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The First Day of Grief

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What do you say when you don't know what to say?  Helpful tips on how to serve someone dealing with intense loss.

If you struggle with words to say to someone who is grieving, you are not the only one.  Most people feel the pressure to say something when the only thing that person wants is their loved one back.  So, we stumble through our words to find something, anything, that can bring comfort.  This is one of those situations where if you haven't decided what you believe about death, or are not comfortable with silence, then you need to be prepared ahead of time.
Many families, and I agree, tell me there are NO words that bring them the comfort they want.  Your presence when they feel most alone is what brings them comfort.  That doesn't mean that we have to sit in silence the whole time, though.  It means that if we are thoughtful with our words, we can bring comfort and safety to those painful moments.  Here are a few tips for you to consider...

  • Ask the grieving person if they want you there or if they want to be alone, and listen.  If they ask to be alone, leave your number and ask when it would be okay to call to check on them and go.  Then follow through with that phone call!
  • Never move anything around in the house unless you are asked.  Even in the beginning stages of grieve, attachment to material things is strong.  Never assume something is trash unless they tell you.  I had one wife tell me she left a soda can and a granola bar wrapper by her bed for a long time because it was the last thing he ate.
  • Use the deceased person's name.  Do not be afraid to say his/her name frequently.  Saying "him" over and over distances him more.  Using their name can actually aid in the grieving process as they hear their name and feel both comforted, feel their presence in their name, and begin to feel the reality of the moment.
  • Do not be afraid to cry.  Some of you have an amazing talent for empathy and tear up at a person's pain.  This can make a person feel heard and understood and safe to cry as well. Of course we are not talking about full out weeping.  If you are crying harder than the other person then you are drawing attention to yourself and it becomes about you.  Withdraw yourself and ask if you are the right person to bring comfort.  If you are not a crier- don't feel bad, tears don't measure thoughtfulness.
  • Do not give advice on anything, unless you are a schooled expert in that area.  This includes financial decisions, military protocol, family strife, etc.  Refer to someone who can help in a non-biased way.  NOTE: This one will suck you in!  Sometimes in our attempts to comfort, our own desire to feel needed creeps up and we want to offer advice disguised as comfort.  Resist the temptation to get involved and ask another person if it is wise if you have been asked.
  • Follow the grieving person's lead on discussing "where the deceased is now".  Your beliefs may differ from theirs.  Refer to the above tip!  If you don't know what to say, don't say anything at all.  Comments on this subject have been the most hurtful because of idiotic statements. 
  • Consider cultural differences.  Some cultures, such as the Jewish culture, have a specific mourning process that often involves only family members.  Do not be offended if others are not invited in.  Simply send or leave a card at the door and offer to call at a time that is best for the family.  Do you research!  Respecting their beliefs and being knowledgeable speaks volumes in your care for them.
  • There are several stages of grief (sadness, anger, denial, acceptance, and bargaining- although they are re-thinking these in the psychological community).  Know what they are and look for them so you can recognize them.  It is likely not helpful to point them out.  It is more important that you know how you will react to them.  Occasionally,  anger can be directed at those around them.  It is important to 1) Not take it personally and see it as an expression of grief, and 2) Know that it is ALWAYS right to hold your boundaries in explaining to a person how to treat you.
  • It is important to take care of yourself.  Do not over-extend yourself to the point you need someone to care fro you.  Ask others to step in (ask the family's permission first) to help.
  • If the death was sudden, then learning of it was traumatic for the family, further complicating the grief.  Have resources available for grief counseling or professionals who can help.

These are just a few suggestions.  Considering there are many types of loss, what would you add?