WHAT I NEED -
HOW YOU MIGHT BE ABLE TO HELP A GRIEF STRICKEN PERSON -
MY SUGGESTIONS on Do's and DONT'S
My mom picked this little bouquet of wildflowers for me one morning. She quietly left it in my office window while I was out. It brought a much-needed smile to my face.
The bereaved person needs much help and rarely has much to give in return.
~ Judy Tatelbaum, The Courage to Grieve
"Let me know if you need anything." I have heard these caring words from many, many people. Some of them are grieving themselves.
When people I don't know very well say it, I wonder whether they REALLY want to know what I need, or are REALLY willing to help. A bluebirding friend told me this:
Never, and I mean never, believe anyone's acts of kindness are not sincere. Let others be kind to you, do things for you, listen to you, talk to you, be with you and not talk, break down with you, laugh with you, etc.etc.etc. Do this, not only for you, but for them as well. - Duane R.
It reminded me of times when I had been in their shoes, I felt utterly helpless. I wanted to do SOMETHING that would maybe help lessen their pain and troubles. SOMETHING that might make a terribly difficult time just a little bit easier (and certainly not worse.) SOMETHING that might make a difference. And something that might make ME feel less useless.
Since losing Doug, I have received many unsolicited gifts. They have given me solace and joy. Some of the things people have done have filled me with wonder and amazement. Read more.
I have also learned more about what other people who have suffered a loss might need in a time like this. This is not to say that I think everybody will be the same as me when they are grieving. People are different. It is natural that they grieve in different ways. Their circumstances vary. Obviously what they need will also vary.
Here are MY thoughts on what I need during the most difficult time I have ever faced. I do recognize that what I need may not be what other grieving people need.
Think of it as a "pick list" - if you pick ONE THING from it, it might help someone you care about. I wish someone had told me this stuff.
DO'S and DON'TS FOR THE GRIEF STRICKEN
Many people don't know what to say or do. That does NOT mean you should not say or do anything, or avoid a grieving person! It is NOT better to say nothing. The person will feel that you don't care about their situation.
Just saying "I'm so sorry for your loss" or "I can't imagine what you are going through" is fine. If you want to do something to help, this works: "I don't know what to say or do to help you. Please tell me."
I think it is ALWAYS good to say what is in your heart. Better to skip the platitudes.
Don'ts: Some tips on what to try NOT to say, despite good intentions
- "Don't cry." "Don't be sad." Easier said then done. Besides, it is not healthy to totally suppress feelings. They will resurface later and could cause physical symptoms. I know it's hard to watch someone else cry. But they may need to. Studies show that tears actually release stress hormones and help people cope. It can be healthy (unless it goes on every day, year after year or they become suicidal.)
- "It's okay" or "Everything's going to be okay." You know what? It is so NOT okay. The person I love most in the world is GONE. Forever. I will never see him again. It is NOT "okay." It will never BE "okay."
- "How are you?" It's sort of automatic to ask this. I find myself saying it to my own family members who are grieving too. Still, it's a tough one to answer. When I see someone for the first time since Doug died and they ask me this, it usually triggers tears. You might really want to know the answer. But how can I respond? How the f#*k do you think I'm doing? I'm miserable? Everything sucks? Life is crap? My heart is broken? I can't bear it? Sorry, but I can't think of any great alternatives to "how are you?" Maybe "What are you doing today? or What is going on with you [right now]?" That opens the door to talking. Or "How are you doing with surviving this? Is anything helping? (focuses on the positive)" Or "How are you making out today?"
- "I know how you feel." Honestly, you can't. You may have suffered a major loss yourself - most of us will at some point in our lives - some people repeatedly. Some of the feelings I've had you have felt. But my loss is different from yours. That is because the relationship with, and the person we lost, are different. The circumstances surrounding that loss - before, during and after - are different.
- "I hope you are well." Not. Better to say "I hope you are as well as can be."
- At the wake or funeral: "Guess who I am?" (or something along those lines). I was absolutely stunned when three people said this to me and/or my in-laws in the receiving line at the wake. I had not seen these people for decades, or had never even met them. There were hundreds of people at the services. We were zombies, in a state of shock and grief. We could have used a break. I very much appreciated it when, even if they thought we MIGHT know who they are, a person clearly said their full name and briefly explained the connection to us or Doug (e.g., "I and John Doe and I worked with Doug several years ago on such and such a project. I am Jane Doe, and lived on Doug's street when we were growing up.")
- "You were lucky." To have had such a love. To have a partial pension. Etc. It's okay to say this I guess. I know it's true. But I don't feel lucky. I can't have the one thing I want - for Doug to be alive. I can't believe Doug was lucky to die suddenly at age 52.
- "It is for the best." Maybe this is true, but it's not what I want to hear. It implies that the loss didn't matter, or that I shouldn't feel sad. I know that other people have suffered far more than Doug did in his last moments. I know that now he will never have to grow old or ill. But I wanted to grow old with him.
- "He's in heaven and you will see him again." "It is in God's hands. "God must have had a reason to take him - he needed him more than you do." and so on. Offering religious platitudes that reflect beliefs the bereaved may not share may make them uncomfortable, and will not help them. See below.
- "You should have [done this or that]" Believe me, they probably already have enough to regret. No need to mention this now.
- "Keep busy." Sometimes this is good advice, but consider how overwhelmed a mourner can be. More. You may also think it's good to be distracted, but I believe the only way out of grief is through it.
- Talking about your own problems. Perhaps you think this might help distract a bereaved person, or enable them to realize they are not the only ones with problems. But immediately after a loss, the rest of the world becomes surreal. I am so selfishly consumed with my own grief that I can barely listen. I may even get angry if your complaints seem trivial compared to a devastating recent loss.
- "Wow, it could have been me!" Yes, death reminds us we are all perishable, and it can be a wake up call, especially if the deceased is close to your age or has similar health issues. But the funeral is not really the time or place to share this thought with the grieving family.
- "Focus on the positive - on what you have to be grateful for." Sorry, it is too soon for this. I will get there someday. Not now. However, under normal circumstances, I think this is great advice. Most of us don't appreciate what we have. (See interrupting rumination.)
- "Gifts come in all kinds of packages." Do you honestly expect a grief stricken person to believe that an untimely death is a gift? Do you think that rape and murder are also gifts?
- "Get over it. Move on. Let go." Can I please have a little time to come to terms with this loss? (See why they want this.)
- "You will probably find another partner." Maybe someone who has lost their spouse thinks they will be alone forever. That may or may not be true. Maybe a long time from now, when someone is still lonely, this might be something they can bear to think about.
I so do not want to hear right now about finding someone else within days or weeks after losing my husband. Doug was irreplaceable. He was special and unique. All I want now is him. (More.) At this time, thinking of being in a relationship with someone else makes me physically ill. I also think that moving into a relationship too quickly (which some people do to avoid dealing with loneliness) would be horribly disrespectful and ungrateful to the man who gave me his whole self, and such joy, happiness and love. I have seen people make some really poor choices just to avoid being alone. I will not go there.
- "I'm glad he's dead." I never heard this one, but it has been said with regard to people who die after an extended illness. The person is probably trying to communicate their relief that the suffering is over. I suggest you do not share this thought with the family - regardless of how they may feel about the end,
Do's: My recommendations on what to do or say to try to help
- If you live nearby, consider taking the time to go to the wake or memorial service or both if you know about it and can make it. We understand that life gets in the way. But I can tell you that I will never forget who took the time to come. They were there on one of the worst days of my life. Be aware that some services may be open to family only - ask the funeral director if you are not sure.
- Cards, letters, emails, with stories and something personal. I always kind of thought people didn't notice these. I can tell you now that they do. I read and treasure every one. A lot offered insights. It means a lot to me that someone took the time to do this. I especially love it when someone shares something personal about Doug - what they thought or liked about him, or a story. I have learned some things about him that I never knew. Other things I had forgotten. Some made me smile. Some made me cry (and that's okay). Think about sending a follow-up card later, when reality sets in. (One person sent a card to a widower every month for the first year.)
- Offer a caring ear to listen patiently and fully. To be able to talk or write to you, openly and honestly. To be able to express the confusing and troubling emotions that are overflowing my mind and heart. To be able to obsess and babble for awhile.
Some people think it may be hurtful or cause pain to mention the departed's name, or talk about them or tell stories about them, or to look at photos of them. This may be true for some who can't bear it, or do not want to be sad. I talked and thought about Doug all the time when he was alive. I always loved hearing stories about him and seeing pictures of him. Why would I want to stop now? Plus I am thinking about him all the time. It helps to let it out and share it. If I can't handle it at that moment, I promise to let you know.
- To be able to cry in front of you. I was concerned that my eyeball waterfall was upsetting people. (See more on things that trigger tears.) A friend wrote these beautiful words:
I hope you do not feel badly about sharing and expressing your emotions around us. We love you. I think it is healthy to do this instead of keeping it all inside. It does not make me feel worse. Selfishly it helps me to know that I am not alone in missing him and in the pain I feel at such a loss.
- Don't feel you need to provide "the" answers. You can't fix this. There may not BE any answers to the really hard questions like "Why did this happen?" Even if there are answers, the person may not be ready to hear them. Or they may need to find their own way. They may just need you to listen.
Don't worry if you don't know what to say. You can just honestly say "I don't know what to say or do to help you. Please tell me." Just being there may be all they need at this point.
Sometimes you don't NEED to say anything. One of Doug's climbing buddies came a long way to the wake. He just stood there with tears streaming down his face - he could not speak. It touched me deeply.
- Offer another perspective. Some of the fears, worries, wishes and regrets that grieving people feel are not necessarily rational. However, I can tell you that they do feel very real to the person thinking or feeling them. So it is best not to entirely dismiss them. Better to try to understand them, and reassure them of things you know to be true and positive. It may be okay to offer another perspective. For example, "I hear what you are saying. I think I understand why you might feel that way. For what it's worth, here is what I think....."
- Do ask specifically "What do you need from me? What can I do?" But only if you mean it. I may just need to talk. I may need help with household chores that are beyond me right now. I may need one or two things from the grocery store, but don't have the time or energy to go out and get them.
Realize that some people will not be able to, or feel comfortable telling you what they need. For better or for worse, I am not like that. I am pretty open and honest about what I need. I always told Doug I was giving him a gift by not making him guess. He always knew where I was coming from and what I wanted.
- Food and gifts. See some suggestions here if you want to leave something as a gesture of caring. Food is often welcome in the first few days and weeks, when people don't feel like grocery shopping or cooking and may have a lot of company. Easy to prepare, freezable, nutritious things are good choices. It is best to put them in a disposable container that does not have to be returned, to avoid adding to their burden. If that is not possible, put an address label on the bottom of the plate/container to help them remember who it belongs to in the fog of loss.
- Take the initiative. Just go ahead and do something for them. Drop off wildflowers or a healthy snack. Say you will pick up someone coming in from out of town for the service. Provide a place for the visitors to stay. Do some errands.
I read about a man who showed up at a widow's house in his work clothes, with a tool box. He just said 'I know there must be something that needs fixing. What is it?'" I'm guessing that was music to her ears.
The man who gladly did things on our weekly "Honey-do" list is gone. I know Doug did way more than many spouses do. I am overwhelmed with everything I now must do by myself. Some of those things - arranging the funeral, handling probate - writing thank you notes - are in addition to the regular load. Some I have to do myself (like return phone calls.) Others I sure could use help with.
We have an old house. It is true what they say - "Nothing works in an old house but the owner." Things break. Projects were left half-finished. Doug and I had a ten year plan to get the house in shape. He could fix and do anything - mechanical, electrical, carpentry, restoration - you name it. I can barely pound a nail. With my uncertain, suddenly changed financial situation, there are many things I cannot afford to hire someone to do right now. To me, helping around the house is worth its weight in gold.
Most grief stricken people don't have the energy to clean or even do laundry. I heard of a group of co-workers who paid to have a cleaning service come in for a widower (at their convenience), to deal with the carnage after all the house guests left after the funeral.
- Wisdom and gentle reminders. Some of the best pieces of advice that have helped me the most are these.
- Just take it one day at a time. Thinking long term can be completely overwhelming. Thinking that this pain and sense of loss will persist for days, months or years can be too much to bear.
- Feel however you have to feel. It will help you to deal with it. If you want me to go, I'll go. If you want me to stay, I'll stay. But don't be afraid to feel. Cry if you have to cry. Don't try to be too strong.
- Go play outside and let Doug show you something fun.
- Avoid forcing. Like forcing me to eat what I don't want or need. Forcing me to do things I am really not ready to do. Trying to force me to make major changes. Like moving out of our house. Getting rid of Doug's things too soon.
- Acceptance. Try to be understanding if emotional outbursts are directed at you. This is a tough one. It is NOT fun to be on the receiving end. But recognize these outbursts may not really be ABOUT you - it may just be misdirected, incredibly intense emotions that most of us are not prepared to handle. It is hard for a grief stricken person to be appropriate all the time. Try to give them a break.
- Avoid criticizing. Believe me, I am critical enough of myself. I can NOT handle right now hearing what is wrong with me and the mistakes I am making. I know I am a mess. I know I am behaving badly sometimes. I am operating at about 25 percent capacity. I have little or no cushion to be able to hear what I should do better or differently, and how imperfect I am. (As my 8 year old friend Riley reminded me, nobody's perfect :-) It is too late for me to stop criticizing Doug. It is not too late for you and me to be kinder to each other.
- Space. Sometimes I need to be alone, or have some quiet time. I couldn't see anyone but immediate family for those first days. Even now, I don't always have the energy or ability or strength to engage. I may not be able to bear seeing or talking to anyone at certain times. I may not want to answer the phone or an email right away. Please don't take it personally. I WILL need you later.
- Respect for my personal beliefs and faith or lack thereof. Religous people often find great comfort in their faith.
I am not a religious person by any stretch of the imagination. I respect your beliefs. I would not try to talk you out of them. I hope I would not tell you they are not valid. What do I know? All I know is I do know
what I believe. I really do not want to be converted. I do not want to be pressured to believe in things that don't make sense to me and are not consistent with my world view.
- Let them know if they have a poppyseed stuck in their teeth. We used to rely on our spouse to do this. Also, if they are doing something hurtful to you, gently let them know. They may be oblivious in the midst of their grief.
- Give them the time they need to process grief in their own way.
I am not ready to hear "It's time to move on, or get on with your life." Grief is a process. There are stages. People move through them at their own pace.
Right now I am in denial. I can't even bear to realize that Doug is gone for more than a minute or two each day. I can't say the "d" word and Doug's name in the same sentence. I can't say the "w" word about my status.
Advising or demanding that someone move on may not be appropriate for months or even several years after losing someone you truly love. If a person gets completely stuck in grief for an unreasonably long time, it may make sense.
Certainly ask permission before doing anything drastic like getting rid of all of the departed's personal possessions.
- Allow them time to get back to you. It has been five weeks and I have only been able to write one thank you note - to the first responders who tried to help Doug. I do feel guilty that I have not been able to do all the others that I owe but I will, I promise! There are phone calls and visits that I am not ready to return yet.
- To know that others have gone through the same thing, and have come out whole. It is helpful to know that others who faced a major loss survived, and found order in their life again over time.
Knowing HOW they recovered can also be useful - even if it all won't work for me.
- Company for exercise. Mind you, I don't have a lot of energy right now. But exercise is healthy. It makes it harder to mope. It actually relieves fatigue. It can redirect the anger and hostility that grieving people tend to feel at times.
I used to walk and hike a lot with Doug. It is so much harder to drag myself out to do it alone. This week, I really enjoyed swimming and floating with a friend in a lake and in a pool. It was relaxing and invigorating at the same time. Also it helped with the intolerable heat wave we are having.
I enjoy walks that do not involve giant hills and racing. It's nice to be able to walk together with a friend, and have the option to chat or just be silent and enjoy the fresh air and scenery.
- Hugs. Doug was very affectionate. That part of my life is gone. A hug can be healing. However, be sensitive to the fact that some people do not like to be touched.
- Be hospitable. A Watchtower article suggested this:
Instead of a "come anytime" invitation, set a date and time. If they refuse, do not give up too easily. Some gentle encouragement may be needed. Perhaps they declined your invitation because they are afraid of losing control of their emotions in front of others. Or they may feel guilty about enjoying a meal and fellowship at such a time.' Do not keep away because you do not know what to say or do. Do not assume 'I'm sure they need to be alone right now.'
- Be supportive of rituals the person wants to engage in. Maybe they want to have a birthday party. Or set up a memorial garden. Create a scrapbook or photo album. Maybe they want company visiting the place where their loved one passed away, or their grave if there is one. If they want to attend a bereavement support group, ask if they would like you to accompany them. Read more about rituals.
- Invite them. While I would avoid inviting someone to a party in those first few weeks, don't exclude them in the future. They will be lonely. If you would normally invite them to something, don't leave them out because they are grieving. It might do them good to be with other people. They can decide whether they are up for it. Holidays alone might be hard, so you might think about offering a heartfelt invitation.
- Provide recommendations for support. They may need recommendations on a good funeral director (boy am I glad a friend recommended Gilman & Valade), a trustworthy attorney (to help with probate etc.) or accountant. They may need to hire qualified people to do things their spouse used to do, like finances, landscaping, snow plowing, carpentry child care, etc. They may need a counselor.
- Consider that intervention may be required to save someone's life if they become suicidal. It is not uncommon for grief stricken people to so filled with pain and sadness that they feel they believe they simply cannot tolerate it anymore. They may entertain thoughts of taking their life. It is easier. Some people believe if they die, they will be reunited with their lost love. If someone is truly suicidal, they probably need professional help. I'm not there, but someone else you know who is grieving might be. Read more.
- Provide information if they want it. Links to websites about grieving helped me. Some books have also been helpful. A friend told me about a bereavement support group.
- Donations. The family usually appreciates donations (in any amount) to designated charities. The organizations were selected because their loved one cared about it or was involved with it. Or they may have helped them while they were ill or dying. If you can't afford this, do NOT feel bad! You might consider giving a gift of time or action (like signing up to be an organ donor) that the departed or family would find meaningful. (e.g., volunteer in their name.) Tributes that cost nothing can be awesome.
- Be there later. The flurry of activity (services, cards) will end with time. People around me will need to go back to their normal routine.
It doesn't always get easier with each passing day. The first anniversaries, birthdays, holidays will be hard to handle alone. Sometimes, after the shock and numbness wear off, it actually gets worse.
Being there months later, when reality sinks in, can be invaluable.
When we honestly ask ourselves
which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving much advice, solutions or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a gentle and tender hand.
The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief or bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing, and face us with the reality of our powerlessness,
that is a friend who cares.
-- Henri J. M. Nouwen, Out of Solitude; Three Meditations on the Christian Life