Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Ways to help people who are grieving

Yesterday I wrote a post on ten things not to say to someone grieving a loss, and I’m thankful to everyone who commented and shared their experiences.

I think one reason people say unintentionally hurtful or dismissive things in response to a death is because they feel they have to fix things. They see you’re in pain, and they want to make it better, so they tell you that your loved one is with the angels now, or that it will all work out for the best somehow.

The problem is, if someone is grieving—whether it’s for a parent, child, spouse, friend, pet, anyone—you can’t take away the pain. Period. It will lessen over time, I know that from personal experience, but there’s no quick fix to apply right now. And that can make people feel pretty helpless in the face of grief.

So here are a few things that could be more understanding and helpful towards a grieving person, and I hope they make a difference.

1. Don’t feel you have to come up with something new or profound

“I’m so sorry for your loss. She was a wonderful person, and we’ll miss her.”

That will never go down in the books as amazingly quotable. It’s not the kind of statement which makes anyone redefine their worldview on death and grieving.

But it is by far the best possible thing anyone could have said to me. Sometimes, acknowledging grief is all the support that can be given under the circumstances.

2. Share a memory

If their loved ones are prepared for it or would welcome it, talk about the person who died. Keep it positive, but depending on the situation, your recollections could go from positive and heart-warming to hilariously off-color. Either way, it shows that the dead person hasn’t been swept under the rug.

3. Books and poetry

It’s best to be careful about this, but I had to include poetry, because after my mom’s death, someone sent me a poem about bereavement. I’ll always remember one line of it

“I promise to hold you in my heart
As a cupped hand protects a flame.”

That is exactly how I felt about my mother, about all my memories of her and my love for her. As long as I’m here, the flame won’t go out.

But as I said, be careful. My mom’s devoutly religious friends knew I didn’t share their beliefs, so they didn’t send me any books written from a Christian perspective, and the poem came from someone whom I’d talked to on a discussion board for non-believers. Either way, the poem or book should benefit the grieving person, not the person who gives it.

A truly wrenching and sensitive book that could be given to a non-religious person is Michael Rosen's Sad Book. After his son died at 16, Rosen wrote this, an honest exploration of his loss and grief, and the things he does to deal with them day by day.

There’s a beautiful moment of hope at the end, but it’s not “I’ll see him again some day and he’ll be fine” hope. It’s more the sense that things will slowly get better, and that all we can do each day is light a single candle against the dark.

4. Other gifts

Speaking of candles, I read of this gift : a scented candle with a note attached, saying, “When you miss her, light this.”

I would have liked that. No, it won’t make any practical difference to light a candle, other than making the room smell of gardenia. But it acknowledges that, yes, you will feel grief, and here’s something you can do about it.

Personally, I’d have more difficulty blowing out the candle, and would soon need a new one.

That was all I could come up with, so please feel free to share your suggestions!


Margaret said...

Lovely post, Marian. I really like the candle suggestion. I think simple heartfelt words are best. Letting the grieving friend know you're there and acknowledge their pain may be the most important thing.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

I think memory sharing is important. It's permission and confirmation to talk about the loved one who has passed away, in a mutual manner.

I also think it's important to understand when somebody's who's grieving might want to be left alone. Some people process well in solitude, and constant contact is aversive, making the process, especially when fresh, that much worse.

Marian Perera said...

Margaret - thanks! I like the candle suggestion too, because it gives you something concrete to do, at a time when you might feel helpless.

Jennifer - agreed, it's important to have a sense of timing. If the person wants to be alone (and there were times when I did), it's insensitive to push your way in.

Ultimately, it's about what the other person needs most at a difficult time.