By Victor M. Parachin
A widowed woman was invited to a wedding for one of her relatives. In spite of her grief, the woman says she worked hard to remain outgoing, accepting invitations. Although she had looked forward to the wedding, it quickly became a source of frustration and hurt.
“At the reception it did not take long for the loneliness to set in as I observed, with dismay, that I had been seated at the widow’s table. All around were couples, laughing and enjoying themselves. In contrast, there we were, all single and bunched together like lepers. While others mingled from table to table, very few came to ours. Throughout the entire evening, I wondered, does anyone know, or even care, how it feels to be a widow?”
When there has been a death—whether that of a partner, child, parent, grandparent, or sibling—many people just don’t know how to respond. Some avoid the bereaved. Those who do converse or visit with grievers often do so in awkward ways because they are uncertain how to speak and behave. This can leave grievers feeling they are without support. That reality is reflected in this lament from Jeremiah: “My eyes overflow with tears. No one is near to comfort me, no one to restore my spirit” (Lamentations 1:16). Here are some simple suggestions for being a better friend and providing more compassionate support to the bereaved.
DO be there. As soon as you learn there has been a death, make plans to attend the visitation or funeral. Your support will be invaluable. In his book, Grievers Ask, Harold Ivan Smith wisely writes this:
These days, too many individuals wonder: Do I know the deceased or family members well enough to be inconvenienced? Visitations introduce some family members to the deceased’s social orbit. Individuals come paying respects and bringing snippets of stories that help grievers understand a loved one influenced more lives than imagined. Your “I’m sorry” is woven into a quilt of condolences that bring comfort to the family of the deceased. Go!
DON’T use trite clichés. Most grievers report they are on the receiving end of too many platitudes that are neither encouraging nor helpful. One man, whose son died after a courageous battle with cancer, says this:
When people say to me, “He’s in a better place,” I want to reply, “But I’m not in a better place.” Or when they say, “His suffering is over,” I want to reply, “Mine has just started.” When they say, “Don’t feel bad,” I want to say, “Why not?” When they say, “I know how you feel,” I want to scream back, “How could you—you haven’t lost anyone!” And when they say, “You’ve got to be strong,” I wonder, “How?”
DO speak in ways that support and strengthen a griever. Some of the most effective statements you can offer the bereaved include: “I’m sorry about the loss of your husband/wife/mother/son etc.” “I want to help.” “This must be hard.” “When can we get together to talk and visit?” “How are you doing?” “Anytime you feel like talking, I’d like to listen.”
DON’T wait for them to call you. Be proactive. Reach out to a grieving person, inviting him or her to join you in an activity. Don’t say, “Call me if you need me” or “Call me if I can do anything.” Very few grievers will take you up on that because it makes them feel as though they are desperate and begging for friendship. One widowed man looks back and offers this advice for those who wish to support the bereaved:
If a friend or relative is grieving a loss, call him or her up and suggest lunch, a dinner, a movie—anything. Chances are he or she is too scared and depressed to call anyone and make that suggestion. You can’t imagine what a boost it will give to a person who is down and struggling with grief. He or she will appreciate it more than you know.
DO be a good listener. When the bereaved open up and speak about their loss, be fully present and listen carefully. Be patient even when they talk about many of the same things over and over. Let them tell and retell their loss because each telling is their way of peeling away a layer of pain.
As they speak, validate them and their feelings. Don’t judge them or the way they feel if they express anger, frustration, or resentment. This simple statement of fact is an effective way to validate their feelings: “I can certainly understand why your feel . . . angry, frustrated, resentful, etc.”
DON’T be afraid to touch. When words are inadequate and even meaningless, a touch can be the most effective and comforting way of communicating support. An embrace or squeeze of the hand can eloquently convey your caring to someone who is grieving hard.
DO suggest a bereavement support group. Identify some grief support groups in your community, taking the time to write down the meeting locations, dates, times, and contact phone numbers. Pass that information along to your grieving friend. Whether the death was that of a spouse, newborn, child, parent, or sibling, there are groups made up of people who have had similar losses.
Within those groups, people discuss their unique losses and learn ways to manage the journey through grief. The vast majority of grievers who have attended support groups testify that they were greatly empowering to them.
DON’T say “You have to be strong!” or “Don’t cry!” Cathy Heider of Algona, Iowa, recalls:
When I was 22 my father died. Everyone said I must be strong for my mother’s sake. She cried a lot. I held my tears in. I showed everyone how strong I could be. It was hard to be strong, but I did it because that’s what I was taught.
Years later Heider’s daughter died. “I found out that I didn’t have to be strong for anyone else. I didn’t have to hide my tears, and I didn’t have to stop talking about her.” Today Heider stresses the fact that it is normal to grieve losses. “If we help each other, then no one has to pretend to be strong,” she says. “The real strength of healing will show through in time. We can cry together, not alone.”
DO remember special days: anniversaries, holidays, birthdays. One woman was feeling low on what would have been her 30th wedding anniversary. Her husband had died nine months earlier. That day her doorbell rang. When she opened it, a florist delivered a beautiful arrangement of flowers with a note: “Remembering you on this, your special day.” It was signed by her daughter, son-in-law, and their children.
“How good it felt to be remembered!” she says.
Consider also these kindnesses from family and friends after a woman’s son died from melanoma at the age of 34. The mother says:
Most people are aware that the first birthday, holiday, or other significant day following a death can be a difficult, painful day—full of sadness for family and friends. What many people do not realize is how important it is for surviving family members to keep that person’s memory alive. Others might be reluctant to mention the loved one out of fear of the pain they might cause. But we want to hear from friends and relatives on those days. It is comforting.
The mother adds that she was greatly helped when, on what would have been her son’s 35th birthday, his friends wrote e-mails, sent cards, and telephoned. Of those special days, she says, “Don’t hesitate to communicate and share some of your favorite memories and thoughts. It will mean a lot.”
DON’T drop off. Initially when there is a death, family, friends, and colleagues rally around. However, most, if not all, people quickly fade away after the funeral. In her book, Suddenly Alone, Dolores Dahl recorded these words in a journal:
Phone calls, visits, food . . . there was so much activity following your death that I had no time to be lonely, no time to digest the fact that you were gone. I was overwhelmed with the support and the love that filled my home during those first few days of disbelief and confusion. But as is always the case, everyone returned to their own homes, their own lives, shortly following the memorial service . . . and I was alone.
Be the friend who is there for the long haul.
DO pray regularly and fervently for your grieving friend. Bereavement is a dark and difficult time. Grievers can feel frightened, isolated, and despairing. They need your prayer support.
Whenever you think of the person offer a prayer like this: Loving God, be near to my friend who is grieving. Give him/her strength for the present day and hope for the future. And give me wisdom and compassion that I may speak the right words and do the right deeds for my friend.
Victor M. Parachin, minister and professional grief counselor, writes books and contributes to a wide variety of publications from his home in Tulsa, Oklahoma.