How to help others grieve.
With the recent death of my mother, there were many things I was feeling inside and outside my body. It didn't make sense. Why was I feeling this way? Science tells us the brain is dealing with all sorts of things:
"Having said that, one of the things that we know is that grief is tied to all sorts of different brain functions we have, from being able to recall memories to taking the perspective of another person, to even things like regulating our heart rate and the experience of pain and suffering. So lots of different parts of the brain are orchestrating this experience that we have when we feel grief(1)."
Therefore, a grieving person is filled with "feelings of guilt, anger, despair, and fear" (2). Knowing this, I thought I'd write a little blog with some ideas on how to help those who are grieving. My first word of advice is to slow down when you approach them. Use your listening skills instead of talking. Here are more ways to help a grieving person.
Leave your grief story at the door
When you are approaching someone who is experiencing a loss, do not tell them your grief story without acknowledging their current loss. If the grieving person wants to listen, let them ask you questions. If they don't ask, they're probably still in shock. Just give them a hug and say you're sorry.
Death is not good
Don't tell people it's for the better. These are not words of comfort. These are platitudes that might make the grieving person feel worse. They are missing their loved ones.
When I miscarried, people would say things like, "The baby probably had some defect, so it's better you had a miscarriage."
Even with the loss of my mother, people would say it was for the better. Death is never better.
"Death is horrible: the soul leaves the body and the body decays. Christ himself wept at the death of Lazarus. Isaiah called death “a reproach” in the sense of a disgrace, of which we are ashamed" (3).
As Christians we believe God transformed the effects of death, so we have hope that our loved ones will have eternal life in heaven. When people are in the throws of grieving, however, it's not time to tell them it's all for the better.
Do not tell people, especially children, that it's wrong to cry, feel sad or angry. Don't tell them it's time to move on. I think this was more common years ago when mental health and grief were pushed under the rug. If people stuff their feelings away, they will pop up in other areas of life, often in more unpleasant ways than a crying child.
Acknowledge the loss
I have bumped into people who I think knew about my mother's death but they said nothing. I wanted to say, "My mother died," but it felt weird. If you know someone with a loss, I think it would be better to say or do something than nothing. It can be a little awkward. I try to check the obituaries before saying anything.
Listen without judgement
Just listen. And if the person is comfortable, hold his or her hand or give a hug.
Make a meal
When my friend's father passed away, I asked what her mother needed. She said her mom wanted a meal. She added that it used to be common for people to bring over meals, but no one did.
People are busy, and I think Covid or food sensitivities have made people reluctant to cook for others. That said, I think it's a wonderful gesture. The family is going through so much planning that meals are often overlooked. Call the family to find out what they can eat. The other options are restaurant gift cards if you can afford them.
There were people who attended the wake or funeral who shared stories of my mother that I was unaware of. They were good memories and brought me joy. Leave the bad ones home or for your therapy session. I've heard of terrible stories of estranged family members telling their nightmare tales of the deceased at the funeral. That is just plain sad.
Go to wake/Funeral or send flowers/Cards
People have been very generous with sending flowers or cards or attending the wake and funeral. It really meant a lot to see people take time out of their busy schedule to honor my mother through their participation in the funeral rites or through cards. Death is one of those painful reminders that we're not going to be here forever. This is why I think it's good to slow down and honor the dead.
You can cry if you want to
I don't want to end without a few words for those who are grieving. First, allow yourself to grieve. It is okay to cry and talk about your loved one who has passed away. Don't let others try to rush you through the process. You may find help with grief support groups. Typically the funeral home who has handled your loved one's arrangements might have resources for these types of groups. Some of them also offer grief and healing services that you may attend to honor your loved one. If you belong to a faith community, sometimes there are grief support groups offered through those avenues. You may also need to meet with a therapist. That is perfectly fine - don't feel guilty about doing that.
I know some of my readers have loved ones who did not want any funeral. You can still hold a memorial service. You can plant a tree in your loved-one's name or buy a brick or statue for a public garden. If you're Catholic, you can have masses said for your loved one even if their passing happened years ago. Our church has a special memorial mass every November 2 to honor those who have passed during the year. You don't have to be Catholic to attend.
Remember always, that even though your loved one has passed, you still have valuable work to do here on earth. If you are feeling despair or hopeless, please get professional help - you can also dial 988 for the suicide hotline.
Thank you for reading. You are all in my thoughts and prayers. If you know anyone who might benefit, feel free to share.
Carol L. Paur
This month's Talking to Myself-Writing is on Revisions. Catch it on Spotify here: