Do This, Not That: How To Help A Grieving Friend

“Above all, show your love.  Be willing to stand beside the gaping hole that has opened up in your friend’s life, without flinching or turning away.  Your steadiness of presence is the absolute best thing you can give.”  ~ Refuge in Grief

I truly believe that our friends and family WANT to be helpful as they companion us in grief.  

But if they’ve never known great loss, they may well be clueless.  

I love to share ideas, graphics and stories that can help them learn how.  

Here’s a good list, just right for sharing: 

  • Don’t compare griefs, ask questions.
  • Don’t minimize, respect their experience.
  • Don’t give compliments, trust your friend.
  • Don’t be a cheerleader, mirror their reality.
  • Don’t talk about “later”, stay in the present moment.
  • Don’t evangelize, trust their self-care.
  • Don’t start with solutions, get consent.

I’m not computer savvy enough to make graphics like this so I love it when I find them. 

I especially like this one which puts so many good ideas in a simple to use, easy to remember format. 

These are absolutely perfect for anyone walking with a grieving friend. 

do this not that for grief

When People Just Don’t Listen

I had a very uncomfortable exchange with someone at church Wednesday night.  

We have a light potluck dinner each Wednesday before Bible Study and I’m on kitchen duty.  So I was uncovering dishes, adding spoons and getting things ready when conversation erupted around me about a “horrible wreck just up the road.”

I kept silent and tried to focus on the plastic wrap and aluminum foil but couldn’t help hearing the animated relaying of detail after detail until it reached a crescendo ending in someone declaring that, “Well, those people just drive too fast.  They don’t even care about themselves.”  

You might guess where this is going.  

Yep.  Couldn’t take it anymore so I said, “Most young people feel invincible.  They think it won’t happen to them.  If they knew they might really die and all that meant, they wouldn’t do it.”  

Which kind of slowed them down but didn’t stop them.  

So I asked, “Is the guy OK?”  Wanting a simple answer not an account of grisly details.  

Instead, the main speaker turned to me and began to share all he could remember in the brief time he had to take notes as he was crawling slowly by the accident scene.  (I won’t recount them here to spare hearts but let’s just say for those of us whose child left for Heaven by road accident, it was entirely. too. much.)

I looked at him and said, “That’s enough.”  He kept talking. 

I looked at him again and said, “That’s enough.  My son was killed in an accident.”  He kept talking.  

I finally raised my voice, called his name and said, “That’s enough!  Stop talking!”  He turned away like I had lost my mind.

I followed him a couple steps and said, “My son died in an accident.  I don’t want to hear those kinds of details.  Didn’t you see that I was crying?”  

His response:  “Well you asked.  No, I didn’t see you crying.”

Walked away.

Everyone heard it but no one was listening.  Everyone saw it but no one was willing to come alongside and put an arm around me.  Everyone knows about my son but knowing hasn’t sunk in deeply enough to grow seeds of compassion.

I was shaking and wanted to leave right then but didn’t.  

I’m not so tender now at five years that simply hearing about an accident upsets me.  My mind goes immediately to the family and I breathe prayers for abundant grace and mercy.  I never want others to  feel they can’t share genuine prayer requests or concerns.

But I do not want details.  I do not want a blow-by-blow nor anyone’s haughty opinion that it won’t happen to them or theirs because they “take precautions”.

I am utterly undone that after years of gently trying to help the people I worship with understand the tender places in a bereaved parent’s heart, several of them stomped all over mine.

I know words slip out.  I don’t want anyone to walk on eggshells around me. 

But I do want to be heard.  

When I tell you that I need you to stop sharing something with me, please just stop.  

Are you going to burst if you don’t let the words out?  

Probably not.  

But you might well break a bit of my heart if you don’t.  

dragging heart

Repost: Lessons in Grief-Learning to Listen

I admit it:  I’m a fixer.

It’s probably genetic (won’t mention any names!) but it has been reinforced by training and life experience.

When faced with a difficult or messy situation, my mind instantly rolls through an inventory of available resources and possible solutions.

And I tended to cut people off mid-sentence with my brilliant (?) plan to save the day.

But there are things you just can’t fix.

Read the rest here:  Lessons in Grief: Learning to Listen

Child Loss: Helpful Tips for Interacting With Bereaved Families

I firmly believe that our friends and extended family want to reach out, want to help, want to walk alongside as we grieve the death of our child

 I am also convinced that many of them don’t because they don’t know how.  

It may seem unfair that in addition to experiencing our loss, we also have to educate others on how to help us as we experience it, but that’s just how it is.

The alternative is to feel frustrated and abandoned or worse.  

So here’s a list of helpful tips (and a great infographic!) for interacting with bereaved families:  

Express condolences and show you care. Don’t avoid me, please!  You cannot make me any sadder.  I need to hear from you.

friends hugging

Refer to my child by name.  Dominic is STILL my son.  He is still part of my story.  But because he’s no longer visible, his name often goes unspoken.  Please talk to me about him, use his name, tell me a story of how he impacted your life or a memory that makes you smile.  It makes me smile too.

Actively listen and be supportive.  It’s hard to listen to someone tell you how much they are hurting and not offer advice or think of ways to “fix” them.  I can tell you from experience that what I need most on my darkest days is for someone to say, “It IS dark.  I’m so sorry.”  Silence is OK too.  Not every quiet moment needs to be filled with chatter.

listening is a postive act

Understand that each family and family member will grieve in different ways.  You may have observed child loss before but what you saw in one family may not translate to the next.  There are no hard and fast rules for this awful journey.  The age of the child, family background and structure, manner of death-all these impact grief.  In addition, mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers all bring their personalities, stage of life, beliefs and experiences to the journey.  There were five of us left behind when Dominic ran ahead.  We were each devastated but expressed it in very different ways.  Nearly five years later, those gaps have widened, not narrowed.

Fathers grieve too.  Sometimes support focuses almost exclusively on the mother.  In part because of a common notion that mothers are somehow emotionally closer to their children than dads.  In part because many men are less demonstrative and may do a good job hiding grief.  Whatever the reason, don’t assume one parent is dealing “better” with the loss than another (mother or father) just because he (or she) is not crying openly.  No one escapes this awful blow unscathed.

bereaved fathers

Don’t overlook siblings.  Surviving siblings are sometimes referred to as “forgotten grievers”.  If they are very young, people may think they are relatively unaffected by the death of a brother or sister. If they are grown and out of the home, people may figure that the siblings’ own, very full and very busy, lives keep them preoccupied.  While some of that may be true-to an extent-most surviving siblings are deeply impacted by the death of a brother or sister, regardless of age.  Not only have they lost a member of the family and changed birth order, they have also lost the family they knew, the parents they knew and a co-keeper of memories and secrets.  Bereaved parents are often overwhelmed with grief for their living children as well as the child that is missing. One of the best gifts anyone gave me was reaching out to my surviving children.  It helped my heart to know that they had friends who were supporting and loving them well.

kids cartoon

Be yourself.  People often feel awkward and stiff when approaching a bereaved parent or family member.  That’s perfectly understandable.  The bereaved seem so fragile (are so fragile!) that folks are afraid the wrong word or touch might shatter them into a thousand pieces.  But what your friend or family needs right now is the you they’ve always known and loved.  If you are a hugger, hug!  If you are a storyteller, tell stories (appropriate ones, ones of the missing child).  If you are a cook and cleaner, then cook and clean.  Our family was blessed by our friends doing exactly what they had always done-come alongside in their own special way.  So much had changed in our world that familiar touchstones, familiar routines and familiar faces were a real comfort.

Keep in mind words matter.  Now is not the time to try to satisfy your curiosity about exactly “what happened”.  Loud joking is rarely welcome.  Many bereaved families find it hard to laugh in the first days, weeks, months because it feels like betrayal.  Don’t offer platitudes intended to help them “look on the bright side” or consider that “it could be worse”.  There is nothing worse than burying your child.  Nothing.  Listen and take direction from the person you are comforting.  Follow his or her lead.  And if something less than helpful slips out, own it and apologize.

pencil-drawing-bereaved-mother

It’s never too late to reach out.  NEVER.  Sometimes people stay away at first for lots of reasons.  Or they show up for the memorial service and then fade into the background.  After a bit, even if they want to reach out, they may feel embarrassed by the long absence.  Don’t be.  So many people stop calling, visiting and texting within the first weeks that your outstretched hand of friendship will be a welcome beacon of hope.  If you need to, apologize for your absence.  Be honest.  Admit you were scared or whatever.

Then show up. 

Stick around.

You don’t have to be perfect.  

Just be present.  

bereaved families infographic

The Art of Listening

We’ve all experienced it and probably been guilty of it as well:  listening with one ear while anxiously waiting to reply or to make a getaway.  

I hate that.  

What I LOVE is people who really listen.  

I knew a woman once who made me feel as if whatever I was telling her at that moment was the most important thing in the world.  She would look me in the eye,  often take my hand, and never made even the slightest body movement to suggest she had things to do or people to see or anywhere else to go.

Even when we were talking about the most ordinary things.

I want to be like THAT.  

I want to make every single heart that shares feel honored, loved, heard and safe. 

speak so others listen listen so others speak

 

 

Silence is a Gift

It’s hard to sit silent in an age when most of us live with noise nearly 24/7.

Out where I live, surrounded by grass and trees and plenty of room between me and my nearest neighbor, I am used to the quiet.

But it makes many folks uncomfortable.

They hasten to fill any empty airspace with chatter or nervous laughter or music or television or just about anything that means they don’t have to listen to their own thoughts.

It can be tempting, when trying to do the work grief requires to chase away the sorrow and pain with noise.

But that’s unhelpful.

Because you can’t really chase grief anywhere.  It’s inside you, part of you, with you wherever you go.

Every morning I get up, make coffee, sit down and drink in the quiet with my caffeine.  I listen for a bit and then write down what I hear my heart saying.  It has been the most effective habit for helping me walk through this Valley in the four years since Dominic left us.

Silence is necessary for a heart to do the work grief requires.

Don’t fight it.

Lean in, pen and pad at the ready, and let silence speak to your broken heart.

silence speaks

Why We Have to Tell Our Stories & Why We Need Someone to Listen

We’ve all been at the family dinner table when an elder launches into THAT story-the one that gets dragged out every holiday and several times in between.

Often our eyes roll and we exchange knowing glances with the younger set as if to say, “Here we go again!”

But we point our faces toward the speaker, lean in and lap it up.  

Because we know this story is important to her or else she wouldn’t be sharing it again.

You learn a lot about your parents and grandparents, older aunts and uncles by listening carefully to the stories that have stuck around in a head that finds it hard to remember what the body had for breakfast.

Some of the stories are wonderful.  Sweet, sweet memories of special times and special friends; of younger years and youthful dreams. 

Some of the stories are tragic.  The baby brother or sister who only lived a few days or months.  The mother that died too soon because there were no drugs to treat a common condition.  The friend that never came home from the war.

The stories are windows into souls.

our lives are stories take time to listen

Some of us have stories that need telling NOW.  We can’t wait until our age guarantees us a captive audience.

Because telling the stories helps our hearts.  

A fellow bereaved mom who has a gift for finding exquisite quotes found this one:

Sometimes I think that if it were possible to tell a story often enough to make the hurt ease up, to make the words slide down my arms and away from me like water, I would tell that story a thousand times.

~Anita Shreve, The Weight of Water

Every time I tell the story of Dominic, it helps to keep him real. 

It reminds my heart that he lived, that he mattered, that he matters still.

And in the telling, I am giving away a little bit of him for another heart to carry.  His light is passed to another soul that can pass it to another and another.

It doesn’t really take away the hurt and sorrow, but it does help me bear it.

So if I launch into the same old rendition of my favorite memories of my missing son, bear with me.

Be a witness.

Help me carry the burden.  

we all need people who will listen to our stories