Schedule for Helping the Bereaved
Timeline suggestions for practical things to do to help grievers;
Every circumstance is different when people experience loss. Each individual grieves differently. Some people spread their mourning process out over a long period of time while others seem to be very concerted in their grief. Generally speaking, there seems to be similar patterns in the process that can help us understand what to do at different times to be helpful.
The following schedule is the one I tended to follow during my grieving process for both my wives. In no way am I implying everyone should follow this exact pattern, but my journey can serve as a working example of loss.
The day each of my wives died I was fortunate to have friends or family present. I can’t imagine not having them there. My wives’ deaths left me so numb that I could not even think straight for a while. Having someone there, even if they said nothing, helped me function. They took care of the daily logistics of physical things like meals, cleaning, and decisions that needed immediate attention.
Don’t wait or even expect someone to ask for your help at the death of their loved one. They may not be able to even make that simple of a decision. Seek out ways to help by visiting or calling.
THE FIRST WEEK
This time period gets foggy for many grievers. The possible decisions required can be overwhelming. Everything from finding a funeral home to choosing a casket to planning and executing a funeral become monumental things to deal with — and that on top of grief. This week can be very stressful for the individual as well as the family. Even the best of families can have conflict over some of the details that are required at this time. Many of these things are often handled by the family members nearby, but sometimes that is not the case.
Making yourself available to help with the planning for the events of this week can be a first step. Because grievers often have trouble thinking clearly, gentle suggestions as to things that need to be handled and an offer to help can be in order. The little details such as transporting flowers from the memorial service to the cemetery can be on your list of offers to help. Meals for the bereaved and their guests are often a huge blessing during this week. If there is a funeral or memorial service, make every effort to be there. A phone call every couple of days is often appreciated to remind the bereaved that they are not alone in their pain.
Phone calls, sympathy cards and references to my wives took a noticeable decline at about the third week. It seemed like someone made a public announcement and the whole world said, “That’s it. We will forget her now.”
For me, however, the opposite was happening. The numbness had subsided enough that the reality of her absence was finally reaching my foggy brain. I was permanently alone again now. My need to talk about the whole event increased instead of reduced. My deep emotional sobbing sessions had gone from three times a day to one or two. My mind needed to process what my emotions had seemingly been responding to. I needed to talk about her death more than ever. I remember thinking that I would have given anything to have someone ask me, “How did your wife die? Tell me about it.”
Many people would ask me, “How are you doing?” I would answer, “Fine.” However, the ones that helped me the most would be more specific with, “How has this week been?” or “Tell me where you are in your journey or recovery process.”
I remember being stricken with the fear that everyone would forget her. I was clinging to memories of her, but it seemed everyone else was forgetting. So, I did things to ensure a recorded legacy for each of my wives. For Ruth, I wrote an article for a Christian magazine about her life and got it published. For Judith, I asked my two daughters to each put together a photo book about her. One was a legacy book with pictures and information about her family. All eight of my kids’ families were given a copy. The other was a “grandma” book of pictures of Judith and each of the grandkids, one kid per page. Each grandchild received a copy for Christmas that year.
A face-to-face, or at least a phone call, with the intent to talk a couple of hours about the loved one’s death and the grieving process experienced by the bereaved should be offered. Avoid general statements when arranging this. Be specific with, “I would like to hear the details of how you are processing your pain and your recovery.”
Three months from my wives’ deaths the grieving process seemed to release its grip on my emotions. I began to laugh again. I found myself more at ease in public alone. My sobbing sessions had subsided to one every other day. Still, from time to time I had to audibly tell myself that she really did die. The truth continued to sink in. However, I still hurt and felt like I had this visible “hole in my soul” as I lived life. I craved communication, intimacy with an adult, someone to talk to about my feelings. At this point, logic statements began to help more than just the heart comments that I needed before.
Long talks about my grieving process were harder to come by as most of my friends were expecting me to be “getting over it” by now. Finding someone who understood and would not “think ill” of me became harder to do. I set out to relieve this need by talking to other men who had lost a wife in recent years. That helped.
Your relationship with a bereaved friend may not be close enough for you to have conversations about “how are you feeling these days?” However, you could encourage them to have such a conversation with someone they know who would listen. Talking through one’s process and progress can be a big step for them to realize and embrace the steps they have taken towards healing.
A card of encouragement to a bereaved person can assure them that you have not forgotten their pain and are supporting them in their progress towards victory. It can be an aid in helping them cope with their loneliness as well.
I thought I was going crazy. It had been six months since my wife’s death and many days I still felt as hollow and uncertain emotionally as I did the first month after she left. What is wrong with me? I mused. Everyone thinks I am doing so well outwardly, but I still feel like something is missing on the inside.
For me, the six month stage was kind of like the “teenage years” in my mourning process. I didn’t feel quite like I was out of the woods (i.e. an adult) but I had progressed past the seemingly out-of-control emotional times (i.e. childhood) I experienced for so many months. My sobbing sessions were measured by the week instead of per day, and my interest in my future had increased.
At this stage I still had the need to talk to people who would be comfortable with me sharing deep feelings and with people who had been there, done that. One man I had such a talk with told me later that it was a bit uncomfortable for him, but it sure helped me. Another one stopped listening to me after a few minutes. So it obviously takes a special person to fill this bill.
Though I realized both my mental and emotional states were nearing a more victorious place of healing, “relapses” back to the ache stage were common. Assurances that my time in this “in-between” stage of the grieving process was normal would have been great comfort. If someone close to me had “given permission” for me to address the ache that came back periodically, I believe I would have been relieved of some guilt.
During my grieving experiences with my wives at this six-month time period, people “told” me that I was very vulnerable emotionally. My response was bewilderment and even anger. I don’t feel emotionally vulnerable, I thought. And besides, how do they know how I am emotionally? They haven’t even talked to me about it.
Caring words of caution from a trusted friend would have been more effective than a casual acquaintance making a judgment from a distance. It’s important to honestly assess one’s level of relationship with the griever.
The truth is that I really was still emotionally vulnerable. I am thankful to God that I did not make any emotional decisions that I would have regretted later. I would not see that truth for another three months. At the nine-month period, when I looked back at how I was feeling in comparison, I realized that my emotional state had improved and I felt “more like myself.” The possible decisions I could have made during the most tumultuous grieving, both socially and in my career, would not have lined up with my lifetime personal core values.
Much counsel has been given in our culture to not make any major decisions for twelve months following losing a spouse. In many ways, I see the wisdom for that. It provides opportunity to go through one cycle of life dealing with all the “firsts” after losing a mate. For the griever, time is your friend. In the case for both my wives’ deaths, I had grieved in a very concerted fashion. I had “leaned into” my pain and embraced grieving willingly. Not everyone does that, I guess.
For me, the ninth month of grieving was a turning point. I finally felt very secure socially. I felt like my emotions were more “normal.” Remembering my wives did not cause pain or emptiness. I even enjoyed it when friends teased me about finding another wife sometime. I considered re-marriage more seriously.
This stage varies with people, for sure. I have known of some men who were at this point after six months of grieving, while some women I have met have admitted it wasn’t until the eighteen-month time frame that they were open to give their hearts away again in romance.
BIRTHDAYS, ANNIVERSARIES, HOLIDAYS
Among the important “firsts” grievers go through are the first holidays. For some these times can be nearly as difficult to experience as the day the loved one died. Cards, phone calls and even invitations to do something special can be put on your schedule on behalf of the bereaved person.
The first Christmas after Ruth died my family and I appreciated an invitation by a friend to spend the potentially difficult holiday in a location we had never been to before. The first Christmas after Judith died I responded to an invitation to attend a community-wide potluck dinner and thoroughly enjoyed myself.
Remembering wedding and death anniversaries with a card, phone call or visit can help the bereaved cope with the day because someone besides them remembered. They feel less lonely due to the fact you shared it with them. Even responding in some way at the deceased’s birthday can have the same effect.
The one-year mark for grievers tends to carry an uncertainty with it. How will they feel the day of the anniversary of their loved one’s death? Will anyone else remember? What should they do that day to commemorate their loved one, if anything? You can come alongside to help with many of these questions.
Be mindful of the possibility that the anniversary can be a significant event for years to come. Many, not only rehearse about the one that they lost, but also the grief associated with that loss.
A phone call or card showing you remember your friend and their loved one will go a long way in bringing comfort. If possible, you can also do something physical with them. Take them out for coffee or dinner and talk about the life of the deceased. Going with them to visit the cemetery and bringing flowers in memory of their loved one will help establish a bit more closure and peace to the bereaved.
I have known of a few good friends and close relatives who have taken the effort to put some of the above suggestions on their yearly calendar and actually follow through with them. Believe me, if you don’t make yourself a note in some way you will most likely forget.
« Point to Ponder »
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.