Since the one I loved died, I have had several people ask me how to best help someone who has lost someone who was very close to them. I never realized how hard it really was for people to express their sympathy without the fear of hurting the grieving person. It is difficult in that everyone is different and has had different relationships with the one they have lost. You can’t know everything about that relationship or that person. However, you can still love the person in their grief and through it. I’m not going to say it’s easy but it can speak volumes into your friend’s or loved one’s life.
(I want to make sure to specify that these suggestions are from my personal journey with grief and walking it with others. I am not a professional counselor or psychologist. I took classes in college and I have seen a great counselor for years. This is written to offer a layman’s view of helping others in grief.)
* My first response is always to be there for them. Call to check on the person. If you plan to stand beside and walk the journey with them, don’t just tell them to call you if they need anything or want to talk. In many cases, it will never happen. Drop by to see them and make some of those visits happen without much advanced notice. The reason for this is because there are many times where the grieving person wants so much to just be left alone. That time is needed, but it is not what they need every moment of the day. Those “I’m in the neighborhood and would like to stop by” moments helped so much. I could have stayed in a dark room for weeks, but it wouldn’t have been good for me. Relationships are so important to give the grieving hope of life moving forward and the confidence that there are people who are there for them. They need a break from their thoughts or someone to listen to them and/or offer a shoulder to cry on. It’s also important because those who have lost others have too much going through their minds and sometimes those thoughts get skewed. It’s easy for our minds to take us places far away from the truth especially when fears and worries about the future come into play.
* Don’t use platitudes. They can sometimes be the most damaging comments said. “I’m sorry”, “I love you” and/or “I’m praying for you” and a hug are so often the best sentiments to express. If you have not experienced such a loss, worked in a field where this is part of your job or not walked through it with someone, start with this and go from there, especially until you have spent time with the person and know more of what they are feeling and going through.
* Many people who are grieving want to talk about what’s going on in others’ lives and they want to be included in day-to-day activities. It took some time for others to ask anything of me. This was needed to some degree, but then I had someone ask if I could pray for another person. This was like balm to my pain. I was finally able to focus my heart and thoughts on the needs of someone else and not the misery of what was happening in my life. This isn’t something that should be done right away unless the person asks you to do so. If you know them well enough you’ll have a good idea when they’re ready. Although this is an important step for the person, don’t go to the extreme with it where the person’s hurt is closed to further discussion. This can be extremely damaging. It’s like telling the person, “OK, your time is up. Get over it.”
* Be willing to hear about the person’s memories or feelings for some time. The grieving person may bring up something seemingly out of the blue where it has nothing to do with what you are talking about but it is always at the forefront of their mind. This will lessen over time and begin to fit into normal conversation, but just be understanding and go with the path they are taking. Even if you’re bored to death of hearing it, most likely this person is still trying to sort through everything and needs to not feel like they’re putting you out or being a nuisance because they may stop talking about it altogether, which is probably not what is the best thing for them to do. There are some, I know, who milk the situation to get the attention and there are others who get stuck in a place in their healing where they can’t move forward. In those instances, err on the side of compassion. If you know that the person is stuck, suggest counseling and even have options available for them like churches that offer free or scaled fee counseling. This takes the work out of their hands and leaves them with only the decision to make about whether or not to seek counseling. I know for the first few months after his death, anything I had to do felt like climbing Mount Everest. Just make sure they understand that you are wanting the best for them instead of giving them the implication that you’re at the end of your rope and are dismissing them.
* Find times to do normal or fun things with the person. It helps, after a week or two is given just to minister to and comfort them, to take them out of the new normal in their life and do something enjoyable. One of my friends took me out for a day. It was so fun. It helped me feel like there was life outside of the grief. We laughed and enjoyed the day. At the end of the day I remember starting to cry, seemingly out of the blue, and she was just there for me and listened. She didn’t do anything special, but it was perfect.
* After two or three weeks, start to include them in daily life like you normally would. Don’t avoid them because you feel uncomfortable or are unsure of what to say. If you would normally have called them, call them. If you’re going for a walk, see if they’d like to come along. When you get together, talk about normal things like you usually would. Of course, be sensitive to their feelings and be sure to ask how they are doing, giving them the opportunity to talk unless they have asked you not to do so. In that case, it should be like any other get together.
* If you are someone who is also grieving deeply for this person and you need to grieve differently, don’t make your grief out to be more important. Don’t set rules for the other person about what they can and cannot say or do when you are together. Grieving processes for the one who died can be as different for people as their relationships were with the person who died. If you shut down someone in their grief and tell them they need to respect the way you need to grieve and you don’t do the same for them, you are not showing respect for the other person and you are minimizing their loss. Some people get angry during the course of their grieving and sometimes that anger comes hard and cuts deep while the other person has only positive, warm memories of the person. Those two types of grieving are not going to work together for good for the people involved, especially if one person is demanding the other to act on their terms when they are together. It may be that there needs to be some time apart if the grieving is hard and you can’t grieve together. Give each other the space, love and respect to mourn, be angry and any other emotions that need to be worked through with the person who has died. This way each can come out on the other side healed and not thinking they did or felt something wrong. If the relationship was good before the loss, coming back together after healing will be both a blessing and another step in the healing process. If it wasn’t a good relationship before the loss, the time apart may help those involved want to make the relationship better and work through whatever issues they’ve had to become stronger together. However, sometimes, it may become clear that the relationship was damaging and the decision to sever the relationship may be best for all involved. (As I’ve said before, if the other person is a spouse or child of yours, there are other factors that come into play and much prayer and intercession needs to be done to try to heal these relationships.)
* If you have an issue with or something you’ve wanted to say to the person before the loss, don’t take the moment at the viewing or funeral to talk about it. That is beyond anything that is appropriate. I had one man approach me in the reception line who told me that I needed to do something differently than how I had done it. I hadn’t seen this man in years and was never close to him. My mind was reeling after he said this and I could barely concentrate on greeting people after him, but did the best I could.
* Don’t judge the person. After the one I loved died, I had one person tell me I wasn’t being a very good mommy. We had just attended a gathering where my two kids were wanting my attention the entire time. I was short with them a few times because I was tired and barely functioning. This shortness is what caused this person to tell me I wasn’t being a good mom. I was floored! I started to cry after it was said and it stayed with me for a long time. This was a serious accusation and was not warranted. I needed help not judgement.
The thing is, as long as you’re not hurting or neglecting yourself or your children, while things will be very different, maybe for some time, people are probably doing the best they can with what they are going through and have to handle. Jump in and help instead of judging them. No one knows what is going on in their life either before or after the loss and judging them only brings more pain. They simply need your love and support.
* If there are children involved, love on them. Include them in conversations and visits when possible. Also, if you have the time and know the children, offer to take them to a park, get ice cream, go to a movie or come over and play at your house. When a spouse dies, the other spouse instantly has all the responsibilities that were once shared by two resting fully on their shoulders. Their life is in a tailspin, they’re hurting and have become a single parent at the same time. They not only have their own grief to work through, but they also have to look after their child’s grief. That is beyond HARD. It hurts so, so much to see your children hurting. Taking them for some time gives the person some rest where they can not only have time to relax or get something done, but it also gives them the time to not have to try to be strong for their kids. It gives them time to just be. If they have been at a breaking point, they can finally let go and fully feel what they’ve held back. Giving them this time will help them. The parent may say no to your offer to take the children and that’s ok. Don’t let that keep you from asking again on occasion. Also, make sure to do all the transportation to and from their time with you and tell the parent an approximate time you will bring them back. I had people who would take the boys occasionally but I usually had to transport them at least one way. They would keep them for a couple hours and then contact me to pick them up. There was no time to let loose and just be. I rarely knew for sure if they would bring them home or if they would call to have me pick them up. These times only added more for me to do and gave me no real time to drop my guard. I’m sure it was good for the kids, though, but it was exhausting for me.
* If you have any skills or jobs that you can offer to do to help the person, it would be appreciated more than you can ever know. You can ask them if they need anything, but usually you will be told they are fine. Offer specific things you can do for them rather than keeping the offer open-ended. Take care of something for them so they don’t have to do the work or worry about getting it done. The thing is that when you’ve lost someone, especially a spouse, one of the main feelings you feel is loneliness. With my loss coming from a suicide, I have feelings of loneliness as well, but when I have something break or that needs to be done, I feel abandoned. I feel like the one I loved left me to handle everything with the house we bought together, the boys we had together and so on. It’s hard to have the world weighing on you without anyone to fall back on. This is true for any single person in one way or another, but for someone who has become single instantly because of death, the responsibilities are overwhelming. Offering support in this area can help lift some of that weight off of them.
These are just general suggestions I have from my journey with grief and healing. Of course, there are special things you can do that fit the person you know and what they are going through. But, again, the best thing you can do is to be there. Your love, compassion and willingness to love them through their loss will help beyond anything you can imagine.