Why is it so hard to be
with those who grieve?
If you're like many
other good-hearted, well-meaning people, you may find it difficult to
be there for someone who is anticipating or coping with the
death of a loved one. When you aren't sure what to say or do to support
another person, it's natural to feel awkward and uncomfortable. It's
not that you don't care or don't want to be helpful -- it's just that
you feel completely helpless in the face of loss, and so does the person
you want to help. You cannot take the mourner's pain away, and you
cannot answer the question, "Why?"
You cannot bring back the person who died or restore the health of the
person who is dying, and your friend cannot make you feel better by
seeming to be helped. This is especially difficult if you've never been
around people in mourning before, or if you've had no prior experience
with deep grief in your own life. Another person's death may remind you
of your own past losses, or of those that you also must face one day.
It's hard to confront the fact that at some point death will take your
own loved ones, too, and that eventually you also will die. Feeling
awkward and uncomfortable in the face of such realities is
What are the requirements for helping another in grief?
You will need sufficient time,
patience, perseverance, flexibility, optimism, understanding, warmth,
and compassion. If you think you do not qualify, consider this: You are
only human, and those who are struggling in grief need someone who can
identify with them, someone who won't judge them, someone as human as
they are. While you may not know what to say, there still is
plenty that you can do. And because you are only human, do only
what you can, and let it be enough. If you're a member of a family in
mourning, give yourself permission to not always be there for
other family members. Be good to yourself. Take a break if and when
you need it, and seek some outside social and / or spiritual support, or
personal grief counseling. The best way to take care of another's grief
is to take care of your own grief first.
What if the mourner is a
Remember that anyone
old enough to love is old enough to grieve. Do what you can to give a
child special attention. Create quiet time for talking. Let her know
you're sad about the death and would be glad to talk with her about it,
if and when she wants to.
What if someone
is mourning the loss of a beloved pet?
Acknowledge the person's pain as
legitimate and real, no different from that of losing a cherished friend
or special family member. Recognize that only your friend knows the
special place in his life and in his heart that was occupied by his
animal companion, and only he can measure just how much he has lost.
Does grief differ at
certain points along the way?
grief occurs both in anticipation of and following a
loss. It does not wait for death to happen; it begins as soon as a
person becomes aware that death may happen: when a
life-threatening illness is diagnosed or a terminal prognosis is given.
It's important to remember that family caregivers (family members,
friends, neighbors who provide care to someone who is dying) are in
mourning, too, before the death occurs. They are coping not only
with their own feelings of grief and loss, but also with physical and
mental fatigue, and often feel overwhelmed with all the financial,
legal, medical, and personal responsibilities associated with caregiving.
In the aftermath
of the death of a loved one, especially in the beginning, mourners are
very susceptible to disappointments and vulnerable to others'
insensitivity. They need emotional support to help alleviate suffering,
and help to be in the world in new and different ways.
When a loved one is
dying or has died, if the person left behind is to heal through grief,
he must also mourn -- that is, he needs to express his grief
(thoughts, feelings) outwardly. Over the weeks and months
following the death, he must accept the harsh reality that someone loved
has died and will never physically be present to the mourner again.
Pushing away some of this reality at times is normal; the mourner will
embrace it in doses as he or she is ready. To allow all the pain in all
at once is to be overwhelmed.
In general, what is
needed from a helper?
The mourner needs
offers to be
there in a helpful, loving, supportive, respectful, and
- can actively
show (demonstrate) that s/he cares
witness to the struggle
is with, and
will continue to be with, the mourner
will honor the
person's unique journey through grief
is sensitive to
cultural, ethnic, religious, and family traditions
aims to help
maintain the person's physical health and emotional equilibrium
Suggestions for Helping Another in Grief
here stems from professional knowledge and skills, insights gained from
personal experience with loss, and from all those many others who've
faced losses of their own. If any of these ideas don't fit with a
particular culture or tradition, or if they don't seem to suit you or
those you're wanting to help, then simply ignore them and go on to
First, learn about
the grief experience, and let go of some of the harmful myths you may
have heard about grief and healing. Don't assume that the person who
seems to be experiencing little pain is "doing
with grief. Take some time to review your own personal experiences of
death and grief, recalling who died, what was helpful and not helpful to
you, and how you felt about it.
Before the Death Has Happened
When the mourner
and his family are grieving in response to a serious or
life-threatening diagnosis, you can help your friend and his family
latest developments concerning the illness.
List all the
medical specialists conducting studies or research on the
disease or condition.
support groups related to the illness.
team of family, friends, clergy, neighbors, colleagues, care
providers, and community services.
emergency phone numbers and important resources readily
available (legal, insurance, medical, financial, home repair,
sufficient time to attend to personal and spiritual needs
(nutrition, exercise, rest, sleep, participating in religious
practices or services).
Immediately after the Death
Acknowledge the loss. Either in
person, by telephone or in writing, let the mourner know who you
are, how you
aware of the loss, and that you care.
funeral: Say goodbye to the deceased and demonstrate support for
those most impacted by the death. If possible, attend the
visitation, funeral, committal and gathering after.
mourner know if you found the ceremony especially meaningful.
funeral scrapbook for the family, which could include the
obituary, funeral program, and room for cards, notes and other
have the ceremony video- or audio-taped; offer to review the
recording with the mourner at a later time.
tangible symbols of support: a phone call, note, letter, dish of
comfort food, flowers or a potted plant, a hope-filled book, or
a photo frame.
flowers, a potted plant, hanging basket, bulbs, tree seedling,
or perennials to place or plant at the gravesite.
mourner's network of friends and family and help them choose a
way to help (e.g., check on the mourner, fix a meal, walk the
dog, cut the grass, rake the leaves, etc.).
bring a meal; include non-alcoholic, non-caffeinated beverages.
contact; invite the mourner to share what happened, with ample
opportunity to tell you the story of the loss.
your heart, with honest concern and curiosity, respectfully and
without judging, without criticism, without giving advice,
without being the expert with all the answers.
reflect, respond to and validate feelings, however they are
expressed, and hold them in confidence.
to listen to the same story, over and over again if needed, with
mouth closed and ears open.
- Be fully and
physically present: Allow sufficient time; listen attentively; don't
appear rushed; sit rather than stand; maintain eye contact and an
attentive posture with your arms free and uncrossed; match the
volume, tone and speed of your voice to the mourner's; let the
mourner steer the conversation; nod and
and be present in times of silence.
to cry, too. Your tears mingled with your friend's convey what
uniqueness of grief: Everyone is different, and is shaped by
experiences in his or her own life.
Be patient; the
grief process takes a long time; let the mourner proceed at his or
her own pace.
although you cannot take the pain away, you can enter into it with
your friend; you can remain available long after the death occurs,
when the mourner will need you the most.
Help the mourner to absorb the
reality of the loss and its consequences:
to identify which activities, tasks, and commitments can be
given up or set aside for now, so he won't feel so overwhelmed.
to mourn that fit her personality; find appropriate forms of
expression (talking, writing, making music, etc.).
focus on the mourner's grief, not on your own story of loss.
exploration, searching for meaning, and questioning the purpose
of life and death, without supplying answers or imposing your
own spiritual beliefs.
religious beliefs to yourself; let the mourner teach you about
his beliefs and honor them.
If it fits
with your belief, pray for your friend: Place the mourner's name
on a prayer list at church or in an online prayer circle. Bring
your friend into your consciousness, think about her and hold
her in your heart and soul for a little while each day.
Help the mourner to experience and
express the feelings of grief:
together weekly. Commit to contacting your friend: schedule
regular, ongoing contact time, and write it down on your
calendar or in your day timer.
person as he is, without judgment.
- Allow for
differences in grief: Walk beside the mourner, not behind or in
front of her.
Accept the ups
and downs; tolerate the ambiguities; have faith in the process.
multitude of emotions, which are normal and healthy (including
numbness, anger, guilt, fear, confusion, relief, exhaustion)
don't think you need to change them.
(sudden upsurges of grief); allow the mourner to feel his sorrow.
Allow crying in
your presence, without offering a tissue or a hug (which may stifle
Offer gentle and
appropriate touch, but only if the person wants to be touched or
hugged, and make it easy for the mourner to move away if that's what
mourner to take some time off from grieving, to do or think about
something else for a while.
gift of music: It soothes the soul, nurtures the spirit, and
puts the mourner in touch with feelings both happy and sad.
near the water (a river, a lake, or the ocean) or the sound of
water (a fountain); give the mourner a tabletop fountain from a
home, patio, or garden store.
Gaze at the
stars and ponder the universe together, either outside with a
telescope at night, or at a planetarium.
Help the mourner adjust to his or
her new circumstances:
good self-care: regular medical and dental checkups.
friend with certificates for self-indulgent gifts: day spa,
massage, facial, manicure, pedicure, facial, haircut, or a
stand-in handyperson: Help with daily chores or tasks that once
belonged to the person who died.
offending or shaming the person, look around, and do whatever
needs doing: Run errands, get groceries, offer to be a chauffeur
for an appointment.
stand-in partner for activities formerly enjoyed with the one
who died: playing golf, shopping.
Rent a movie
to watch together or take the mourner to a movie and discuss it
calendar to remember those special life event days: the birthday
and death day of the person who died; anniversaries and
the mourner to plan ahead: Making plans in advance of difficult days
can alleviate some of the worries.
friend to the cemetery on Memorial Day, Veterans Day, Labor Day,
Mother's Day, Father's day; bring or help plant flowers at the
Reach out at
holidays: Invite the mourner to share it with you, take a trip with
you, or accept a special gift from you.
at landmark events and rites of passage (baptisms, bar mitzvahs,
confirmations, proms, graduations, weddings, funerals), when the
mourner is more acutely aware of the presence of the absence of the
spending time with children (a school play; a day at the zoo)
friend's interests and talents:
to visit neighborhood shops, restaurants, museums, guided tours,
art galleries with you.
Join him in a board or card game.
Ask her to
teach you something (cooking, gardening, sewing, scrapbooking)
or sign up for class in something you both want to try.
find a social group he might enjoy; offer to join with him or
hook him up with a sponsor from the group.
Take a drive
together to a scenic spot that may encourage conversation.
loneliness. Invite the mourner to your home for dinner, with a
game or movie afterward. Suggest an overnight stay.
friend to exercise with you: walking, biking, swimming, hiking,
gardening, or taking a yoga class together.
doing something daring, wild, and free: river rafting, hang
gliding, rock climbing, parasailing, or skydiving.
encourage the person gradually to begin socializing, to begin
developing a new way of being with other people. Help to set up
in advance such as length of stay time-limits and arrangements
for easy departures (e.g., bringing her own car; sitting near an
exit if she wants to leave early, etc.)
- Honor your
friend's old identity (as a spouse, parent, sibling, or child), and
notice the new one that is emerging. Acknowledge the positive
changes that you see: someone who is stronger, more caring, more
appreciative, more tolerant, less judgmental.
Remind your friend how much s/he matters to you and how important
s/he is to you.
Help the mourner
regain a sense of control and accept his/her own reactions by
understanding and normalizing what happens in grief:
articles and books on
grief. Check the library, local or online book store,
Books, or Centering
Corporation; consider journals, workbooks, poetry.
Give a gift
subscription to a healing magazine (e.g.,
Living with Loss) or
another periodical you think your friend would like.
Help the mourner
surf the Internet for helpful grief Web sites, such as
Consider presenting your friend with a gift subscription to an
online e-mail course on grief, such as
The First Year of Grief: Help for the Journey
workshops on grief, loss, and bereavement open to the public and
sponsored by hospice, the
mortuaries, churches and other community organizations.
your friend might be interested in joining a support group -- but
don't insist or push, as he may not be ready. Contact
Hospice of the Valley or your local
hospice or funeral home for a support group schedule, and give it to
friend to join our online Grief Healing Discussion Groups, on
the Web at
Help the mourner create a spiritual
bond with the deceased loved one that defines the person as gone but
active remembering of the one who died, and commemoration of a
life that was lived.
normal and healthy your friend's efforts to maintain connection
-- and even communication with -- the person who died.
Use the name
of the one who died; this helps recall the presence of the one
who died and confirms that s/he has not and will not be
memories of the deceased loved one.
ceremony of remembrance (light a candle; share memories) or
construct a memory book (ask friends to write notes, share
photos); make a quilt of the person's clothing.
Give a tree
as a gift, or organize a tree planting and let your friend pick
Find ways to
mention the loved one's name in family rituals, conversations with
family and friends, religious services, memorials, and donations to
the mourner to keep hope alive, believing that suffering can be
Be sensitive to
the timing of such assurances: avoid offering too much too early, or
too little too late.
Convey your own
hopeful attitude toward life and love.
personal experiences that radiate hope, offering what is appropriate
for your friend and has been true for you.
friend of his/her strengths, and how s/he has persevered in the
feedback about how you see your friend making progress now.
encouragement with inspirational cards and other written messages.
inspirational books, tapes, CDs, videos and DVDs.
Find and share
articles that apply to your friend's individual situation.
Offer to hold
your friend's hope yourself, willingly and lovingly, until s/he is
ready to hold it again one day.
Join with the mourner in the search for
Is there any meaning
to be found in this loss? As your friend continues along his grief
journey, you can help him discover whatever lessons have been learned or
identify what can be learned from this experience. Together you can
talk over some questions that might bring some clarity to what has
did s/he have that were strengthened as a result of this experience?
can s/he identify that were not apparent before?
What is becoming
of the person your friend used to be? Who is s/he now?
important in your friend's life before this loss, compared to what
is important now?
How has this
experience impacted your friend's values and spiritual beliefs?
Does your friend
see the world any differently now?
about life and love and loss can you think of to discuss?