“Sixty-one years is a long time to be married to the same person — and then lose them,” Elaine said as she stared into space. “Wow,” was my response. “That is amazing and I can’t even imagine how it must feel for you now. The loneliness must be overwhelming.”
“You’re right, it is,” was her confident reply. We went on to cover simple changes both she and I had experienced over the last year: buying food and cooking for ONE instead of two, learning to manage jobs our mates always did, and adjusting socially to being single. I noticed that her spirits and demeanor improved following our talk.
Did you notice that I did not say anything like, “I know how you feel?” or “I know, I lost two wives!” Neither statement is helpful. I really don’t understand another’s personal pain, and she did not expect me to. She only needed me to empathize and acknowledge her pain. And comparative statements tend to shut people down. Too often, when we don’t know what to say to FIX their problem with grief, we feel we can’t help and so we shy away. Not so. Grievers need to be heard, not fixed, or out-done.
EXPRESSION, NOT QUICK FIX
Expression and closure are important for those who have experienced loss.
I had the opportunity to share my experiences and lessons of going through loss at a large men’s prison in southeastern California recently. The chaplain, who is a long-time friend, invited me to share with the “church” he was responsible for behind bars. It proved to be a great opportunity to offer healing.
Following my talk, men began lining up to express appreciation and tell me their stories. One impacted me in particular. A man in his early 60’s with a ponytail had joined the line. When he got to me he was so emotional he couldn’t talk. He stepped out of line for a moment before he composed himself enough to tell me his story. He had married his childhood sweetheart, then went to Viet Nam. He came back with severe Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and she eventually left him. Later in life he was able to overcome the effects of the war and she returned to him. He never said why he was in prison, but while he was serving time, she died. He never got to say goodbye, nor did he have the opportunity to settle any hurts OR even go to her funeral.
My forthright talk about grief and even my facial expressions made him feel that I was the first person to come into his life who understood his pain. This rough and tough man sobbed on my shoulder for the longest time, and it gave him release.
You can be of great help to those you know by allowing them multiple opportunities to express their pain (not fix it) and thus aid them in steps of closure. It can even be helpful to ask, “Where do you see yourself in your grieving process? Tell me about it.”
GET TO THE POINT
Get to the point. This is good advice for people who wish to really be of practical help to a friend or relative who has experienced a recent loss. It is very easy and tempting to make general statements like, “If there is anything I can do to help,” or “Let me know what I can do.”
As clear as these may seem to you it can sound more like “la la land” to the griever and require more energy than they have. Grieving takes a lot of emotional and mental energy. Often simple “yes” and “no” questions are all one can process with any level of definitiveness. Future planning skills are hampered in the minds of the bereaved. Thinking about needing groceries next week will not be a need until the minute one runs out of milk.
If you are really serious about helping your friend or relative in some physical way, specific questions are better. “Can I come over on Tuesday and help you get your housework caught up?” “I do grocery shopping on Saturday, can I call you then to see what you may need from the store?” “Is it okay if I call you Thursday evening between 8:00 and 10:00 p.m. to chat?”
Judith died early on a Sunday morning. Seeing and touching her lifeless body is permanently embedded in my memory. I walked from the bedroom to the living room and collapsed on the couch with uncontrollable sobs. I was inconsolable. As the tears lessened, my soul began to hurt and a hollow feeling overwhelmed me. I felt like a nobody. Immediately, my identity and definition of who I was vanished. I was no longer Judith’s husband. She was gone. I was single again and did not know what that meant. I was no longer among the marrieds group in society. I no longer had someone to check in with concerning daily events and decisions. All future plans we had made were useless and gone!
Some have tried to explain this identity crisis caused by the loss of a spouse as an amputation of one’s self. One man, following the loss of his wife, expressed it well. He likened him and his wife as a pair of pliers. With both sides present and attached, the pliers are a very useful tool. He said he felt like one side was now gone and the “pliers” could no longer grasp anything. The re-definition of one’s self becomes then compounded by the difficult situation of loss due to death. It barges in as a situation that has to be worked through and not easily dealt with by immediate replacement. Some of my sense of fulfillment in life revolved around Judith’s happiness and well-being. That purpose in life for me vanished.
Friends’ comments that meant the most in helping me cope at this stage included, “I know how much you loved her,” “I don’t know how you feel right now, but I want you to know I am here for you,” “I am praying for you,” and “You are still very important to me.”
Being single again created many other adjustments for me. For the longest time after both of my wives’ deaths I still felt married. I wore my wedding band for months after they departed. I still thought of myself as half a couple. Adjusting to my new reality and viewing myself as a whole single person took time. I began to realize that my regular circle of friends had to make the same adjustments. Some pulled away while others saw me as a threat.
Elisabeth Elliot, in her book Loneliness expressed it well:
In spite of this modern shuffling of ancient norms, social gatherings are still often made up of what we (sometimes loosely) call couples. As a widow I never enjoyed being a fifth wheel. I threw things off balance simply by being there, but this was a reality I had to come to terms with. It was nobody’s fault. It would be silly to protest that the married people were supposed to do something about my feelings in the matter. Many of them tried. Everybody was kindness itself in the beginning, hovering over me, offering helps of all sorts, inviting me out. Many continued to be kind when the so-called grieving process was supposed to be over, but there was nothing in the world they could do about my not being half of a couple anymore. (pg. 41)
HOLIDAYS CAN HURT
The first holidays after losing a spouse can be excruciating. Christmas especially looms as hard for many. Being helpful and attentive to those you know who were recently widowed can be very important.
Following Ruth’s death in October, her parents were still living near us and, of course, I had four children to think about and care for. We had Thanksgiving with her parents as usual. Christmas developed differently. A good friend who lived in Grand Rapids made me an unusual offer. He had been a missionary pilot and now had his own plane. He invited us to join his family for the week of Christmas in a private cabin complex in the Bahama Islands. We only had to meet him at an airport in Florida and he would fly us over to the island and take care of us for the five days we were there. We took him up on it. The solitude was just what we needed at that time. The pain we could have experienced during the holidays was diminished.
Judith’s death was also in October. I saw the month of December as an opportunity to heal through many “firsts” in my grieving process. This time I had an empty home. Two families of kids and grandkids lived nearby, but my house was empty. Early in December I flew to Iowa to attend a Christmas gathering of my many siblings and their families. I knew this would be a good opportunity to begin the Christmas season by connecting with them for the first time since Judith’s death. It turned out to be a great time of healing for many of them as well as for me. I then had an evening of Christmas gifts and meals with the two families living near me. For Christmas day, however, I was alone. I thought nothing of it since I had celebrated Christmas with my kids. However, a couple hours after I got up and realized it was Christmas day, I began to sob. I wept for several hours that morning. My healing was continuing. That afternoon I attended a community potluck meal and met some new friends that I enjoyed being with.
Both experiences, being with people in a different setting, as well as being alone helped me to reflect and heal. Some grievers continue to struggle, trying to reproduce past Christmases. Some avoid the season altogether, while others start all new traditions for the holidays. As with the grieving process itself, there is no best way to deal with the holidays. Dangers and benefits to each exist. It becomes important to have a plan that best suits the people involved.
You don’t have to come up with an almighty solution to a griever’s pain over the holidays. It is often important that you address it by asking them what their plans are for the upcoming holidays. This can give them an opportunity to talk through it and it lets them know you are aware and concerned with their pain.
WAYS TO HELP
Remember that grieving can’t be “fixed.” Grieving is a process to be experienced. A great way to help the mourner, can be by assisting them physically to ease life’s demands while they heal.
Judith often told me about the ways many people helped her during her years of widowhood. She had four young boys and a house to maintain. Prepared food that arrived at her door became a valued treasure as she could not concentrate on preparing food and everything else. She spoke of ladies who showed up and simply came in to help clean or do dishes. Some people came to help remodel the basement in order to make it more usable. Men would take the boys and teach them to shoot or ski. Actions like this actually aided in her ability to heal. Serving becomes the same as comforting.
She pointed out that the most effective servers were people with whom she had a good relationship. Interestingly, there were those who did not make the effort to build a relationship either through service or emotionally. For them it seemed easier to do a “token task” and avoid her pain and situation altogether. But that approach to help falls short when practiced by friends.
During Judith’s time of terminal illness, friends set up a website folks could go to in order to sign up to bring meals to my house. Our large circle of friends brought meals every other day for three and a half months, which made our grieving burden seem a bit lighter. Likewise, offers to come clean my house after her funeral were greatly appreciated. Though generally able to do everything before, grieving disables, if not derails, even the strongest person for a time.
Time is a Friend
To the griever who is engaged in the process TIME IS THEIR FRIEND. This can be both comforting and dreaded news. It is comforting because it assures them that time does have a healing affect in their grieving process. However, it can cause dread to those who wish grieving were a short event that is over and done in an instant and not something to experience over a length of time.
Your comments should reflect understanding that time will be an important ingredient in their grieving process. “You should put this behind you,” “You should get on with your life,” “Life goes on, you know,” or “What’s done is done” can give the wrong impression about time and grieving.
You can be more help by saying things like, “What was it like when…?” or “What are some things that have eased your pain?” or “No, you are not crazy. You are grieving.” or “I remember this about your spouse…”
« Point to Ponder »
Avoiding grievers socially, or avoiding the topic of their loss, stifles their grieving process.
ORDER YOUR COPY OF THE BOOK: “I Didn’t Know What To Say” today.
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Let the Bereaved Know You are Thinking of Them
Helping Others with Grief | By Chelsea
Following are some tips to let the bereaved know you are thinking of them:
1. Acknowledge their loss – It is important you tell them you know what has happened. You know the bottom has fallen out of their world. Phone them, text them, email them, write them, facebook them . It can be simply “Thinking of you” or “I am so sorry to hear about……..” You are acknowledging the importance of that person in their lives.
2. Don’t be afraid to say the name of the person who has died – even though the person is no longer on this earth, they lived. Their presence is all around the person grieving, in memories and personal items. They existed and will always exist for that person in some way. Saying their name is a gift and sharing a memory even more so.
3. Allow them to talk about how they are feeling – If they want to cry, let them cry. If they are angry let them be angry. If they are feeling guilty, as they very likely will, let them talk about that. All these emotions are a very normal part of grief. You don’t have to fix it, make it better, tell them it could be worse or anything similar. All you have to do is be there with them and listen without fixing. They just need a safe place to vent. If you can sit there and let a person cry their whole heart out without interrupting, just letting them be until the tears are spent, you are indeed a true friend.
4. Understand that there is no timeline for grieving – grief isn’t over in 3 days or a week. It is something that never ends in a sense. Over time there is an adjustment and adaptation to that loss, but there is no ‘getting over’ it in the literal sense. Therefore don’t expect them to be fully functioning in a week or two. Their whole world has been shattered. Some days will be better than others. Some days they won’t want to do anything and other days they will cry. Just accept if you can where they are and avoid being part of the move on brigade.*
5. Refrain from offering platitudes or comparing losses – whilst this can be helpful, in many cases it isn’t. Saying, “They are in a better place.” really doesn’t help someone who has lost the most precious person in the world. Especially if they are young, they want them here with them not somewhere else. There may be many other things you are tempted to say in an attempt to make them feel better. You don’t need to. Losses can’t be compared, the pain is still the pain. However comparing someone’s loss against your own may actually hurt more than help. If you want to show them you understand a little of what you are going through, you can say “I am so sorry. Whilst I don’t know how you are feeling exactly, I do understand what it is like to lose a loved one.” You have told them you too have experienced grief, which then opens the door. Remember you don’t have to fix it or take their pain away. Just be there and listen.
6. Keep in touch – so often there is such a flurry of activity after the death. Arrangements to be made, details finalised, paperwork to be completed. In the first few weeks there may be family around and frequent visitors. In most cases, people drift off after the first month. They have lives to get on with. This is the time when you can be much needed and appreciated. It can be a visit, thinking of you call or suggest going out for lunch. Often it can be the time when a lovely card or a single flower delivered to the door will touch their heart so deeply.
7. Don’t run away in the supermarket – avoidance can be a coping mechanism. This happened to me often or friends just dropped out of my life. It hurt so much at the time but now I understand why. They just didn’t know what to say or couldn’t deal with my pain. I felt at times I had the plague and they thought it might be catching. Just a few words, a touch on the shoulder can mean so much.
8. Include them in your life – grieving can be exhausting and the emotions of grief overwhelming. It is often difficult to cope with crowds or social circumstances. It just depends on the day. So if you have extended an invitation a few times and they have said no, don’t give up. Allow them the gift of time and the gift of spontanaiety. Often they may not know how they will feel until that day dawns. Understand also that whilst going out might be a welcome distraction for some, for others it is the last thing they want to do. Bringing a latte to the house might be just the thing. They might not even want that. Their own company is all they want right now. Respect them where they are at.
9. Know that the calendar is a big part of their life – birthdays, family celebrations, festive times of the year and the anniversary date of a loved one’s death can become very significant. It can be so thoughtful to make a note of these dates and be in touch in some way when the date arrives. Often years later, that anniversary date can still trigger some painful emotions. Also birthdays without loved ones are especially difficult and a big family Christmas with one person missing can be torture.
If you are still daunted, I would encourage you to do just one thing then. Send a card acknowledging their loss with a few personal words or a precious memory. That alone can mean so much.
Source of Article: Mareen Hunter.
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Nobody really wants to experience loss, pain, heartache, disappointment, grief or mourning. The truth, however, emerges that they are all a part of human existence. These things will happen to all of us at some point. Beginning with the loss of the safe, warm environment of the womb until the news that one will soon lose their physical life, our journey contains various levels and degrees of loss.
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Adjusting to loss seems to be a core issue in life. Whether it is the childish horror of a toddler losing their blanket or a child relinquishing their position as baby of the family to a new addition, loss requires confrontation. Every one of us will experience the emotional hurt from grief caused by the loss or death of someone or something they are close to. How do you cope?
My experiences with loss may seem like an unusual amount to some people. However, I’m reminded of the story about the man who was the sole survivor of the Johnstown Flood. During his life he bragged a lot about that distinction. Upon arriving in heaven he began his boasting until someone said, “So, there is someone here you need to meet. His name is Noah.” Yes, there will always be someone who has gone through more. So, I don’t waste time with pity parties.
As you will read, my first devastating encounter with grief came through the death of my wife. I was in my late 30s, administrator and teacher at a college and parenting four young children. I didn’t know a human could hurt that much. It was all so new to me and I had no idea that some of my viewpoints about deep mourning were so off base. The “hole in my soul” haunted me.
My experience of going through grief did more than temporarily affect my life. I became a student of what was going on in (not easy for this man) and around me. I observed how those around me reacted to the same event and how they responded to me. Few seemed to have any better grasp of grief than I had. The knowledge I gained from my research soon began to drive me to reach out and help others experiencing loss in ways no one did for me.
One of the dominant methods of dealing with grief and loss of others is avoidance. Our default ways of coping with grief tend to be to change the subject, stuff it down, explain it away, prevent grief’s symptoms or try to get over it or away quickly. Since grief feels so uncomfortable, sidestepping is our first reaction.
My studies of the grieving process showed me that grief was not only normal, but required. This also applies to those who make up a support circle around the griever. Grief is as natural as bleeding when you cut your arm and time and attention is needed to heal. Ignoring the cut can lead to infection, just like thwarted grief can cause issues in one’s life, whether evident immediately or later. Some cuts require the aid of others to properly deal with and often, grief is best processed with the help of friends or relatives.
I wanted to be that better friend to people in my life who go through the grieving process.
Then came the death of my second wife twenty-two years later. The lessons I had gathered from my first wife’s death were unavoidably refreshed. My notes and observations took on a deeper, more refined form.
More than one friend admitted to me, “I didn’t know what to say.” When we’d talk and I explained to them what it was like in the grieving process and how I could have been helped, their responses were so positive. I sensed a deep compulsion inside me, “Don’t hoard your lessons.” Requests for written versions of my story and lessons mounted. I began to see that most people, whether friends or family or in professional capacities, really did want to connect with a person in grief, but fear, ignorance or verbal clumsiness held them back. And just like First-Aid 101, there were things that could be learned.
My professional background includes that of being a teacher. You will find that showing through in the following pages as I share practical suggestions for dealing with varying kinds of loss. For the hurried reader, there are even lists that should be helpful. All this springs from the lessons learned through my experiences. It is true that those who are in the throes of grieving will find help in the revealing portrayal of my own personal grieving experiences. However, my dominant objective for writing my story is to help the rest of us be a better friend to those who are grieving.
POINTS TO PONDER
Comments of comfort should not be geared to “fix” the problem of grief for the bereaved.
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Grief is the acknowledgement of loss emotionally. It is mostly a heart problem, not a mind challenge.
Mourners are sensitive to unsupportive comments that seem to minimize their grief.
Avoiding grievers socially, or avoiding the topic of their loss, stifles their grieving process.
Words of comfort need to revolve around the feelings of the bereaved, not the discomfort of the supporter.
The grieving are not looking for logic statements of being told what to do. What they need is a listening ear.
Comfort for the grieving needs to be more directed to their pain than the one they have lost.
Theological lectures are seldom of much relief for the pain of new grief.
Comments that imply a judgmental nature are of no comfort to the bereaved.
Beware of time in words of comfort. Avoid time limits and be sensitive to timing for comments.
Sympathy for the griever by recognizing their present pain has more value than attempts to empathize by comparing to your past losses.
Knowing the right thing to say is only half of the responsibility of being a supportive emotional care giver. The other half revolves around the doing.
David Knapp has given me a whole new insight on how to talk with a grieving friend or family member. He shares his experience with his own losses; he helps us to understand how we can be a better friend to those who are experiencing grief. How many times have I said to myself, I hate funerals because I just never know what to say to that friend or family member who has just lost a loved one?
Saying I am sorry for the loss just never seems to be enough. So I have found myself unconsciously avoiding that person because, I just didn’t know what to say. When I reflect back, how many times I have been guilty of saying to someone that their loved one is out of pain and is no longer suffering, or to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord was just so insensitive while trying to give words of comfort, I was jabbing at a fresh wound. Even though they may know their loved one is out of pain and with the Lord there is a huge whole in their life because of the missing loved one.
David Knapp has shown me that it is alright to talk about the deceased loved one, or to talk to someone who has just lost a job or a best friend, because loss of a career of friend can be just as devastating as loosing someone in death. It’s alright to just talk, because maybe all they need is for someone to listen. Grief is never an easy thing to deal with. I hardily recommend this book to anyone who has ever said or thought to themselves, I just don’t know what to say to a grieving friend or family member.
Carolyn A. Walker
Former Arizona State Senator
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David Knapp’s book is nearing completion and he is garnering excellent reviews from those he has invited to preview.
Following is one such review:
David Knapp hits a nerve with his book, “I didn’t know what to say.” Whether you’ve been there or not, the loss of a loved one is never easy, whether it is a lengthy process or a shocking event (I’ve had the dubious perception that if death was anticipated, then the loss was not nearly as devastating). David takes a candid and vulnerable walk through all the dynamics of grief and loss. He speaks from an uneasy vantage point, when it comes to the death of loved ones. His personal journey is one that we all can learn from. Sadly, grief can be experienced with the loss of pets, job loss, and divorce as well. In each situation, we need to know what to say, as well as what not to say. David’s book will give all of us fresh insight in dealing with our own mortality and the mortality of others.
STEVE Vandegriff, Ed.D. ’12
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Professor, Christian Leadership and Church Ministries; LIBERTY UNIVERSITY, Lynchburg, Va