How to Help Grieving People
By Roslyn Crichton
Co-founder of COPING
Edited by Wendy Lindsay
Check out the book written by Roslyn Crichton, the founder of Coping. This book provides useful information for those who want to know how they can help those who are grieving. It covers topics such as What to say, Surviving the Holidays, how to respond to questions, and many other issues.
The following booklet has come as a result of listening to hundreds of grieving people who have taught us what they need in the area of support from those around them. Family and friends often back away from the bereaved because they feel awkward and don't know what to do or say, leaving the grieving person feeling even more alone and isolated.
We trust that this booklet might be a helpful guide so that we can extend to those who are grieving the love and support they so desperately need during this time.
It is important to remember that each one's grief is unique. Two people may have lost the same relationship and share some similar feelings but each one, because of their personality, kind of relationship they had with the person who died, cultural background, religious beliefs, will feel and react to the experience of grief in different ways.
In the hundreds of people dealt with through Coping Bereavement Support Groups no two people have ever mourned in exactly the same way. Over the past 15 years as I met and talked with grieving people I would often come home and make notes about what those people taught me about their unique experience with grief. You will read about many of them in this booklet.
1. What to say
At the beginning, it's often more important for the bereaved to feel your presence than to hear anything you might say. Don’t feel you must have something to say. Especially with fresh grief, your embrace, your touch and your sincere sorrow are all the mourner may need. There are no words that will take away the pain of the loss. From personal experience I found NOBODY said any words that made a difference in my pain.
Phrases that DO help
I call these phrases "door openers." They invite the bereaved to share their pain and memories with the listener. Your greatest gift is your invitation to talk, while you listen - offering no advice or judgment.
"This must be very painful for you."(Then the griever can feel free to describe the pain.)
"You must have been very close to him." (The survivor can then talk about their relationship.)
"I have no idea of what it must be like for you; I've never had a (spouse/child/parent) die. Can you tell me what it's like?" (Then listen.)
"It must be hard to accept." (Listen as they tell you their difficulties.)
"I really miss (name of deceased). He was a special person. But my missing him cant compare with how much you must miss him. Tell me what it's like." (Then listen)
Phrases that DON'T help
"She/he isn’t hurting anymore" and "It must have been his time" are examples of remarks that are seldom helpful. You may have already said some of these phrases, hoping to be comforting. If so, don’t be hard on yourself or feel guilty; just avoid them next time.
“Time will heal." (Time alone does not heal, though it helps. We need time in addition to working through the grief).
"It was God’s will." (First learn what the survivor's religious belief is. Some people may be comforted by the thought that a death is "God’s will"; to others it can be insulting or harmful.)
"I know how you feel." (None of us, even dealing with a similar situation, knows exactly how another feels.)
"Be thankful you have another child." (This diminishes the importance of the child who died.)
"There must have been a reason." (The griever's own search for a reason for the death is more important than any answer you can give. Don’t superimpose your beliefs.)
2. Is it too late to call?
Be sure to call or visit the survivor, no matter how much time has passed. They will appreciate knowing you care, and will usually understand that you may have felt uncomfortable in approaching them in the first few weeks or months after the death.
3. Don't wait to be asked
Grief often drastically depletes physical energy. Seemingly minor tasks can loom large to the survivor. In fact just to accomplish the simplest of tasks some days seems impossible to the grieving person. You might run errands, answer the phone, prepare meals, do the laundry or perform other necessary chores.
Don’t merely say, "If there's anything I can do, let me know." (Grievers have lots of those offers.) Many people find it difficult to ask for help and to keep on asking.
Instead, make specific suggestions such as, "I'd like to mow your lawn next Saturday morning at ten. Would that be okay with you?" or "I'd like to plant the two azalea shrubs and chrysanthemums that were given at Jim's funeral. You just tell me where you want them planted, and I'll work it into my schedule" or "May I go shopping with you the first time you go out for groceries?" "Please let me do your ironing for you" or "Do you have anything that needs repairing on your house?"
Roslyn recalls “I remember the first time I went grocery shopping after Rachele had died and seeing shoppers going up and down the aisles with their carts as if nothing had happened. I felt a great sense of isolation and aloneness and disbelief that the world seemed to be carrying on even though my daughter was dead. I wanted to scream out -'stop, don't you know what has happened'. When I got to the cashier I saw a public address microphone by the register and had the overwhelming desire to grab it and shout to everyone – ‘how can you be going on with life' (when it seemed to me normal life had come to a screaming halt) 'You need to know my daughter has died.” Editor's note: Roslyn did not grab the microphone and clear the supermarket.
Each thoughtful gesture gives something of yourself and keeps the survivor from having to continually reach out for assistance. It also lets them know you think they are important. Self-esteem is often low during the early months of grief, and knowing you care enough to go out of your way can do wonders for the bereaved person's morale.
4. Ease the loneliness
Sometimes people in grief need to be alone, and at other times they long for company or someone to talk to. A sincere offer to receive a phone call any time - including the middle of the night, when the caller is crying, lonely, and can’t get to sleep--is a true gift of a close friend.
Widows and widowers have taught us that evenings from about 5:00 on are difficult periods. That part of the day is when spouses most often share time together and establish habits of closeness. An offer to spend one evening a week with the griever can do much to ease the painful feeling of total aloneness. You may fix dinner together, watch TV or read. The activity is not as important as the presence of another human being who cares. If you're there once a week, you replace some of the consistency that has been lost. You help to fill the void.
Gradually the survivor may begin new activities and become involved with more people and eventually, with your help, the sense of isolation will lessen. But it takes time. Learning to cope as a single person after many years of marriage, or even after a short marriage, is not an easy task. And learning to care about life after the death of a child is very difficult. That's why grieving is called "grief work."
A bereaved person desperately needs a listener who is accepting, supportive and willing to listen patiently to stories that are often repetitive. Each time the story is told, the finality of the death sinks in a little more.
It is therapeutic for bereaved people to repeat sad stories frequently; it helps them to grasp the reality of the death. When I meet someone who has not come to terms with the death of someone who died years before, I ask how many times the person has told the story. About seventy-five percent of the time they say they have seldom talked about it. And when they tell me about their loved one's death, it is as if it happened just last week.
When feelings of anger, frustration, anxiety, depression, relief, disappointment, fear and sadness are expressed, accept those feelings. If the survivor keeps them bottled inside, they will slow the healing process. Sharing thoughts and emotions lessens the pain. Try to not pass judgment on what you hear. Unless you have walked the same road, you cannot possibly understand all that another person needs to work through.
6. Allow both tears & laughter
Acknowledge the grieving person's pain and let them know it's okay to discuss their feelings or cry. The tendency in the presence of grief is to back away from it by changing the subject of conversation or turning away from tears. Survivors know this and need to be given permission to grieve in your presence.
You can grant this permission in both verbal and nonverbal ways.
You might say, "Go ahead and talk (or cry); it’s okay, I can handle it," or "Tears are good," or "Tears let the pain out." As they begin to cry, speak briefly, emphasizing your permission, and then wait in silence while they weep for as long as they feel the need.
Maintain eye contact as they begin to fight back the tears. If you feel the need, give them a tissue --slowly, because if you move too quickly your message says, "Hurry up, wipe those tears, your crying makes me uncomfortable." A gentle hug may be appropriate and reassuring. However, too tight a squeeze is a message saying, "Stop that."
Sometimes grieving people need to be assured that it's all right to laugh, too. They may feel that laughing is disrespectful to a dead person's memory and feel guilty for having a good time. But you can help them to see that it isn’t so and that it is alright to grieve in doses and take a break from time to time. Trying to force a smile by telling jokes isn’t appropriate, but remembering good times of the past with humor is healing. Constant solemnity is not necessary to honor a memory.
7. Grief & illness
The increased stress experienced during early grief can lead to illness. The grieving person's system is vulnerable. A few good ways to assist them in dealing with the stress are:
A. Suggest that they write out their thoughts and feelings. A special journal can be helpful. Perhaps you could buy one as a gift.
B. Encourage them to use a tape recorder to talk about their thoughts and feelings, and to listen to the tape later. Children seem to like this way of expressing their feelings as well.
C. Offer to go for a walk in the fresh air a few times a week. (Fast-walking an hour a day can decrease stress by 25 percent.)
D. Listen. It's good medicine, because talking to someone who doesn’t judge or offer advice can ease stress by as much as 50 percent.
E. Don’t force food on someone who isn’t interested in eating. A grieving person may lose weight during the first few months after a death or may overeat and gain weight. A change in eating habits is common and usually temporary. Try to offer things like hot, tasty soup or small nutritious snacks.
F. Discourage the use of drugs and alcohol. Naturally we try to numb the pain and many times we reach for choices that are not healthy. The bereaved person will simply have to face the pain later, in addition to any problems the drugs or alcohol may create.
G. If your friend is having trouble sleeping, remind them that irregular sleep habits are frequent complaints of people in grief. They are adjusting to so many changes, their minds continue to race and often refuse to sleep for long. As they gradually adjust, their sleeping patterns will return to normal. Suggest some way of relaxing before going to bed such as a warm bath or soft music, etc.
H. Another suggestion for someone who isn’t sleeping well is that he or she sleep in a different bed or room from the one shared with the person who died. Facing emptiness on the other side of the bed can be a source of pain and sleeplessness, and moving to the couch (or piling pillows into the bed's empty space) may help.
I. Encourage your friend to get a general physical checkup. Pre-existing health problems can worsen after stressful events. Over-medicating the survivor with tranquilizers or sleeping pills is not advisable.
J. Be aware of the physical symptoms of grieving, and let the mourner know that these are normal and common. With time, and as the person does the necessary grief work, they will fade. However, a medical check up is wise idea.
Some of the symptoms are:
Loss of appetite or overeating
Heavy sighing (an attempt to get more air into the lungs)
Empty, hollow feeling in the stomach
Heart aches, as if "broken." Pain in the chest or rapid pulse.
Difficulty in concentrating
Forgetfulness (tip: suggest that the griever acquire a second set of house and car keys)
Sensitivity to noise
Sense of confusion. (Grieving people can get lost in the city they know well)
Dry mouth, throat and skin (often dehydration from crying; use skin moisturizer and drink plenty of water)
Feeling of distance from others, as if no one really cares
Feeling that life has lost its interest and meaning
Sense of unreality, as if living in a dream state
Sensitively suggesting an alternate way for a single car commuter to get to and from work for the first little while is a good safety measure. This may be the ideal time to car pool, use rapid transit or be a passenger as reaction time and concentration are often poor. However, be careful not to make them feel incapable or diminish their feeling of self worth.
8. Sharing your memories... the gift we are left with
During the first few months after a death, friends and relatives tend to focus on the bereaved survivor, while the survivor focuses on the one who died. It's important to show that you remember, too. When you share your memories of the deceased, you are offering a precious memento to the grieving person. Your concern and love show not only in what you share, but in the fact that you are taking the time to do so. It is important to ask permission of the mourner as to whether he/she feels like talking about the person who has died. Some days they do and some days they don't. The same with mementos of the past, sometimes they are a most precious gift, other times too painful to look at - ask first.
9. How to respond to "if onlys"
A common and normal reaction to a death is to relive the past and about how it could have been different. In fact, it is rare when a survivor doesn’t explore the past for a few weeks or months. You may hear such comments as, "If only I had..." or "I wish we had..."
None of us likes to have a friend feel guilty. When we hear someone express feelings of guilt, we may react by saying, "You mustn’t feel guilty. I'm sure you did everything you could." That statement unintentionally tells the bereaved person he should not have those feelings. But the feelings are there, and denying their existence doesn’t help. Grief brings with it an overwhelming sense of loss of control. Rehashing the past may seem useless and morbid to others, but the bereaved person gains a bit of control, even though it's only an illusion and temporary.
Understanding the difference between guilt and regret may help you to respond in a more useful way. Guilt is what we may feel when we purposely commit a hurtful act. We feel regret when, with the wisdom of hindsight, we realize we could have done something differently.
I heard someone say, "Don’t take my guilt away from me!" What she meant was that she needed to hold onto her regrets for awhile. Don’t try to rescue people from their regrets. Attentive listening helps grieving people sort through these feelings themselves. Eventually, in their own time, they will forgive themselves. It is healthy to do "regret review" during the mourning process.
If the survivor still talks repeatedly, with full details, about the circumstances surrounding a death that occurred a year ago or longer, you might assist him in exploring the situation. One way to do this is by asking, 'What could you have done differently?" After his response, come back with another question: "Then what might have happened?" Keep asking non-leading questions until the person concludes that with the knowledge he had at the time, he did the best he could.
This may take several weeks or months. Be patient. Integrating this new reality may take time. (Also, he aware of the difference between realistic and unrealistic guilt. If the feeling is based on reality, professional help may be called for.)
10. Children, the forgotten mourners
If children are involved, pay special attention to them at the funeral or memorial. Most adults are offered condolences, unfortunately children are often ignored - they need attention too. They are often the forgotten mourners. You might say to them "I'm sorry your (dad, mother, brother, sister) died. He (or she) was a special person. I'll really miss him (or her)."
Don’t expect much of a response from children who may be quite confused about their feelings and all that has happened. Giving them some attention can be enough. Later, send them special cards and invite them on outings. Children should not be shielded from grief, but occasionally they need a break from the sadness at home or they may need someone outside of the family to talk to. Don’t assume that a child who seems calm is not in pain.
Children know their own needs, though they may not express them as adults do. Don't expect them to do one big tell-all. A six-year-old may kick a soccer ball for an hour, because he's so angry that Dad died. A twelve-year-old may not say aloud that she misses her mom, but putting an arm around her when tears do arise is a good way to show you care. Show your love and support by accepting and responding to their individual ways of expressing emotions.
If you're unsure about whether or not to include them in certain events, ask them. They may even have ideas and wishes of their own. When children are allowed to express their normal feelings and behaviors of grief in their own way, they learn to adjust, and their future adult relationships won’t be adversely affected.
When Rachele died, our son, Tim, was an active three year old so we did not take him to the funeral, which in retrospect was a mistake. In his young mind he thought we had lost Rachele since he knew we had taken her to the hospital, but not brought her home. One day he excitedly thought he had spotted her on T.V. It was only after I took him to the cemetery to see her marker that it began to come clear. I compared life to an egg where the body is like a shell and now lay buried in the ground. But the real egg is inside, like the spirit of the little girl we knew as his sister Rachele, which was now in Heaven. This seemed to help him.
11. Mark your calendar
Double your efforts to be sensitive to the mourner's needs during difficult times of the day or on special occasions such as holidays, the loved one's birthday, a wedding anniversary or the anniversary of the death. Mothers and fathers who have lost children have shared that their own birthdays are often difficult because they seem to emphasize their loved ones absence. Mark your calendar so you will remember to reach out to the person.
A week beforehand, the survivor may begin to worry about how he will handle or "get through" the memorable date. Let him know you remember and offer to be with him that day. Making plans in advance can help alleviate some of the worries. A visit to the grave or a site which has special meaning acknowledges the person who died and helps the survivor face the reality and again release pain by expressing emotions and remembering.
You might also take the survivor to dinner with friends, go for a scenic drive, suggest (and pay for) a therapeutic massage or do some other nurturing act. When this follows a visit to a cemetery or another place full of memories, it helps to bridge the gap between past and present. A recognition of both is necessary to healing.
12. Don't try to take the pain away
C.S. Lewis in A Grief Observed said of his wife - "Her absence is like the sky - it covers everything". The mourner is totally preoccupied with the person who has died.
The pain of grief is hard to endure. But it's an important part of the work the survivor must do to adjust to the fact that their loved one is gone. Don’t protect them from it. If you attempt to shield them from their grief, you will get in the way of the process.
People often try to comfort mourners by urging them to "snap out of it," "keep busy," or "stop dwelling on it." Such comments encourage the survivor to doubt their feelings or hide them from you. Mourning is difficult work. Some of the work of mourning is done in solitude and some in the company of loving and supporting people. There is a need for the mourner to move towards the pain in order to heal.
13. Big decisions can wait
A survivor should avoid making hasty decisions about life changes (selling a home, changing jobs, making a major financial investment, etc.). It is better to put off these important moves until some time has gone by after the death. Also, deciding what to do with the belongings of the deceased is emotionally difficult and should be allowed its own time. Don’t do your friend a “favor” by boxing up all the loved ones possessions and taking them away so they won’t have to do it. They may need to go through them slowly, experiencing the memories and feelings and letting the reality of the situation sink in a little more as they reflect on each item.
Sometimes it is safest to simply box things up or put in storage until a later time when a less emotional decision can be made. (A young mother was almost destroyed when well meaning relatives removed everything - all the baby clothes, furniture, etc. and destroyed them when her four month old child died in hospital. She was left with nothing - not even a photograph.)
14. Does the grieving ever end?
Don’t expect the grieving person to be "over it" within weeks or months. Great waves of emotion may sweep in for longer than we expect or predict and then, slowly and gradually, the intensity subsides. It may not happen days, weeks or months after the funeral. Sometimes the real grieving is just beginning by then.
Don’t press the survivor to participate in outside activities until they are ready. Trust them to know what is best. It may seem as if there are no results from your acts of caring and support and you may wonder as the first year goes by if you've been at all helpful, but eventually, when your friend smiles again, feels less pain and regains their enthusiasm for life, you will see the rewards.
Grief may surface at unexpected times. For example, if a man who loved gardening dies, his widow may plunge into grief as spring approaches, though the death may have occurred many months before. Buds are sprouting, the time of growth and planting is near, and memories of her husband’s love for the earth will arise. The widow needs to express her feelings about those memories. She is doing the grief work which will make the season easier to face the next year.
Younger widows and widowers face emotional hurdles as their children grow up and take part in school and church activities--class outings, proms, plays, sports, graduation ceremonies, weddings and other special events. The surviving parent must observe these landmark occasions alone, unable to share them with the one person who would have cared the most. Along with the joy, these times can bring sadness.
Bereaved parents must mourn their dreams of the future. If their child died in infancy, they may feel upset when they attend a baby shower. They may feel pangs of grief when they watch the neighbor's children skip off to their first day of kindergarten and as they see other children in their neighborhood and family pass the age at which their child died and continue on to life's milestones--graduation, college, marriage and bringing children into the world. With each rite of passage, a lost dream is mourned.
We can never guess when an emotional button might be pushed, and we shouldn’t try to out-guess or avoid them. All we can do is be empathic and supportive at those difficult times.
Men need support during their journey of grief. Often times by taking him to a non-threatening setting, such as a sports event, you are able to show that you want to be there for him and support him. Men often work out their pain in active ways within the context of their own personality.
One grieving father got a large block of wood and spent hours meticulously carving a magnificent angel and named it after his deceased son ~ the Jamie angel. Another grieving father took out his pain with hammer, nails and saw changing a pond and surrounding land near the farmhouse into "Robert's Park".
16. Spiritual Support
When we are confronted with death we often think about spiritual things and it can be a time when we will explore our beliefs more fully. Encourage the mourner to embrace their faith, realizing that God is with us in our suffering. Some people are confused as to what has happened and will sometimes feel angry at God. It is important that we listen but often times it is good to suggest some pastoral care be brought in. Simple prayer said on behalf of the mourner, who is not yet ready to pray, can be comforting to them.
Sometimes returning to the church, perhaps where the funeral was held, can be an emotional experience. One sensitive and understanding pastor dropped off a tape of the church service every week to a mourning parishioner, until he was ready to return which was almost a year later. Throughout the absence the parishioner felt part of the congregation.
17. Support groups
Most people in grief don’t need professional counselling. They just need good listeners and the company of others who understand what they're going through. This is what group support provides.
It also provides hope. They gain the hope that they will once again find meaning in life and that the pain will decrease. That hope keeps them wanting to continue their grief work.
18. Cherishing memories
For the rest of their life, a tear may be shed when a "memory embrace" occurs. It is because we love, we mourn. Your friend is who they are today because of having loved that person. Denying the deceased's past existence denies a part of your friend. Love their past as well as their present, and you and your friend will be richer for it.
Companioning someone in grief is a gift of compassion to another hurting human being. It is something that will never be forgotten!!
19. Surviving the holidays
With good reason, holiday seasons are often among the most difficult of times for people who have experienced the death of someone loved. Holidays are intended to be times of joy, family togetherness, and thankfulness. Yet, after a death, holidays often underscore the absence of the loved one and bring feelings of loss, sadness, and emptiness. While there are no simple guidelines to follow that will make it easier to cope with the grief you may experience during the holiday season, perhaps the following suggestions will make this time more bearable.
1. Realize that the anticipation of pain during the holidays is always worse than the actual day.
2. Be aware and tolerant of your inability to function at optimum levels during the holidays. Feelings may leave you fatigued with low energy. Don’t set unrealistic expectations for yourself. Break plans and tasks into smaller, more manageable chunks, goals you can achieve.
3. Acknowledge and accept your feelings. Sadness and tears are normal and do not ruin the holiday for you and others. At the same time, don’t feel guilty if you find yourself enjoying some of the festivities -- you are not betraying your loved one. Be easy on yourself and let emotions happen.
4. Decide with your family what is important to make the holidays meaningful and bearable. Re-evaluate priorities and re-examine family traditions. Ask yourself: Do I really enjoy doing this, or am I doing it just to be doing it in the spirit of tradition? Would Christmas be Christmas without it?
5. Don’t be afraid of change. Realize that doing things differently this year does not make it a permanent change. Create new traditions; alter old customs slightly so that they don’t highlight the absence of the loved one.
have holiday dinners at different times from past years
open presents on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas morning
let children take over decorating and cookie baking
prepare different holiday dishes
celebrate holidays at another family member's home
6. Plan ahead. Schedules often help in not being caught off-guard which may result in fear, panic, and anxiety. Be flexible in making schedules and plans and allow for changes. Make shopping lists so that on a ‘good’ day you can get a lot done and feel productive. If getting out to shop is a problem right now, do your shopping by mail order or catalog, or ask friends to help you out.
7. Embrace your treasure of memories. Memories bring sadness, but they also bring the warmth of remembrance. They are an important part of your life and should not be ignored. Include your loved one in conversations; reminisce about past holidays you shared together. This is part of the grief process necessary for healing to occur -- it doesn’t stop just because it is a holiday. In fact, the holidays usually intensify it. Give yourself permission to have joy when you can and to have grief when you have the need.
8. Rethink the meaning of the holidays. Explore your faith and belief systems; define your spirituality. If these have been an important part of your life, use them to draw hope and strength.
9. Remember and honor your loved one with a memorial.
place a special ornament on your Christmas tree
plant a tree in your yard
have a memorial candle to be lit during the holiday season
make a donation to a favorite charity in memory of your loved one
10. Do something for someone else. Although you may feet deprived because of your loss, reaching out to another can bring you some measure of fulfillment.
invite a guest who may be alone
give food to a needy family
volunteer to fix toys for needy children, drive a route for Meals on Wheels during the holidays
visit a nursing home
These holidays will be different, and your reaction to them may be surprising. The important thing to remember is to do what is most comfortable for you and your family. There are no right or wrong answers; no absolute rules. Because everyone handles grief differently, what works for some may not work for others. Just try to love yourself, give yourself permission to experience your feelings, and allow yourself to be embraced by surrounding yourself with caring, compassionate people.