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Sharing Hard-Earned Wisdom

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“The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is the friend who cares…” — Henri Nouwen, from Out of Solitude

If your spouse has died recently or, perhaps, years ago, you are in the process of gaining or have gained some hard-earned wisdom. You know that the pain immediately following the death can feel overwhelming, unbearable or intolerable. The pain is perhaps unfamiliar, is definitely uncomfortable and can come at unexpected times. But you’ve learned that patience and compassion with yourself and others help give you permission to have your own authentic process.

A woman comforting a friend as she grieves

Many members of HOPE’s support groups have confided that they feel a duty to help others with their grief, almost an obligation to share what they have learned through the grief process. If you know someone who is grieving the recent death of a loved one, you may want to reach out, and the following tips may help you organize what you have learned first-hand.

From a different perspective, if you are still early in the process of grieving, a dear family member or friend may want to reach out to you, to comfort you, but they may not know what to say or do. They may want to support you — but if they have not experienced a deep loss personally they may be at a loss for words. Consider forwarding this article to them, to let them know how they can help.

Above all, remember that grief is a natural process that affects people as they experience the loss of a loved one, whether they are an intimate partner, a friend, family member or pet. The emotions experienced during grieving are universal, but the duration, frequency and intensity of the experience varies per individual. When you comfort someone, you may want to take their hurt or pain away, want to fix the issue at hand or feel compelled to provide advice. Though these are good intentions, the person grieving most often needs others to simply listen and care. Allowing someone to have their own experience gives the individual permission to have an authentic experience and move through their process at their own pace. It is a process not to be rushed or pushed. By doing so, you may not be able to take their pain away; however, you can help them manage this difficult experience.

10 Tips For Comforting Those Who Are Grieving

Acknowledge your awareness of the loss by mentioning the person who has died. Continue to do so even as time goes by. It is common for people around the griever to avoid mentioning the person who has died for fear it will remind the grieving person of their pain. By doing so, it leaves the griever feeling alone in their grief. Acknowledging lets the griever feel comfort that you are aware of the death, the pain and that they are not alone.

Listen to your loved one. Healing occurs in the retelling of one’s story. A grieving person may need to tell their story again and again as part of the grieving process. The most important thing you can offer someone who is grieving is your ability to listen without judgment.

Offer companionship. Your presence can be comforting to a grieving loved one; you don’t have to do anything special. Often, grieving people just do not want to be alone

Offer specific and direct help. Grief alone can be consuming, so asking for help can feel like an added chore or stressor. Offering practical help, such as bringing a meal, offering to help with daily chores, babysitting, shopping or gardening can provide relief. Be specific and direct with the help you provide. Avoid comments such as, Let me know if you need anything. Instead, say something like, “Let me bring you dinner tomorrow. Or, I’m running to the store — what are you in need of?

Don’t minimize the loss. Messages such as “I know exactly how you feel” may minimize your loved one’s unique feelings. If you have been through the loss of someone close to you, you know how you felt, but you don’t know just how the grieving person feels now. Instead, use statements such as, I know this is difficult or I know how hard it was for me when my mother died or some other statement that is heartfelt and truthful but leaves room for the uniqueness of your loved one’s experience.

Encourage sharing of uncomfortable feelings. Statements such as don’t cry, be strong or comments to push along one’s grief don’t allow the griever to have their unique experience. This sends the message that you are uncomfortable with your loved one’s intense feelings and, therefore, you will leave them to go through the emotions alone. Since most people feel somewhat overwhelmed by the intensity and unfamiliarity of grief, they may be worried that they will be unable to cope, so these phrases may in fact reinforce their fears rather than help. Instead, encourage your loved one’s process by saying, It’s okay to cry, or You don’t have to be so strong.

Create new traditions, rituals or activities. It can be a difficult transition to accept a new normal. Help your loved one re-engage in life. For example, if your loved one used to go for morning walks with the person who passed away, offer to spend mornings walking together or engaging in a new activity. Holidays, birthdays, anniversaries and other events filled with tradition can also be especially hard to deal with; try to help your loved one discover new ways to experience these events. At the same time, they should be encouraged to cherish the memories and traditions associated with the person who has passed away.

Encourage thoughtful decisions. As a rule of thumb, during the first year of the grieving process, it is important to hold off on any big decisions. Provide the person who is grieving permission to pay attention to their own needs and make choices accordingly. You can do this during their decision-making process by talking through various scenarios or advising them to take the time needed to make important decisions.

Avoid the “should.” Avoid statements such as you should… you need to… or you have to when providing advice or guidance for the griever. Only the person who is grieving knows what is fitting for them. Often, those grieving are told, You need to get out more… You shouldn’t be alone… You should get rid of his clothes — you have too many reminders. Again, the message to your loved one is that you think they should not be grieving, and this message may increase, not decrease, their sense of isolation. Instead, give advice that encourages the grieving person to trust themselves and make choices based on their needs, rather than on what others think they should be doing or feeling.

Grief is a long process. Several months or more after the death, your loved one may actually be feeling the loss more acutely, and much of their support system will have backed off. This is when they may need your support the most. Birthdays, holidays, anniversaries and other events may also evoke strong feelings for your grieving loved one.

Having compassion and patience will increase your ability to help with another’s pain. Provide permission to the griever to have their authentic experience and move through their process of grief at their own pace. Support groups, such as bereavement groups are available and provide the griever a unique home to share their grief.

“Honest listening is one of the best medicines we can offer the dying and the bereaved.” — Jean Cameron

By Channie Amato, LMFT