When we have a friend or family member who has lost a loved one we often face a dilemma: we would like to be helpful, but in many cases just don’t know how to start. Often we may tell the bereaved to let us know if there is anything we can do to help, but rarely do they reach out and ask. Sometimes we are simply too afraid to say the wrong thing and upset our loved one even more. Often, we begin to move away from the bereaved person, because being around him/her may feel so uncomfortable.
So how can you help someone who is grieving? Our psychologists and grief counselors have compiled this list of “dos” and “don’ts” as a guide during this confusing time.
- Be patient and non-judgmental
Every individual deals with grief in his/her own way. Some feel a strong need to talk about it, while others prefer to be alone and keep busy in order to take their minds off of their loss. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Everyone handles it in his or her own personal way. So, act in accordance with the wishes of the bereaved and do not pass judgment on him/her. He/she may need a good listener, though he/she may also feel the need for friends with whom he/she can joke around with to take his/her mind off the loss. Give him/her as much time as he/she needs to mourn. Remember: you are there for him/her, to help in whatever way he/she needs. Follow his/her lead.
- Make a list of things you can do to help
Hand the list to the bereaved person. Grieving people will not always be able to ask for help even if it has been offered. Often they just can’t concentrate enough to think the situation through and know what they would want. Therefore, a list will help them to know what to ask for and confirm your serious intentions.
A few examples of ways to help:
* Rides to the doctor, to get groceries, or other necessary shopping. In the first few weeks it will be very hard for the bereaved to concentrate and to drive.
* Help with shopping, cooking, housework, and miscellaneous errands. Even everyday tasks will be hard to undertake when your friend/family member has to rebuild their whole lives. Help will speed up the recovery process.
* Help looking after children. In the days following the event a person must look after him/herself and regain his/her strength. Looking after children in addition to this can be another very difficult task.
* Invite them out for coffee, a trip to the mall, or out for dinner. In the beginning you can expect your invitations to be turned down, but with time this can be a lifesaver for them and a great way to get out. Keep trying.
During hard times like these being a good listener is the most welcome help that you can give someone who is bereaved. Encourage them to talk about the incident and about their feelings for the deceased. You do not need to try to offer wise advice or tell of your own similar experience. Just listening is very valuable. Try to understand the experience through his/her perspective. Accept all the feeling expressed, including anger and blame, while you refrain from passing judgment. Do not say what you think the other person should feel or what you think he/she should do. The grieving person needs to know that you have provided a space for him/her where he/she can express and be him/herself.
- Encourage self-care
Make sure that the bereaved person eats enough nourishing food, maintains good hygiene and grooming, and gets adequate rest. While mourning many people neglect their health and this can hamper the healing process.
- Stay in touch in the weeks and months following the loss
Many bereaved people raise this problem: A few months after the event, after the initial interest, people get back to their routines and forget about the loss. In contrast, the bereaved is still experiencing the grief in full force and death is as real at this stage as it was at the beginning. This occurs because the pace of life in the regular world does not match the pace of bereavement. In this situation the bereaved person feels out of sync with what is going on around him/her and gets left behind with his/her pain, while others stop showing interest and go on with their own lives, as if nothing has happened. Therefore, it is very important to inquire how the bereaved person is doing and to offer help or just listen to him/her even after a few months when everyone else seems to have forgotten about the person’s loss.
- Remember to call on important days
Birthdays, holidays, wedding anniversaries and the anniversary of the death are all difficult days for the bereaved, so be there for them, even if only to let them know you are thinking of them. They will appreciate it very much.
- Suggest a support group or recommend books or articles on the subject
One of the hardest aspects of bereavement is the loneliness. When it concerns the loss of a partner or when support is not available in the immediate surroundings, reading about grief and bereavement can help the person put a name to his/her feelings and help him/her know what to expect as time goes on. Participation in a support group can allow the bereaved to share his/her feelings with others who have been through a similar experience. Click here for more information on support groups, and feel free to contact us for additional information about available recourses.
- Refer the bereaved to professional help when necessary
Bereavement is a natural process and each and every person goes through it at his/her own pace. However, if you notice that even after several months the bereaved is not functioning in his/her basic day to day life, neglecting his/her health, using drugs or alcohol, or seem to be suffering far beyond what he/she can endure, suggest professional help. This is especially important under circumstances where the person has no one to talk to and share his/her distress with, or where the person expresses desolate thoughts.
- Look for support
If you feel that the help that you have extended is too difficult for you or if you need advice on how to handle the situation, look for support. Often, trying to help others can be a draining and confusing experience. If you begin to feel that you need help and counseling, do not hesitate to ask for it from friends, relatives, or professionals.
- Do not do anything out of a feeling of obligation
Many people say things like” Let me know if you need anything” so that they can feel like they are doing something. In actuality, in most cases the bereaved person will not feel comfortable asking for assistance or will not remember who offered to help with what. It is better to offer something tangible in a specific area that will be feasible for you to do.
- Avoid using insincere comfort
Many bereaved people mention that sayings such as “this was G-d’s will” or “you’ll get over it with time” or “everything’s meant for the best” cause much more harm than good. The bereaved often take no comfort from these sayings and essentially feel that you do not really understand their pain. Be especially careful of saying to parents “well you still have other children.”
- Do not be afraid to mention the deceased’s name or talk about him/her
Particularly in the first weeks and months following the death but also later on, do not avoid the subject of loss or speaking of the deceased. In addition, do not pretend that you did not hear about the death and hope that the subject does not come up. The deceased was important and still is to his/her loved ones and they need to hear his/her name and know that their loved one has not been forgotten.
- Do not remove paintings, pictures, or handicrafts of the deceased from your home
Many bereaved people, especially parents, have said that when this happens they feel that the deceased has died a second death. Do not assume that because it is painful for you to have these reminders it is painful for the bereaved person as well.
- Do not suggest taking comfort in drugs or alcohol
These are only temporary solutions that may in turn cause greater problems and even intensify the bereaved person’s anguish. Drowning one’s sorrows in drink is neither a healthy nor helpful way of coping.
- Do not be afraid of saying the wrong thing
When the bereaved person suddenly bursts into tears, it does not mean you have hurt him/her or said the wrong thing. On the contrary it often means you have enabled him/her to cry in your presence and let out his/her feelings. Many bereaved people are grateful for that privilege. It is important not to let feelings of fear or discomfort get in the way of communication. The benefit of your very listening outweighs tenfold any minor damage that your words are liable to cause.