helps during such trying times.
Your presence and your ability to listen are the keys. You may feel that if you could just find the right words, you could lift the burden of their grief, if only for a little while, thus giving them a time of peace and easing the pain. But, it is so important for the bereaved to have someone that they can talk to. To be able to tell their story—the events as they happened—over and over again if necessary. It is how the reality of the loss is able to become real.
Sometimes when we search for the right words we repeat platitudes like, “He’s in a better place,” or “You can have another child.” Or worst of all, “I know how you feel.” These well intentioned words often irritate instead of help. There is nothing you can say that will ease the pain of the loss! A grieving person must go through the heart of a loss to get to the other side; there is no other way around it. Only time can ease the pain. That may sound hard, but it is a good thing—a needed thing. However, your presence and your support are immeasurable.
So, after you have said, “I’m sorry,” what’s next? You can offer to help. What might seem like a simple chore to you often seems like a complex problem to the grieving. Here are some of the ideas that were shared in a bereavement group that I started following the loss of my twenty-one-year-old son …
Jane had help returning dishes to those who had brought food; another had help addressing thank-you notes. Shirley had a person cook an entire dinner, down to the rolls, two weeks after the funeral—when the refrigerator was finally empty from the funeral food. Still another felt as though a boulder was lifted from her back when a young neighbor offered to cut her grass. Elizabeth was grateful when a friend offered to go to church with her. She felt guilty when she did not attend, but going alone was difficult.
They also noted—don’t just say “I’ll call you and we will have lunch sometime.” Actually do it. That widow friend may be sitting alone waiting for that call that doesn’t come!
The group found that as time passed, people often hesitated to mention the person who died. Friends seemed afraid that they would reopen the wound or make matters worse. The bereaved often welcome the opportunity to talk about their loved one. As Judy said, “I wanted to say, ‘Talk about him! Say his name! Remember his life! Please!’”
An excellent way to do this is to recall an incident involving yourself and the deceased. Don’t worry if it includes humor; the bereaved are relieved to find they can still laugh. Parents of a son who died several years ago recently met one of his friends. In describing the meeting, they remarked that it had been a very long time since anyone spoke to them about Tommy. Their faces lit up as they talked about laughing at the adventures the two young men had shared.
You cannot replace the loss or take away the pain, but your support, your ability to listen, your presence, makes the pain easier to bear. Without support from people like you, life for those who are grieving would be so much more difficult.