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Offering Support to the Bereaved: What to Say and Do | This Emotional Life

Camille Wortman Ph.D.

Have you ever been in the following situation?  You learn that a family member or close friend has lost a loved one.  You would like to reach out, but the prospect fills you with trepidation. What should you say?  How should you handle things if the mourner cries or becomes agitated? For most of us, providing effective support to the bereaved does not come naturally.  In last week’s post, I described how our feelings of discomfort can lead us to make remarks that are unhelpful.  For example, we may offer platitudes (“He’s in a better place.”) or make statements that minimize the loss (“At least he didn’t suffer.”)  Fortunately, there is an almost failsafe way to enhance your skills in providing more effective support:  learn more about the grieving process, and about what the bereaved want and need from others. 

Facts about the Grieving Process


  1. The Many Faces of Grief. Typically, bereaved people confront us with powerful emotions that are constantly changing, not an orderly sequence of stages.  As one support provider expressed it, “In the morning, she was calm, almost numb.  By the afternoon, she was enraged and was railing at the fates.” Consequently, it is hard to know what to expect and how to react.
  2. The Trajectory of Grief.  Outsiders often assume that mourners improve steadily over time.  As Whitson (2005) has indicated, however, “Just when we think we are making progress, grief has a way of rising up and slashing us right through the heart.” (p. 12). A wide variety of events can trigger such a reaction. One bereaved parent went into a tailspin upon learning that the drunk driver who killed her son would not be prosecuted.  Mourners often describe this process as “One step forward, two steps back.”
  3. The Intensity of Grief.  The pain of grief can be almost unimaginable in its intensity. One of the most painful aspects is coming to terms with the finality of the loss. As Nicholas Wolterstorff (1987) stated following the death of his son, “It’s the neverness that is so painful.  Never again to be here with us—never to sit with us at the table, never to travel with us, never to laugh with us. A month, a year, five years without him —with that I could live.  But not this forever.” (p. 15).
  4. The Irrationality of Grief. In attempting to work out their feelings, bereaved individuals often make remarks that leave us not knowing what to say. For example, a mother may express painful feelings of guilt regarding her child’s death, even though there was nothing she could have done to prevent it. Such comments may heighten our anxiety about providing effective help.
  5. The Depletion of Grief.  In most cases, particularly at first, grieving people have no energy to handle even the most basic tasks of daily life. Mourners also may experience what some people have called “lack of brain.”  They get confused, lose things, and forget what is told to them.
  6. The Concealment of Grief.  It is common for grievers to hide their pain.  Whitson (2005) admonishes her support providers to “be suspicious of my smiles.  I learned very quickly to hide my misery so I won’t drag other people down.  Don’t always believe my mask. “ (p. 75). Bereaved individuals sometimes speak of putting on an “Academy Award performance” when they are with others.


While knowledge about the grieving process is helpful, it is not enough.  The next step is to learn everything you can about what bereaved individuals typically find comforting. Research suggests that these approaches are likely to work:

  1. Taking the Initiative.  Because of their inertia and “lack of brain”, it is unlikely that the bereaved person will call you.  It is important that you take the initiative and call them.  When you call, don’t make a general offer to help (e.g., If there’s anything you need…”).  Instead, make an action plan—for example, “I’m coming over on Saturday morning to shovel your walk.” Or, “I’m coming over in an hour to take you to a craft show.”  If the mourner refuses, call later and try again.  A man who lost his wife commented that, “I really didn’t want to go to the basketball game, but my brother-in-law insisted.  It was the best evening I have had since my wife died.”  Mourners are also very appreciative of help with specific tasks, such as shopping for groceries, mowing the lawn or taking the car in to be serviced.
  2. Presence.  In many cases, just being with the bereaved is the best thing you can do.  It is not necessary to entertain them, just be with them.  As one woman explained, “My neighbor came over and just hung out.  We watched TV and ordered pizza.  Her presence was very comforting to me.”
  3. Physical Contact.  Bereaved individuals are often comforted by a squeeze of the hand, an arm around their shoulder or a hug.  Hugging says a lot without words.
  4. Validation of Feelings.  One of the most important ways of supporting the bereaved is to encourage them to share whatever they are feeling in a nonjudgmental, accepting way.  Recognize that you don’t have to solve their problems—simply listen.  Make comments that invite further expression of feelings (e.g., “This must be very painful for you.” Or “I’d like to understand it better”).
  5. Is it Progress or a Mask? If a bereaved person appears to be doing well, remember that this could be just a mask. Stay in contact with the mourner, and continue to offer support. In fact, if you are close to the mourner and she tells you she is doing fine, you might say, “No, I mean how are you really doing?”
  6. Stay the Course. Many support providers drop out of the picture right after the funeral is over.  Mourners find this to be very hurtful.  It is during the weeks and months after the funeral that the bereaved person needs you the most.  Continue to check in with the mourner by calling or dropping by.  Knowing that someone cares enough to do this is very healing.  And make every effort to offer solace at those times when mourners are particularly vulnerable—for example, on weekends, on the anniversary of the death, on Mother’s or Father’s day, or on the deceased person’s birthday.


What are the hardest things about providing support to the bereaved? In my experience, one is overcoming your own avoidance.  The motive to minimize contact with people who are suffering is very powerful.  If you cannot break through this avoidance, you cannot help the bereaved.  Another very difficult aspect of providing effective support is to listen to strong feelings without interrupting, changing the subject, or offering unhelpful support attempts such as minimizing the loss.  As one bereaved individual has advised, “Just shut up and listen.”

While the potential pitfalls may seem insurmountable, the results of providing effective support can be enormously beneficial to you and to the mourner.  To learn even more about what to say and do, please consult the books and websites below.


Sources:

Aleshire, L. (2009).  101 ways you can help: How to offer comfort and support to those who are grieving.  Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, Inc.

Finkbeiner, A. K. (1996).  After the death of a child: Living with loss through the years. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Keogh, M. J. (2005).  As much time as it takes: A guide for the bereaved, their family and friends.  Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads Publishing Company.

Peterson, C. (2005).  Call me if you need anything…and other things NOT to say: A guide to helping others through tragedy and grief.  St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press.

Whitson, S. G. (2005).  How to help a grieving friend: A candid guide to those who care.  Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.

Wolterstorff, N. (1987).  Lament for a son.  Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co..

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Supporting a Grieving Person: Helping Others Through Grief and Loss

Helping a grieving person tip: Provide ongoing support

Grieving continues long after the funeral is over and the cards and flowers have stopped. The length of the grieving process varies from person to person. But in general, grief lasts much longer than most people expect. Your bereaved friend or family member may need your support for months or even years.

  • Continue your support over the long haul. Stay in touch with the grieving person, periodically checking in, dropping by, or sending letters or cards. Your support is more valuable than ever once the funeral is over, the other mourners are gone, and the initial shock of the loss has worn off.

  • Don’t make assumptions based on outward appearances. The bereaved person may look fine on the outside, while inside he or she is suffering. Avoid saying things like “You are so strong” or “You look so well.” This puts pressure on the person to keep up appearances and to hide his or her true feelings.

  • The pain of bereavement may never fully heal. Be sensitive to the fact that life may never feel the same. You don’t “get over” the death of a loved one. The bereaved person may learn to accept the loss. The pain may lessen in intensity over time, but the sadness may never completely go away.

  • Offer extra support on special days. Certain times and days of the year will be particularly hard for your grieving friend or family member. Holidays, family milestones, birthdays, and anniversaries often reawaken grief. Be sensitive on these occasions. Let the bereaved person know that you’re there for whatever he or she needs.

How to Help a Bereaved Parent

Help a Bereaved Parent Step 9.jpgNever compare a child’s death with a non-child death of your own you’ve experienced. The loss of a child carries very different connotations from the loss of a parent, sibling, or friend. Parents will often tell you that they wish it could have been them instead of the child and this is a feeling that haunts them for many years after. The pain after loss of a child does differ from any other loss of a person you know and love; accept this and acknowledge it where needed.
  • Share your pain over the loss of their child, but remember your pain is nowhere near their pain unless you have lost a child yourself. There is no greater pain than the death of one’s child. Never tell a bereaved parent you know how they feel or you understand because you probably do not.
  • Do not compare the loss of your job, marriage, pet, or grandparent to the loss of their child.

Help a Bereaved Parent Step 10.jpgDon’t be afraid to talk about the child. Every parent wants to know their child is not forgotten. And listen to the parents when they want to talk about their child. Whether the child was young or an adult, there will be many memories that the parents will want to talk about, as a way of bringing the child back into temporary existence.
  • If you talk about their child and they cry, it’s okay. Allow them their tears, and know that you didn’t hurt them.

Help a Bereaved Parent Step 11.jpgDon’t just disappear. This can be the ultimate letdown for a grieving parent, to lose someone who was once a friend, a rock. The concern you feel at not knowing what to say or do is nothing compared to the pain, sadness, and loneliness the grieving parent experiences. It’s better to put your foot into it and apologize than to just fade away and cease to be a resource your friend can count on.

  • Remember the parent on Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, they are still a parent.
  • Remember the child’s birthday. Send a card saying that you remember their child.
  • Remember the child’s date of death. Send a thinking of you card, call them, share good memories about their child, and listen.
Help a Bereaved Parent Step 12.jpg
Give them space. As well as letting them know you’re there for them, also accept that the bereaved parent may want to seclude themselves. Be wise to signals of distress about having you around and gently withdraw, still letting them know that you’re there for them whenever they need you, just a call or text away.

What to Never Do When Someone You Love Loses a Child

Just a few days ago, I sent off my column for the New Year entitled “Beginning Anew.” I don’t know if you caught it or not. But, in case you didn’t, the essence of it has to do with entering the threshold to a new time, and doing so purposely. This means paring down all that is off purpose, in order to what has sustaining value.

Sometimes, the paring down comes from a Force greater than us. Sometimes, what is stripped away is the very thing we feel we cannot live without. Sometimes, we lose a child. At these junctures, it may be very difficult to comfort ourselves with the thought that there is purpose in this death. Particularly, when the death is that of a child.

This is the plight of John, Kelly and Ella Travolta. Our hearts go out to them. When a child dies, it is the most natural thing in the world to reach out, to struggle for words, and ways of comforting the family. Unfortunately, there are things that you can do which do not comfort, but only deepen the pain of the death. Lest this be inflicted on John Travolta’s family, and those you know, I share the following.

Before my own son was killed nearly 18 years ago, I had studied the bereavement process, done grief work with Elisabeth Kubler Ross, and worked with a number of bereaved parents. That said, I knew nothing. Not until my own son was lost. In fact, a few hours after he died, I remember saying to my friend: “This is surreal. I feel like I’ve gotten trapped in the audience of that Oprah Winfrey show on bereaved parents. This can’t be happening in my life!” I also remember telling my 8 year-old daughter that her brother was gone. I will never remember her tears, or words, when she said: “Mommy, it’s raining in my heart.”

So, if you know someone who has lost a child, and you feel inept, like the friends of the John, Kelly and Ella Travolta must feel, know that you are not alone. No words, no acts can take away the canyon in their heart. Trust me. The process takes a lifetime. Death of your child is something you do not ever ‘get over.’ You either give up on life when it happens, or you choose to grow through what has happened, and go on to deepen your contribution. Before Elisabeth’s death, I shared with her that I’ve found a Sixth Step to her five step bereavement cycle. The sixth is all about creation. It does not happen overnight.

What Not to Do.

1. Never, ever say “He/she is in a better place.” That may comfort you, if you are a believer, but it does not touch the fact that your friend is sitting in the middle of the worst experience a parent can have. Instead, if it is honest, simply say something like “There are no words for what you must be experiencing.” Stay out of your head, and go into your heart.

2. Never, ever keep a stop-watch on someone’s grieving. You do not know, anymore than they do, how long healing may take. Instead, focus on staying present with the bereaved. Here is the time to listen.

3. Never, ever trivialize what has happened with your own story. Instead, keep your focus on their loss.

4. Never, ever refer to who died in impersonal ways. Instead, use the name of the child. You may feel uncomfortable, but bereaved parents, especially over the long haul suffer a private pain because they fear the world will forget their baby.

5. Never, ever forget other children in the situation. Not only have they lost a sibling, but they lose their parents psychologically during grieving, regardless how aware the parents may be. Instead, spend time with the child. For young children, bring color crayons, and suggest a picture. This may be something they would like to tuck into the garments of the child who died, if there is to be burial, or cremation. Do not interpret the child’s reaction to mean they are not grieving. Children grieve in different ways. Let them.

6. Never, ever forget that holidays and anniversaries carry a particular pain. (Nearly no one remembers the second anniversary of a child’s death.) It is a great time for a card that says you’ve not forgotten. Instead, remember when you are celebrating rites of passage with your own child, e.g. graduations, weddings, grandchildren, that this brings a sting to your friend, no matter how much they might love your crew. Don’t be afraid to mention the name of the child who has died at these times. Let your friend know you appreciate this must ‘bring up’ a lot for them.

7. Never, ever forget that, as long as you are speaking from your heart, that your love is invaluable. You cannot err. Relax. Breathe. This, too, shall pass.

8. Never, ever assume that it is impossible to begin life anew. Instead, know that it may take a great deal of time and concentrated work, but, just as spring follows winter, life can be reborn with a focus, and support, and guidance from those who have been through the wringer.

9. Never, ever discount your own sense of things. If your friend is starting to isolate, or act in unusual ways, get professional help. They may be suffering complicated bereavement. Instead of saying nothing, investigate parental bereavement groups, such as Compassionate Friends. Be a friend.

27 Reasons Why You're Still Watching "The West Wing"

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newyorker:

With exposure lengths ranging from ten minutes to four hours, the Los Angeles-based photographer and video artist Kevin Cooley captures the takeoff and landings of commercial airplane flights: http://nyr.kr/1euvrwL
Above: Takeoffs, LaGuardia Airport, Runway 4 (2009). Photograph by Kevin Cooley/Kopeikin Gallery.

newyorker:

With exposure lengths ranging from ten minutes to four hours, the Los Angeles-based photographer and video artist Kevin Cooley captures the takeoff and landings of commercial airplane flights: http://nyr.kr/1euvrwL

Above: Takeoffs, LaGuardia Airport, Runway 4 (2009). Photograph by Kevin Cooley/Kopeikin Gallery.