“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”
A friend has experienced the death of someone loved. You want to help, but you are not sure how to go about it. There is much that you can do to help. Simple things. The importance of such help can hardly be overstated. Unresolved grief can be a life-threatening condition, and your support may make a vital difference in the mourner’s eventual recovery.
Perhaps you do not feel qualified to help. You may feel uncomfortable and awkward. Such feelings are normal – don’t let them keep you away. If you really care for your sorrowing friend or relative, if you can enter a little into his or her grief, you are qualified to help.
Help a Friend in Grief
Get in touch.
Call. Speak either to the mourner or to someone close and ask when you can visit and how you might help. Even if much time has passed, it’s never too late to express your concern.
Say little on an early visit.
In the initial period (before burial), your brief embrace, your press of the hand, your few words of affection and feeling may be all that is needed.
Avoid clichés and easy answers.
Words, particularly clichés, can be extremely painful for a grieving friend. Clichés are trite comments often intended to diminish the loss by providing simple solutions to difficult realities. “He is out of pain,” “Time heals all wounds,” “You’re holding up so well,” and “Aren’t you lucky that …” are not likely to help. A simple “I’m sorry” is better.
Show your natural concern and sorrow in your own way and in your own words.
Keep in touch.
Be available. Be there. A close friend or relative might be needed from the beginning. Later, when close family may be less available, any visit and phone call can be very helpful.
Attend to practical matters.
Find out if you are needed to answer the phone, prepare meals, clean the house, care for the children, etc. This kind of help lifts burdens and creates a bond. It might be needed well beyond the initial period, especially for the widowed.
Encourage others to visit or help.
Usually one visit will overcome a friend’s discomfort and allow him or her to contribute further support. Maybe even schedule some visitors, so everyone does not come at once in the beginning and does not come later.
If the mourner doesn’t talk, don’t force conversation. Silence is better than aimless chatter. Let them lead.
Listen with your heart.
When suffering spills into words, do the one thing the bereaved needs above all else: listen. Is she emotional? Accept that. Does he cry? Accept that too. Is she angry at God? God will manage without your defending him. Telling the same story about the death over and over again? Listen attentively each time. Realize this repetition is part of your friend’s healing process. Accept whatever feelings are expressed. Do not rebuke.
Do not probe for details about the death.
If the survivor offers information, listen with understanding.
Comfort children in the family.
Do not assume that a seemingly calm child is not sorrowing. Be a friend to whom feelings can be confided and with whom tears can be shed. In most cases, children should not be shielded from the grieving of others.
Avoid talking trivia around the recently bereaved.
Prolonged discussion of sports, weather or the stock market, for example, is resented, even if done purposely to distract the mourner.
Allow the “working through” of grief.
Do not whisk away clothing or hide pictures. Do not criticize seemingly morbid behavior. Young people may repeatedly visit the site of the fatal accident. A widow may sleep with her husband’s pajamas as a pillow. A young child may wear his dead sibling’s clothing.
Write a letter.
A sympathy card is a poor substitute for your own expression. If you take time to write of your love for and memories of the one who died, your letter might be read many times and cherished, possibly into the next generation. Use the name of the person who has died either in your personal note or when you talk to your friend. Hearing that name can be comforting, and it confirms that you have not forgotten this important person.
Encourage the postponement of major decisions.
Whatever can wait should wait until after the period of intense grief.
In time, gently draw the mourner into quiet outside activity.
He may lack the initiative to go out on his own. When the mourner returns to social activity, treat him or her as a normal person. Avoid pity-it destroys self-respect. Simple understanding is enough. Acknowledge the loss, the change in the mourner’s life, but don’t dwell on it.
Be aware of holidays and anniversaries.
Your friend may have a difficult time during these special occasions. These events emphasize the absence of the person who has died.
Be aware of needed progress through grief.
If the mourner seems unable to resolve anger or guilt, for example, you might suggest a consultation with a clergyman or other trained counselor.
Understand the importance of the loss.
Remember the death of someone loved is shattering. As a result of this death, your friend’s life is under reconstruction. Consider significance of the loss, be gentle and be compassionate in all of your helping efforts.
A final thought.
Helping must be more than following a few rules. Especially if the bereavement is devastating and you are close to the bereaved, you may have to give more time, more care, more of yourself than you imagined. Perceive special needs of your friend and creatively attempt to meet those needs. Finally, know the satisfaction of being truly and deeply helpful.
Grief and the Holidays
Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Christmas, New Year’s, birthdays, and anniversaries; for most people, just thinking about these special days spent with family and friends can bring back a flood of happy memories. However, for others, happy memories are dulled by the pain and sorrow of experiencing the holidays without a loved one who has died.
Holidays and special days, such as birthdays and anniversaries, are extremely difficult for those who have experienced the death of a loved one, especially during the first year after death. At a time when everyone is supposed to be happy and enjoying themselves, the bereaved can feel sad, lonely, and depressed. Holidays do not necessarily have to be entirely sad.
Here are ways to help you cope with your grief during this time:
Bereaved individuals who experience the most difficulty with holidays are those who have given little thought to the challenges they will encounter. Many who are grieving feel they would like to just go to sleep and wake up when the holidays are over. Hiding from the holidays should not be an option. So, in dealing with them, do it proactively and plan ahead.
During the planning, you may experience some emotional pain. As much as it hurts, it is helpful to you. You will find that when the holiday actually arrives, it is likely to be less painful than you anticipated.
Take Care of Yourself
Take care of yourself physically. A grieving body is more susceptible to illness and needs proper nourishment and rest. Exercising reduces stress and can increase your sense of well-being. If you are not presently exercising, don’t overdo it. Excessive use of drugs or alcohol will only postpone the painful feelings, not eliminate them.
Eat a properly balanced diet. Your body needs the strength and energy it can acquire from eating properly. Fight the tendency to rely on junk food because it’s faster, easier, and less of a hassle. Get adequate rest. Experiencing the death of a loved one requires a great deal of physical and emotional strength. Your body and mind need rest to regenerate.
Expect some physical and emotional responses to your loss. Although everyone’s grief is different, some normal responses are commonly experienced by most bereaved people:
- Stomach distress Chest pain Difficulty sleeping
- Difficulty breathing Change in bowel pattern Over-activity
- Muscle weakness Change in eating habits Skin rash
- Dry mouth Lack of energy
- Headache Nervousness
- Shock Anger Fear
- Disbelief Anxiety Preoccupation with thoughts of the deceased
- Sadness Crying
- Loneliness Nightmares
- Guilt Lack of concentration
Understand Your Feelings
The holidays are filled with unrealistic expectations of happiness and joy. Accept that there will be times when you are sad and depressed. Give yourself permission to feel sad-you have every right.
Whatever you do, allow yourself to cry when you feel a need to cry. Crying helps you both physically and emotionally. It has an effect similar to exercise in that it reduces stress and calms anxiety.
Also, give yourself permission to feel good, laugh, and even have fun. Some bereaved individuals feel guilty if they find themselves enjoying an activity. Feeling good and laughing is your body’s way of letting you relax and regain some strength for a few moments during your grief. It is a normal and healthy reaction. You are in no way being disrespectful to the memory of the deceased if you enjoy yourself at times.
Go easy on yourself. Remember you are going through a physically and emotionally stressful time. If you want the holidays to be the same as they always were, you are in for disappointment and frustration. No matter what you do, you will not feel as joyous as you did during past holidays. It will take time for you to adjust – maybe years.
Traditions: Old and New
One of the most difficult aspects of the holidays to deal with is “traditions.” A death in the family may mean that a much-loved tradition may lose some of its joy. It may even end. However, do not discount the possibility that new traditions can be started.
If you always host a meal on the holiday and serve the same food, try changing the menu. You can ask someone else to host this year. Many people have found that eating out that day can reduce stress and anxiety. Attend religious services at a different time or at a different church or synagogue. Open gifts at a different time or location. Some holiday grievers even find going away on a short trip during the holidays was a welcome change.
If other family members are also grieving, it is necessary to discuss what your needs are and determine if they combine or conflict with your family’s needs. It is usually necessary to be somewhat flexible so a meaningful compromise can be worked out that will be helpful to everyone involved.
Memorialize your loved one in a way that is meaningful to you. Choosing an activity that your loved one would have approved of can make it even more meaningful. Activities for both families and individuals are appropriate.
Here are some suggestions:
- Purchase a small evergreen tree from a nursery, decorate it and replant it after Christmas.
- Light special memorial candles each day during the holidays or use one larger candle and light it each day.
- Display a single fresh flower during the holidays.
- Have a special time when the family shares holiday memories of your deceased loved one.
- Offer a dinner prayer or toast to your loved one.
- Purchase a gift for your loved one and then donate it to a charity.
- Hang a special Christmas stocking in memory of the loved one.
- Give money in the amount you would have spent on gifts to a charity in the deceased’s name.
- Celebrate a holiday on another day such as Christmas on New Year’s Day.
- Focus on helping others.
Although these special tributes may cause some tears, they are usually helpful and therapeutic in your struggle to get through the holidays.
Ralph L. Klicker