Some of us have the gift or talent to express sympathy easily to others. Gestures and words are expertly expressed and people are comforted.
Many others dread seeing the survivor(s) at a viewing or even for the first time after a death occurs. They feel awkward, not knowing quite what to say in offering condolences. It is difficult and sometimes emotional to see someone who is in grief and it can makes us feel uncomfortable especially when we are not sure of what to do or say.
I used to feel that way until I experienced grief myself and some time afterwards, joined a bereavement group at our church. At these meetings, we would have a speaker's presentation on how to adjust to grief or sometimes have individuals express their personal experiences. Comfort, presence and listening are key.
You may find yourself in a bereavement situationif you ever have to comfort someone who has a death in their family; and/or if you desire or are asked to help others work their way through grief. Here are ten ways to offer condolences or to help someone heal:
• You might say, "I'm sorry"; or "I'm sorry for your loss", or say a kind word about the deceased . . . .
When you don't know what to say, say 'nothing'. This was the number 1 rule in bereavement training. There's not much you can say anyway to relieve their loss. Let them talk and get their feelings and emotions expressed. Your presence, your caring and your listening is balm to a griever. If you are a hugger, this is a good time to give a hug or hold their hand or put your arm around their shoulder. Touching is healing. If they aren't touchers, you'll know; back off and let them set the pace.
• never say 'it's for the best' or 'they're in a better place' or 'they've lived a long life' . . . .
We learned that the bereaved are grieving for a lost loved one and they do not think it was for the best - even if the beloved was ill. They want them back on earth and don't want to know they are in a better place. If it is an elderly person who died, they don't want to hear 'he lived a long life' -- they want to keep a loved one as long as they can and it's never long enough.
• never say it was God's will for them . . . .
We don't know what God's will was for them. God doesn't plan accidents or cause cancer. Death is a life event that will happen to everyone. To say that God willed it, isn't going to comfort anyone. It may even cause anger at God and faith is needed more than ever when someone you love dies. Don't say it was God's will to a couple who has lost a child either in stillbirth or a miscarriage. A couple who may have finally gotten pregnant after trying a long time, and have it end in miscarriage or a stillbirth after nine months will feel the loss tremendously and it is not comforting to say it is God's will or it is for the best. It certainly is not for them. It's a devastating loss.
• encourage them to join a support group or or seek someone who has experienced a similar event . . . .
Perhaps you can suggest they join a support group. There are many kinds of support groups available through churches or the newspapers. Losing Someone, Living Alone, Widow/Widower's seminars offer multiple support groups. People gain strength when they know someone else went through what they did and survived. Although 'misery loves company' is a cliche - it has truth to it. You may even mail or drop off announcements of such groups.
• encourage him or her to speak about their loss and emotions with someone . . . .
Sometimes a family or close friend may not be the best choice for grievers to talk to; they may be experiencing grief themselves. It is not uncommon for people to have purged their grief with a stranger they hardly knew. If they have trouble verbally expressing themselves, you may suggest writing a letter to the deceased telling them things they might have said or didn't say; or any regrets they have.
• visit or stop by occasionally even for a few minutes . . . .
It is uplifting for them if you visit bereaved persons, especially widows or widowers, who now spend time alone. Bring a small gift, even a book of additional support or a magazine on bereavement. They will know they are not alone; others are going through similar losses. And they will enjoy the break.
• get them out of the house and go for a walk . . . .
The bereaved sometimes get motionless in their grief and stay at home. Offer to go for a walk with her - walking is good for depression and releases endorphins, a group of chemicals produced in the brain that reduce pain and improve mood. It might allow her to open up to release some pent up feelings while walking and feeling companionship. Remember - caring, presence and espcially listening.
• calendar and note the birthday and anniversary dates of the deceased . . . .
Their survivors feel the loss especially on these dates and may experience setbacks in their healing. Remember to call them with an uplifting call those days. You don't have to mention the date, but, if they do, give them reassurance or if in person, give them a hug. Holidays, especially Thanksgiving and Christmas, Hanukah, etc., are very hard for the survivors, especially if it was a person who lived with them. Try to include them or their family in some way, either by phone, mail or in person to let them know they are being thought of. Love is always welcome.
• suggest a physical with a physician and/or a visit to a therapist if the survivor is having difficulty adjusting and seems to be backsliding more than moving forward . . . .
Unresolved grief can cause depression or even suicidal tendencies. If you notice during visiting that the survivor seems distracted, unkempt, depressed or not themselves, be a friend and tell a family member or gently suggest if you could take them to see a doctor.
• offer to take them to church . . . .
Since death usually raises spiritual issues, and people are either strengthened in their faith or are turned off and angry at God, offer to join them in prayer services at your church or their place of worship. You may offer to read Scripture or passages in the Bible together. If you share faith with them, they may share their sorrow with God, the Great Comforter. Let it be their choice.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Matthew 5:4
© Marie Coppola Revised December 2012