One look at grieving faces on the TV news sucks me backward to 3 1/2 years ago. The agonized sobs in sound bites shove me once more into that bleak, table-sized, hospital waiting room. Again I feel the doctor’s unthinkable, impossible, unbearable words rip into my heart and shred my world. In the days, weeks, and months that followed that moment, one odd symptom of my grief was that I couldn’t bear looking in the mirror. It only took a glance to see the grief that covered my features more completely than any mask could do. Mourning permeated my pores and rewrote the face they formed.
In earlier years I’d known families forever altered by publicly acknowledged deaths. Unavoidable traffic accidents and, in one case, intentional homicide, made their personal, private bereavement subject to local news coverage.* I’d witnessed their grief up close, but I shared only a thin shadow of a sliver of the pain of their losses. I remembered how I’d felt after the expected passings of my grandparents — and my mother — and after the unexpected death of my young adult cousin. I knew my own pain, but I also knew it differed from those families’ pain in their losses.
Now, in the present, I don’t know any of the passengers and crew who went down with Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370; I’m not acquainted with any Washington residents impacted by the massive mudslide. Yet I recognize the faces of the survivors. I once wore similar expressions of shock and horror. I’ve felt that intense, disbelieving grief that colored both the appearance and the perceptions of my eyes.
Even so, I do not claim to understand their losses. I do NOT understand their losses. Even other survivors who share the same tragic circumstances alongside them do not fully understand one another’s losses, because every loss is unique.
Let me repeat: EVERY loss is unique. Some aspects of grieving are universal, though. Remember these points when your friends grieve lost loved ones:
- Acknowledge the loss. (A simple, sincere expression of “I’m sorry” is one way.) Follow up with them over the lonely weeks, months, and years ahead, particularly around the date of the death. Let them know you remember their loved ones, too, and that you remember the significance of the timing.
- Don’t make their loss about you and your woes. Supporting the bereaved means listening, not counseling, advising, comparing, or admonishing. Every person grieves differently, and such un-listening communications invalidate the bereaved for their ways. Don’t feel the need to fill contemplative silences, either. (What you perceive as uncomfortable may be comforting simply because you are there.)
- Find specific, physical ways to show your support, then act on them. Whether families are in shock over a sudden death or drained from the exhaustion of care-taking prior to an expected death, survivors will find it difficult (if not impossible) to carry out the day-to-day tasks of living. Even if they realize they need help, they may not be capable of asking for it. Asking, “Do you need any help?” is likely to get a negative reply, even if the need is dire. Lend a hand (with meal preparation, grocery shopping, laundry, child care, transportation, yard work, car maintenance, dish washing …). Don’t ask, “Can I help you with ___?” Instead say, “I’d like to help you with ___. Is today okay, or would it be better [give a specific alternative time]?”
- Avoid platitudes; bite your tongue on most of the “condolence” phrases that come to mind. To grieving ears they sound trite and insincere. (Some are even offensive, though their speakers intend them kindly.) To the bereaved, life does not “go on” as it did before, the cemetery or crematorium is not “a better place” for their loved ones, and whether or not the deceased is “at peace” does not diminish the survivors’ sense of loss.
- Let them know your thoughts are ongoing. Grieving is difficult, painful, lonely work, and it can help to know others are aware of that. Be specific in expressing your support:
“I’m thinking of you and your family daily.”
“You’re in my prayers.”
“My Thursday morning prayer group will pray for you every week.”
“I’m sending positive energy your way during my daily walks.”
- Where appropriate, offer financial support. Even small sums can make a big difference for families struggling to pay funerary costs and adjust to a lost source of income, too.
- Ask if they’d like to tell you about their loved ones. Give them “permission” to talk about them and say their names. Sometimes people fear that bringing up the name(s) of the deceased will bring sorrow, but in most cases the opposite is true. Offer the bereaved the chance to talk about their feelings if they wish, but don’t badger them into conversation.
- Don’t push your expectations of timing onto grieving survivors. Avoid words such as “still,” “already,” “yet,” “by now,” or “when.” Grief has no timetable, and grieving takes much longer than most people realize unless they’ve experienced a similar loss. Even then, some relationships, because of private concerns, may leave more complex grief issues to be resolved than others.
- Remember that nothing you do will “fix” their grief. You can’t bring back their loved one or make their lives “normal” again. Normal is gone. All you can do is offer your unconditional support, understanding, and strength as they make the most difficult adjustments of their lives.
- Repeat all of the above. The so-called “stages” of grief wax and wane. As bereaved family members slowly adjust to the shock of their losses, new situations and circumstances will arise that send them back to earlier, more intense phases. Your long-term, ongoing support will be as important in the future as your immediate actions will be now.