Everybody has had to deal with people who have recently lost a loved one, but most of us are not sure of how to comfort them. We are so anxious that we might say the wrong thing that very often we would rather not say anything at all.
Touch brings great comfort
Some people go so far as to cross the road if they see a recently bereaved person in the street, rather than have to talk to them. Even at the funeral, they hang back, unable to confront grief. Although they might be thinking of the bereaved, they are unable to show it because they don’t know what to say about such a great loss.
So what should we say? Often it is best to be quite honest with them and say, “I don’t know what to say. I am so sorry that you are going through this.”
Focus on the other person. They are feeling shocked and isolated and they will draw strength and comfort from your being with them.
Acknowledge the loss and listen if they want to describe how it happened. You can’t fix what happened, but you can sit with someone, side by side, so they don’t feel quite so alone. That requires only intention, a willingness to feel awkward and an open, listening heart. It’s a gift that can make a difference.
Grief affects people differently. Some people say that the world has become a grey place, as if the colours are washed out. A friend of mine said that it was as if someone had turned down the dimmer switch of his life.
Walk with your friend through the fog of grief
Some people feel that they have to be strong, buck up and get on with it – life goes on after all. Men in particular feel that it’s not manly to show their grief, so they suppress it, sometimes for years.
Other people are helplessly overwhelmed by sorrow. A friend of mine recently said, “But I am drowning in grief. There seems no point somehow. And I need witnesses to my misery.” In a way that makes it easier for us to respond, as the least we can say is that we witness the pain – although she is probably unusual in being able to articulate her feelings like this.
What also happens is that the bereaved are surrounded by supporters initially, but once the funeral has taken place they find themselves left alone to cope with the ongoing heartache. So follow up on your friends a couple of weeks later, as that’s when they’ll really value your thoughtfulness.
If you knew the deceased, share your memories of his or her character and life. The bereaved want to make sure that he or she will live on in our memories. Czeslaw Milosz said, “The living owe it to those who no longer can speak to tell their story for them.”
Sometimes we think that if we tell stories about the deceased it will upset those who are left behind. But the bereaved have not forgotten the one who has gone. They won’t want us to carry on as if the deceased had never lived, for fear of renewing the pain.
Often humour also helps, surprisingly. We still draw comfort from the funny stories of what happened after the death of my mother-in-law.
But we should be careful of giving advice, especially in the early days. Give your opinion if asked for it, but qualify it by admitting that it might not be the best for these particular circumstances.
And certainly do not say “I know how you’re feeling.” Even if you have lost loved ones, your experience will not be the same as theirs.
There are practical things that you can do to help. But that is a blog for another time.
A thoughtful gift brings long-lasting solace