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.
Read More »
WHAT TO SAY
WHAT NOT TO SAY
Taken from the book by David Knapp, I Didn’t Know What to Say: Being a Better Friend to Those Who Experience Loss, 2015. For a better understanding as to why the comments in black are more helpful than the statements in red, get the entire book at www.
Your loss is a very difficult thing to go through, I am sure.
Get a grip!
I will always remember him/her.
I don’t want to talk about the dead. Let’s talk about the living.
Do you need someone to go with you to choose a casket or marker?
I know what you are going through. I lost a kitten once.
Can we go for a walk on Sunday afternoon and chat?
You need to take your mind totally off your pain.
Tell me something special about your early days with him/her.
You should be thankful he/she is out of pain.
It’s so good you have the freedom to cry/express your feelings.
You need to get over this.
No, you are not crazy. You are grieving and it is okay. This will pass.
I know EXACTLY how you feel.
I realize this must be hard for you.
Call if you ever need anything.
So, how are you feeling today?
Let me tell you what you need to do.
I understand that you feel the way you do…and it is okay.
You can’t bring him/her back. God is in control.
Can I help you find others who have had a similar loss?
This happened because God had something/someone better for you.
Can you join our group for dinner this Friday?
Call me sometime.
His/her memories are a legacy of love.
You need to let go of him/her so you can start living again.
Are you up for a chat now or next week?
You look great. You must be over it.
Thanks for having the freedom to talk to me about your feelings right now.
How are you holding up?
Here is a favorite memory I have of him/her.
So now you are all alone. What a shame.
You made the right decisions surrounding his/her death.
At least he/she is not a vegetable.
Can I call you on an anniversary that is important to you?
You need to get all his belongings out of the house as soon as possible.
Can I come by and get your grocery list on Friday?
You are not making sense. Snap out of it.
Can I come by and help clean on Tuesday?
How does it feel to have survived his/her death?
You should be thankful it wasn’t worse.
Tell me about your child/loved one. What was he/she like?
Your child is in a better place. God needed another angel.
I miss him/her too.
You should be happy for the time you had with him/her.
You did all you could do at the time.
How are you ever going to forgive yourself?
I am praying for you and your family.
Well, at least you won’t have to potty train that child.
I have no idea of the depth of your pain but I am here for you.
You can always have/adopt other children.
You are lucky to at least have other children.
His/her memory will live on in my heart.
His/her time was up. His/her death was meant to be.
Can I take the kids to the zoo on Saturday?
(say nothing and avoid all contact)
I have been remembering you a lot lately and I love you.
You are lucky to have had them in your life for as long as you did.
I know he/she loved/relied on you a lot.
At least they had a good life.
He/she knew how much you loved him/her.
I understand your pain. I lost someone once.
You need to only remember the good and forget all the bad.
Your hurt must be big right now.
Grandpa is sleeping.
(say nothing but give a hug)
Keep your happy face on.
What was it like when…?
Life must go on.
I love you and am proud of you.
Now you are the head/leader of your house.
I loved him/her too and will miss him/her.
God needed him/her in heaven.
Can I help you write a letter about your loss/grief?
You must not speak ill of the dead.
You are the man (woman) of the house now…buck up.
I wish I had the right words. I just want you to know I care.
I don’t want to hear details. I just want you better.
Can I come by Wednesday evening to visit?
Wow. You look sad/awful.
I can’t take away your pain but I can be a friend.
You need to keep a stiff upper lip.
Have things happened to ease your pain?
I could NEVER go through what you are right now.
What have you done to deal with your grief/loss?
Now that she/he is dead, you should get a pet.
I was shocked to hear of your loss. I’m a friend who cares.
You must feel as bad as I did when…..
I am so sorry for your loss.
Just stay busy and you will get by.
Tell me about him/her.
You must stop crying. You might upset someone.
I feel so sad for you.
You must be strong for others.
What is something I can do for you this week?
He/she must have brought this upon himself/herself.
Your heart break must go deep.
You need to be alone when you grieve.
It breaks my heart to see you in such pain.
You need to stop feeling bad/crying.
I’m sure you cherish your time with him/her.
Don’t burden others with your feelings.
How have you been feeling this week?
He/she is with God now.
Is today a better day for you?
All things must pass. Time will heal.
I’m not sure what to say but I want you to know I care.
You will find another to replace them.
I can’t fix your hurts but I can be here for you.
You can’t fall apart.
Can I call you to chat on Saturday evening?
“What is done, is done,” I always say.
I am so sorry this is happening to you.
This is a blessing in disguised.
We have missed you lately.
I have had a bigger loss then you so I know it is not as bad as it could be.
May God bless you and give you strength and comfort.
If you had more faith, he/she would not have died.
What do you need most today?
God does not give us more than we can handle.
What would you like to say to him/her right now?
You need to forget about him/her and move on.
You must be hurting deeply.
He/she is in a better place now.
God mourns with those who mourn.
It is too soon to face your grief.
ORDER YOUR COPY OF THE BOOK: “I Didn’t Know What To Say” today.
Read More »
Many college graduates never work in the field of study in which they receive a degree. I am not among that group. I found a deep sense of fulfillment in finding a career about which I was passionate from the start. I served with a religious non-profit organization that was very team-oriented.
On one of our first encounters with the leadership of this group their deep heart-felt convictions and passion showed through. I remember turning to my wife, Ruth, and asking her, “So, do you think you could spend the rest of your life working with people like that?” Through her tears she mumbled, “Yes!”
Following our year-and-one-half of orientation and leadership training, we were assigned to a teaching and leadership position. The next eight years saw the addition of our four children and the privilege of working in partnership with other veteran leaders. The opportunity to become closely associated with new candidates who came through the training facility deepened our roots in the organization further than anything I had ever experienced in my life. Indeed, we became closer to many of our co-workers than we were with many family members.
My next assignment was to teach and serve as president at a junior-college-level training school in another state. We moved and quickly settled into our new roles there. With loyalty as one of my personal character strengths, my commitment to the job given to me ran deep. Our family life revolved around the work I did at the school.
Then tragedy struck. Cancer. During those seven years of battling cancer together as a family, I plowed through the personal stress it forced on me and whole-heartedly continued my roles at the school, only asking for breaks to take Ruth to her doctor appointments. I did this right up to the day she died.
Two years after Ruth’s death I married again. Judith and I each had four teenagers to bring into the marriage. The only issue our marriage created revolved around a policy of the organization that all members take a one-year orientation training like the one I taught at for my first eight years with them. Judith had not received this training before we were married.
This policy had been “law” with this organization since its inception. None of the leaders at that time had the freedom (nerve) to make exceptions. The “pink slip” came in the form of a decision that for us to continue with the group, we would have to resign from the school, move our family to another state and attend this training program as students — actions that were logistically impossible for our family. We were effectively OUT of the organization.
I remember that difficult day. One of the leaders came into my office and began with, “Dave, this is very hard for me to say.” My entire insides seemed to begin aching all at once. I was stunned, hurt and felt totally abandoned by people whom I thought to be my friends. My heart was so wounded I did not even say anything in my defense. I WAS OUT. I had not done anything wrong.
My strong sense of loyalty prevented me from showing my pain and rejection. I defended the leadership and stuffed my grief very deep. I never shed a tear. I simply wrestled with my grief in my soul and my thoughts.
Following the fulfillment of our responsibilities with that school we moved our family across the USA to begin a new life in a new community at a new job. I was working two jobs and blending eight teenagers. Needless to say, busyness often prevented time for reflection.
Judith was the only person who really knew I was a hurting guy. My kids noticed I had become more “quiet” at our meal table. A co-worker at the new school commented that I did not seem to be the leader/outgoing guy he would have expected from a former president of a college. My spirit was indeed hampered by my repressed grief.
The loss of my job and the position I served in for 14 years was the second most difficult loss I had ever experienced. Only losing my first wife, Ruth, was harder up to that time. I did not deal with this grieving process well. It extended for three years.
Finally, however, I gained victory through coming to grips with the grieving and releasing it. I was alone on our property with some livestock we owned. I suddenly burst into tears and sobbed for the longest time as I remembered some of my close friends who were still with that organization who “let me go.” They were able to continue carrying out the passion for that work we both shared. I had been deprived of that. I was forced out against my will. One final thing I did that helped me was to write a grief letter to some of the leadership team involved. Doing so provided a measure of freedom to my spirit.
I have heard many other examples where men who lost their jobs went into deep depression for a long time. Like me, these men often found their personal identity in their work. When that is lost, they flounder for identity and security. Since many men seem to think mourning is not “manly,” they try to tough it out instead of grieving freely for victory.
One thing that might have been helpful to me during those three years of grief would have been for someone to open the subject of my job loss and ask me how I got through it or what it was like going through that loss emotionally. Even asking me how I felt the day I was “let go” may have opened the topic for my heart to be expressed and freed from some pain.
WOMEN IN JOB LOSS
Experiencing grief due to the loss of a job is not gender-specific. It may be true that men tend to attach their identity to their job, while women tend to find security from their job; however, the loss can be just as traumatic for either.
Crystal realized that her loss of a job caused depression brought on by her grief. She began sleeping late and not even dressing to go out for the day. Those who helped her most were friends who tuned into her experience through caring. One friend called her each morning for a while to encourage her to get out of bed and face a new day. Crystal soon began getting up and dressing as if she were going to work. This lightened her spirits and helped her work through the deep hollow feelings of loss.
Not all of her friends were as understanding. One, whom she visited shortly after her job loss, did not factor her grief into her less-than-perky actions and criticized her “lack of caring.” This can be a challenge to all of us to be sensitive and give allowances to friends we know who face losses in the normal course of life, like losing a job.
« Point to Ponder »
Sympathy for the griever by recognizing their present pain has more value than attempts to empathize by comparing to your past losses.
ORDER YOUR COPY OF THE BOOK: “I Didn’t Know What To Say” today.
Read More »
When Loss Steals A Child
Comforting those who have lost a child by any means
“When a child dies before the parent, the world is upside down.” (Old Chinese proverb)
Ruth and I did not talk very much about her impending death those seven years she battled cancer. I am sure it would have helped us some had we done more. One of the times we did have a serious talk about her going to heaven revolved around our children. She mourned her own death often and alone. She commonly said she felt like she was being “replaced” in life. The one painful topic we talked about was her mourning her loss of our children. “I probably won’t be able to see their children,” she muttered through her sobs. “I’m going to miss….” She rehearsed many things about our kids that she would not be there for. I watched her affectionately rock our youngest with a faraway look in her eye. I knew she was “missing” that bond in the future and trying to enjoy it now.
This level of loss was all so new to me. I would just listen to her as she reviewed her losses. And likewise, listening is the most powerful thing a friend can do for parents who have lost a child. The hurt comes across as unusually sharp and persistent. A thoughtless comment like, “Well, it must be God’s will,” is not a help at all. Their pain is deeply emotional and not theological.
The study I referred to in chapter four on life’s stress factors listed the loss of a child as being a close third behind losing a spouse and public speaking. There are factors about losing a child, however that can be permanently stifling. No matter how many children one has (I have eight), each one is unique. There will be always enough love for each child. Each one has their own permanent place in a parent’s heart. The loss of that child can never be replaced nor a substitution found. A child is irreplaceable.
I have heard well-meaning friends doing more harm than good to a grieving parent by saying thoughtless things like, “You can always have another one,” “Maybe you can get a dog,” and “Well at least you won’t have to go through … with this one.” You will find it always much better to identify the pain of the parent with simple statements such as, “I have no idea of how much you must be hurting right now.”
Recently I was privileged to meet Daniel Parkins in Southern California. Our get-acquainted conversation eventually exposed our recent losses. I was intrigued while listening to his process of dealing with his loss of a very young son to a serious illness. He lays it out well in his book about their journey entitled Nineteen Days:
I’m not sure I can explain the feeling well. It’s too impossibly deep for words to express. It’s as many writers and poets have said throughout the centuries — the breaking of the heart in two. It’s worse than anything I have felt, anything that I have heard, anything and everything cannot be compared to it — to take my son off life support, the beautiful Samuel whom we loved so desperately. Samuel, whom we prayed so fervently for and hoped for and dreamed for. Samuel, the younger brother, was now going to be missing in our lives for the rest of the sentence we were called to live. It really felt as though my son was being murdered; only I could not prevent it. I felt helpless. (pg. 144)
The Parkins were blessed with a circle of friends and colleagues who felt the pain with them and gave them lots of time and freedom to work through their grief. Their heart ached, not their long-term logic. Daniel pointed out to me that one of the very best thing received from others was that many were simply present for them and even gave silent hugs. Their loss and pain needed to be acknowledged, not explained away.
The loss of a child can be one of the most difficult losses. Even the Bible sees it as a severe experience. “…make mourning, as for an only son, most bitter lamentation…” (Jeremiah 6.26b)
Helping a friend or relative grieving the loss of a child may be a long-term commitment. Unlike other losses, the loss of a child returns to the mind of the parent in a fresh way when unmet milestones come along for the life cut short. You can be most helpful by supporting these times of prolonged grief. Just remembering with the parent can help soothe a broken heart at the child’s birthday or death anniversary. A card or text could go a long way to add comfort.
Loss is indeed a part of our human existence. Helping each other through these normal times increases our bonds to each other and fulfills a purpose for us being in each other’s lives.
LEADERSHIP MISSED IT
A few months following Ruth’s funeral, I met with a missionary couple who had been students under my teaching a few years prior. They had just returned from abroad where they served as missionaries in a remote area. While there, they had suffered the loss of a young child. During the year following that tragedy, their leadership had counseled with them that they should “get over” their loss and get on with life. This unwise counsel only deepened their emotional pain so severely that they packed their belongings and returned home.
I listened to their story in its entirety and expressed my empathy for their grief. The few comments I made came from the depths of my own mourning experience. At one point the wife burst out, “Finally, a leader who understands! No one else has indicated an understanding ear.” Her sobs flowed freely. The leadership in that area did not know what to say. Consequently, saying the wrong thing drove this dear couple away from their life’s passion.
Finding oneself aiding a friend or relative who has lost a child can be a shocking place to be. Knowing what to say can be a huge help in the healing process for them. It is important to remember all the standard things about the grieving process found in chapter two. In addition to these points, a few special considerations can be beneficial both to you and to the mourner you are helping.
It is very human for parents to hurt following the loss of a child. Emily Rapp, frequent memoir blogger and author, described her experience of losing a child:
My son Ronan died last week before his third birthday. He’d been sick with a terminal illness for his entire life, but as a friend of mine wisely noted, ‘Death and dying are very different.’ Now he is dead, which has marked the beginning of a new stage of grief, one that is characterized by deep sadness and longing, but cleaned of the mania of panic that is part of anticipatory grief.
Ronan is released from a body that could not live in this world; as his mother, I am released from watching him suffer. But we are still divided, forever and for good. I mourn him, I miss him, I’m sad. I’m angry, I’m confused, I’m scattered. I’m elated that he is free; I am ready to be happy. I’m human.
Nothing you say can make the pain go away. A caring comment cannot make it worse.
Helping to deal with the loss of a child may be a permanent part of your relationship with the bereaved parent. You can do things like sending ‘thinking of you’ cards on special occasions such as Mother’s Day and the child’s birthday. Offering to talk about the surge of feelings that can come over a grieving parent may bring tears, but remember those tears are not from hurt you created. The tears are part of the release process.
Parents feel responsible for the welfare of their children. Parents believe they are to protect their kids from harm and even failure. In addition to the “normal” attributes of the grieving process, we need to understand the complications possible with the loss of a child. At some point, some parents need to work through guilt. The feeling that there was something they should or could have done — or not done — to prevent the death commonly emerges. This is not abnormal. Here, again, concepts from logic statements may not help the loss of the heart.
I saw this truth first-hand one evening. At the end of a concert I noticed that the mature gentleman sitting beside me wore a sweatshirt indicating he hailed from the same state I grew up in. So I asked him what part of Iowa he was from. As it turned out, he lived not more than 30 minutes from where I grew up.
Early in the conversation he made it known that his daughter had died. He and his wife subsequently moved to their present home to be near her grave. I later learned that this all happened over five years earlier. As I listened, he unfolded his pain. A week before his daughter’s fatal car wreck she had been date-raped and the dad felt he could have done something to prevent it. It became obvious to me that his ongoing guilt had suspended his grieving process in time, keeping it very much alive. I encouraged him to find someone he could talk it through with. He assured me a local pastor was available to him. As we parted, I felt sad that his guilt (whether imagined or real) prevented his soul from healing.
A DIFFERENT LOSS
The loss of a child carries very different connotations from the loss of a parent, sibling, or friend. Parents may even tell you that they wish it could have been them instead of their child that died. This feeling can haunt them for years. The pain after the loss of a child differs from any other loss of a person you may know and love. Accept this and acknowledge it where needed. Be very careful not to try to compare your loss of a job, marriage or pet with it.
Also, telling a grieving parent that their child “is in a better place” may be more of an insult than a comfort. Showing concern for the parent’s pain is more helpful. A simple, “I have no idea of how bad you hurt but I am here for you” is much more supportive. You may even be able to offer to help them do something physical such as house work or cleaning the garage during difficult days. Inviting them to talk about their current thoughts about their child can be of help no matter how long it has been since the child’s death.
Anger can often be a part of the grieving process. In many cases it is even directed towards the deceased for leaving. Judith told me she felt a bit of anger towards her first husband for leaving her in death.
With the death of a child, anger isn’t usually directed towards the child, but can be pointed to a third party.
Joy Swift, who lost three children through murder, explained anger expression in an article entitled “How to Survive the Death of a Child:”
You will probably experience strong feelings of anger, especially if your child’s death is caused by a particular person. In that case, you have someone to lash out at, if only in your mind.
But when the death is caused by accident or disease, your anger may become confused. You may pour it out on someone who is completely undeserving of it — a doctor, a police officer, a rescue worker, a friend, or even your spouse. I expressed my anger quite freely, but George, a passive man, kept his inside and talked to very few people about how he really felt. (Signs of the Times – December 1987)
Realizing the core emotional needs of one who has lost a child can be helpful in your ability to help them and understand what they are working through. These complications can add time to the normal grieving process; many parents actually grieve the loss of a child for years instead of months. This does not necessarily mean they are in need of professional counsel. An understanding, empathetic ear goes a long way in knowing what to say.
In the English language there is no word for a parent who has lost a child. There’s a word for someone who lost a spouse — widow. There is a word for someone who has lost their parents — orphan. This lack of definition seems to be a reflection of the ambiguity of how parents who lose a child feel. Try to understand that and be careful not to try to explain it away. It’s doubtful you will ever totally understand their feelings, unless you have indeed lost a child the same way as the one you are helping.
Beware of the tendency to pull away from people who are hurting emotionally. Watching a friend or relative work through emotions such as anger can be hard. Your presence can give them permission to express their hurt and be freer. Be free to tastefully talk about the lost child with them and invite their response. Trite comments like, “Well, you could always have (adopt) another child,” may only multiply their hurts. Listen to where they are today in their feelings instead of referring to some possible “fix” in the future.
Adoption is usually viewed as a very positive event. Placing a child in the arms of willing, loving parents is a good thing. The loss of a child to the birth parent, in many cases, is overlooked. The mother who offered that child for adoption, if she is alive, can often experience the grieving process either immediately or over the course of her life.
Louise chose adoption for her baby:
It wasn’t fair. I had morning sickness just like the other ladies. I had a large pregnant belly just like the other ladies. I was uncomfortable at night getting kicked in the ribs just like the other ladies. I went through the same pain of labor as the other ladies did. But it wasn’t fair that I left the hospital empty-handed.
Then another lady, that had never felt the pain and joy of pregnancy, walks into the hospital empty-handed and walks out with a little pink bundle of joy.
My grieving was a choice. I knew I had to make a choice on how this child was going to be raised. Was I really ready to be a single parent? Or do I give this baby to a couple who is ready and waiting to be parents?
I struggled with that choice for almost eight months. In my heart, I knew adoption was the best for the baby. So the grieving started. The life growing inside wasn’t for me to raise. I chose not to give into [sic] imaginations of sleeping with a baby on my chest, or playdates, having a child take their first steps to me. I was fortunate enough to have been attending counseling sessions at a crisis pregnancy center. There I was able to talk with other moms who placed their baby for adoption. I knew the most painful days were still yet ahead of me.
The pain of loss was real. It hurt! I cried! I went through pregnancy but my arms were empty!
That was many years ago, and yet there is a lump in my throat as I write this now. The pain of loss will always be felt, but for me, it’s different as the years go by.
Louise’s support for her grieving process only began in the days and weeks following the adoption. Those were critical times, to be sure. Reassurance for her decision was vital. Acknowledgment of her deep pain had to happen. Comments like, “Well, at least you won’t have to potty train the baby,” would be detrimental rather than helpful.
She would find more comfort in companionship, words of understanding, and even thoughtful opportunities to begin diverting her thoughts to her own healing. Like many situations where a child is lost, her pain is not something she will “get over” in a few months. It literally becomes a part of her. In the months, and even years ahead, it can be helpful to still speak of the child and give reassurance that the child is doing great.
The process of a divorce affects the whole family. Symptoms of grief are often not associated with the process, but they are usually there. One of those issues can be the loss of children. This can be either through the physical separation or even through losing a child custody case.
Years after his divorce, Michael’s former wife filed for full custody of their two teenage sons. He lost. Michael described his loss:
My God, I am losing both my kids at once. Gone … across the country. I will never be a part of their day to day lives again. Everything I had is gone. I am now the relatives they visit for a vacation. Every part of their lives that I participated in has now been severed irrevocably. Each time I see them the loss is displayed before my eyes. Changes in growth, physically, mentally, differences in attitudes … each time I see them they are different people, with shades and shadows of the kids I knew before. The kids I knew, the kids I raised, my sons … are gone. God, why not take my arms and legs, my eyes … why my kids? Take it all. Take everything I have. Leave my kids. Every text, every e-mail, every phone call, every Skype session, makes my loss more real. Reopening the wound, salt, alcohol, peroxide … They move on with their lives. Activities, sports, girls, learning to drive, prom, school … the calls get less, Skype sessions cease, texts are rarely returned because they have moved on with their lives leaving me behind. Anger, resentment, bitterness, hatred towards the one who caused this to occur, the one who uprooted them, the one who took them from all they knew and loved and moved them to a place with no friends and family other than the one who took them except on rare occasions. Everything points to the holes in your life. I coached them and their team… That’s gone. The games, the plays, taking them to their friends, running your life around your kid’s activities, everything severed, cut off, burned … lost. Emptiness … pain ….
Supporting a grieving parent who has experienced the loss of a child will feel unending. Your understanding will mean a lot. Be prepared to care for them through many emotional ups and downs and even some false starts in the recovery process. A non-critical ear may be just the thing they need most to make it through a moment or day of grief. Heart comments will often be more helpful than logical statements.
“I’ve never been where you are so I don’t know exactly how you feel, but I would like to hear about your process of loss,” can be a great way to help a hurting parent move towards a place of freedom.
The number of abortions in our society has risen drastically over the last several decades. It’s been documented that emotional stress can be experienced, hence the growing pool of potential hurting men and women. If you are or know someone who has had an abortion either recently, or in the distant past, the grieving process is still very real. Like many losses, grief from an abortion can be “stuffed” down, embraced or spread out over a lifetime. Being aware of these options can help you be of great healing assistance to one experiencing it.
“I don’t know how anyone could ever kill their baby,” can be very hurtful or condemning when said in the presence of one who has experienced an abortion. Long-term sensitivity to grieving parents is a must. Helping someone in the depths of grieving an abortion will need to include concepts of forgiveness. Forgiveness may be needed from friends and relatives, from the unborn child, and even themselves. Understanding God’s grace and forgiveness may be a beginning. Your understanding ear can be an important part of their victory.
One loss of a child that is often played down too much is that of a miscarriage. Friends and relatives can be cold or even rude by either ignoring the pain process or demanding one short-change the grieving process. We need to view this as a full-blown loss.
The mother in miscarriage cases does not suffer alone. The father can experience a variety of hurts that need to be processed. In his article “A Father’s Story: Mourning the Baby We Never Had,” Ian Wallach explained some responses he heard about:
A month after the loss, I remembered each hushed backstory or confession of every male I knew who had experienced something similar, and I called them. A colleague whose wife had delivered a stillborn child offered to hang out and have a drink. A friend admitted that he felt embarrassed telling a coworker that he didn’t want to attend a baby shower. Another, who lost his son in the 35th week, told me that they’d moved apartments to escape the baby’s room they had created. He said he took no time off from work — not a single day — yet still didn’t understand why he’d misplace things or get lost in midsentence. After a pause, he asked me to keep a secret and said they were pregnant again but too frightened to tell anyone.
Your help for parents who have experienced a miscarriage needs to be long term. Allowing time alone to grieve helps, but don’t be afraid to talk about it with them in months and even years later. A good suggestion you can make would be for the grieving parents to have a funeral. It will help a bit to bring closure for them. I also suggest you include the lost baby when referring to the number of children they have.
Mother’s Day can be a hard day for some. Older, single people who would like to be married and have children but don’t can view Mother’s Day and Father’s Day as a reminder of their personal disappointment and feelings of failure in the family area. The day that celebrates their missing role can trigger grief that doesn’t seem to go away.
Shawn and Jenn are long-time friends of my family. Their life has been very fulfilled since their marriage many years ago, including a strong relationship with each other and a very productive career together in a religious non-profit organization. One thing is missing for them. They have no children.
Jenn offered some candid comments regarding their journey of hope and disappointment towards having children in their personal blog:
It’s complicated. And there’s no time frame. The broken heart can’t always be defined, but it’s there. And the smallest little thing can stir it all back up. There’s the lie that nobody cares and that people are tired of hearing about it. There’s the lie that we’ll be old and lonely and still aching for those six babies we never got to hold, raise: the legacy that never was. It’s hard and it hurts. It’s grief, loss, doubt, and sometimes guilt, smashed in some weird, oddly shaped box. A big part of the grieving process after IVF [in vitro fertilization] (x3) is knowing that you’ve done ALL you can using the most advanced medical treatments and procedures and surgeries. It’s taking two steps towards closure, accepting that you will be ‘the couple without kids,’ and then falling backwards at the thought of Christmas mornings with just the two of us – forever.
MURDER AND SUICIDE
Violent deaths are always traumatic. In the event of a child’s violent death, whether their life was taken by themselves or others, breadth is added to the sorrow. Horror and deep regret multiply the pain. The scope of this grief swells up as often unexplainable by many parents.
In an interview by Timothy C. Morgan on March 28, 2014, Kay Warren attempts to put her loss into words. She and her husband, Pastor Rick Warren, had lost a son to suicide one year earlier:
Because of our love, we conceived a child together. I birthed him from my body. He was a part of me. A part of me is no longer here. How can I be the same? For us as a couple, as a family, there were five of us; now there are four. Our child murdered himself in the most raw way I can tell you. Suicide is self-murder. Our son, the murderer, was himself. The trauma of knowing what he did to himself, how he destroyed the body of this child that we loved. He did it to end the pain. How could we ever be the same? Trauma changes you. I can’t ever go back to who I was. (Christianity Today)
As you come alongside parents in this form of grief, you will need to accept the fact that their hurt will be long term. In fact, you would be better prepared to help them if you expected their grief to increase for a time instead of subsiding. Beware of verbiage that pushes them to “get over it.” The goal for a bereaved parent is getting through the process, not getting over it. Consolation of having other children, if this is true, is no comfort for the one lost.
Often simple statements of your continued friendship and support will do more good than attempts to make their hurt go away. Keep contact with them through social media and texting if impromptu visits seem out of place. Showing them your support will be more meaningful than saying it.
ORDER YOUR COPY OF THE BOOK: “I Didn’t Know What To Say” today.
Read More »
“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.
Read More »