“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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Cross-culture difference tips for helpers
In today’s world many of us are multi-cultural in a number of ways. You may find yourself interacting with people from different cultural backgrounds through work, church, clubs, your kids’ schools or even where you live. It would be presumptuous to conclude that all people grieve the same. All humans grieve, but how they do it can be based on teaching, religion, worldview or their own observations. Even if you disagree with their methods of grieving, the early mourning process is not the time to criticize them or to educate them to what you consider a better way. Your best plan would be to simply help them grieve well and then be open to help them if they have questions about their own perspective versus yours at a later, less emotional time.
I traveled to a very remote part of central Brazil visiting missionary outposts. While there, I witnessed two different approaches to grieving. The first one happened in the semi-civilized tribal village of the Karaja. One of the tribal elders had crossed the river in his six-foot, standup canoe to drink beer in the town bar. Late at night, on his return attempt to home, he fell in the river and drowned. I arrived on the village side of the river shortly after they pulled his body from the muddy water. I observed that no one was weeping. Many were whispering, but there was no deep emotional expression. They just did not do that there. The only emotion revealed seemed to be a worried look on the faces of a few women as they held a clinched fist to their mouths.
A few days later, back across the river in the small Brazilian town, I witnessed another death scene. There in the sun-drenched town a processional of kids dressed in white were accompanying a small coffin. I asked the missionaries to explain what I was seeing. They informed me that a child under the age of two had died and was being buried that day. No adults walked with the coffin. In fact, the child probably had no name. The town’s people believed that a baby did not have a “soul” till about age two so the baby was not considered a real person until then, when it was given a name. Since, in their minds, this infant was not a real person, no adults bothered to mourn for its loss, not even the parents.
The concept of grieving a loss due to death often can be affected by the cultural perception about death itself. This varies from country to country as well as from sub-cultures within those countries. Finlo Rohrer published an article in the BBC News Magazine (2010) entitled, “How Much Can You Mourn a Pet?” In it, he admits, “The UK has what is seen by many non-Britons as a slightly repressed attitude towards death.” Other European countries tend to have reputations for emphasizing death (i.e. the vampire stories).
THE GROUP EFFECT
Grief in a culture grows from a society and belief system that prizes and cultivates individual experience. Some languages have no equivalent to the term grief. In parts of Japan, the concept of emotions that are solely expressed on the part of an individual are not common. In those societies, individual identity is a function of social and communal harmony. A harmonized atmosphere as part of a family or community is sensed among the members. Personal grief is therefore more of a shared event.
In some traditional Chinese cultures, death presents the problem of pollution as understood in terms of their religious world view. One of the purposes of funeral rituals is to protect the men from that pollution, while on the other hand the women take the pollution on themselves. In turn, this practice results in purifying the deceased for the next life. Other than mourning, any other practices revolving around death would seem to be culture-specific. Death presents pollution or powerlessness in some cultural contexts as much as it presents separation, loss and sometimes trauma in the modern West.
THE INDIVIDUAL EFFECT
Western individuals, on the other hand, who successfully come to terms with a traumatic death, may change how they think about themselves, how they relate to others, and how they view life in general. As our world changes and becomes more of a worldwide community, so views on death evolve. Changes experienced by individuals in other cultures might be just as wide-ranging but cover spheres not experienced in the West.
When something important happens in individuals’ lives, they do not just think about it; they talk about it with others. Grief and mourning do not just happen inside a person; they happen in the interactions between people. In most cultures throughout human history, myth and ritual provide the intersubjective space in which one can construct the meaning of the deceased’s life, death and influence over the survivors’ lives. Understanding these concepts can give direction in how to talk to the bereaved. Conversations about the definition of the relationship lost can validate the lost life and aid the mourner in processing their own pain of loss.
One cross-cultural project sought to compare the rules about the emotional expression of grief. Anthropologist Unni Wikan, for example, compared the rules in Egypt and Bali, both Islamic cultures. She found that in Bali, women were strongly discouraged from crying, while in Egypt women were considered abnormal if they did not incapacitate themselves in demonstrative weeping.
Asking a grieving friend from another culture what their traditional methods are can be one way to show concern and empathy. This gives you a chance to at least acknowledge their hurts whether they are the same as yours or not.
The traditional Jewish culture found in the Old Testament of the Bible had many practices continued in many places today. Even though their existence revolved around their God, the expression of grief in the time of severe loss revealed their human experience. Weeping, a primary indication of grief, was referred to a great deal. Time (30-70 days) was set aside to mourn deeply. The physical appearance of the mourners was altered to indicate their condition. Ashes or outer garments often symbolized a grieving heart. The realization of the gift of the presence of friends and family regularly induced comfort. (The Holman Bible Dictionary, 1991)
Judaism today calls for a period of intense mourning known as shiva that lasts seven days after a loved one is buried. After shiva, most normal activities can be resumed, but it is the end of sheloshim that marks the completion of religious mourning for a spouse.
LIVING IN ANOTHER CULTURE
Cross-cultural effects on how one mourns also come in other packages besides historical traditions. Families living abroad, outside of their home country and culture can be very confused about the mourning process. Jonathan Trotter addresses this confusion in his article “Outlawed Grief, a Curse Disguised” (December 22, 2013):
Living abroad is an amazing adventure, but it comes with some baggage. And sometimes, the baggage fees are hidden, catching you by surprise, costing more than you planned. You thought you had it all weighed out, you could handle this, squeeze right under the limit.
But then it got heavy. Your new friends moved away, or your child’s new friend moved away. Far away. Like other continents away. And your kid’s broken heart breaks yours.
Someone died and you didn’t get to say that last, fully present, goodbye. Family members celebrate a birthday, or the whole family celebrates a holiday, and you’re not there because the Pacific’s really big, and you’re on the wrong side of it.
Or your child can’t remember her cousin’s name, and she doesn’t even know that’s sad.
Facing the subject of death and life beyond often brings out the definition of one’s “worldview.” Some individuals and cultures see death as final with no existence beyond. Others think that following death one is simply in a spirit world quite different than our own, which interacts with ours. Still others view life after death as a paradise existence that is very similar to our own, but unimaginablys better. Many hold to the concept that a judgment or evaluation of one’s life follows death and that either reward or condemnation awaits each person who dies. A large number of the world’s cultures and religions hold that a person immediately faces God in some way upon their death.
I have noticed that it is not uncommon for the bereaved to default to what their worldview is only to have questions about it. If they request it at this point, you can take the opportunity to help them answer and adjust their worldview where they have confusion. However, unless asked, you will be the most help to them by addressing their pain of loss.
But being aware of one’s worldview can help you choose what to say. If they believe that death is the end of existence comments like, “Your loved one is in a better place.” will be of no comfort. However, a comment such as, “Your loved one has no more pain.” may help more.
Worldview is often influenced by religion. Understanding a griever’s religious views can be a big help in your knowing what to say, or not. The beliefs of the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, for example, hold that the state or even future of a departed soul can be affected by intercessory prayers. Comforting folks who cling to this hope for their lost friend or relative can be more effective by you emphasizing the bereaved person’s current pain and not saying things about the state of the departed.
Other religions such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists, view the state of the deceased to be in a form of unconsciousness until some future resurrection. Many Judeo-Christians believe the departed is instantly transported to the presence of God in a “heavenly” state of paradise. In making comments to these folks about their one lost, you should be politely aware of these beliefs. Again, remember that your role is to aid them in processing their grief and not to change their religious beliefs unless they specifically ask for your opinions on the subject of life after death.
Members of Islam believe that any form of suffering, including grieving, is a result of the griever’s sins in some way. Their Prophet Muhammad declared: “By the One in whose hand is my soul (i.e. God), no believer is stricken with fatigue, exhaustion, worry, or grief, but God will forgive him for some of his sins thereby — even a thorn which pricks him.” (Musnad Ahmad, You-Tube) So, you may aid such a person with words of assurance that will help them deal with guilt that may be unjustified. Physically showing grief with the bereaved would be in order, however, Islam discourages very loud crying and wailing at funerals. During the mourning time after a death, mourners expect to have visitors. Be sure to pay a physical visit to your Muslim friend within days following their loss.
In the case of Buddhism and Hinduism, the deceased is believed to be on a path to being re-born again in another physical life. Helping such a one cope with their grief could revolve around assisting them celebrate their loved one’s life. Emphasizing the accomplishments and good traits in the form of scrapbooks and photo displays can bring inner comfort to the griever.
Genuine concern goes a long way in helping the bereaved. Sensing your authentic caring is more help to them than a long prepared speech. Polite awareness of their worldview or religious persuasion will be helpful in aiding their grief.
« Point to Ponder »
Comments that imply a judgmental nature are of no comfort to the bereaved.
(Copied from the book I DIDN’T KNOW WHAT TO SAY: Being a Better Friend to those Who Experience Loss. www.ididntknowwhattosay.com/book)
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“I don’t know what’s going on inside me, though” she finally admitted. “It’s like I am painfully remembering Judith and my mother.” “Oh, I see what is going now,” I responded. “I noticed that when you visited my wife before she died that you ‘kept a stiff upper lip’ and no tears. Now that this other emotionally charged event has happened, it is bringing up that unresolved grief to be processed. That is good.” “That explains it perfectly. Now I know I am not crazy,” came her relieved comment.
The individual I spoke with was very close to my wife and viewed her like a mother. Now, one year later, she has experienced a very emotional event in her marriage (that turned out positive). The reason she called me was that she did not see how the emotion of the present situation was connected to the feelings of loss she still had for Judith.
Her story is a great example that undealt with grief that is “stuffed” and not released will come back later. It does not go away. The next time a deeply emotional event happens in one’s life, it can come back for processing. So, it is very important that we all be alert to our grief and process it fully.
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