Last week, I attended the funeral service for a beautiful, 30-year-old girl who died suddenly in her sleep. As I sat in the church watching her friends, family and neighbors silently filter in though the doorways, I looked around at their grief-stricken faces and was overwhelmed with a powerful feeling of unity in the crowd. Although there were hundreds of somberly-dressed people pouring into the pews, there was hardly a word spoken. People smiled gently at one another, touched one another on the arm or back and waited patiently as they slipped into their seats. Nobody expressed impatience in having to wait. Nobody complained. Nobody raised their eyebrows or their voices. Sorrow had brought them together and everyone was gracious to strangers.
Mothers and fathers held the hands of their daughters and sons tightly as they looked tenderly down at them. You could almost hear them thinking “It could have been you”. Couples sat close together, and elderly people were embraced. There’s nothing quite like a tragedy to bring out the best in people and I felt my heart warm as the tenderness flowed through the church, embracing everyone with its tender touch.
It reminded me of many times when I’d felt this way. September 11 – when the world came together to embrace this country and to offer love and condolences for the tragedy. Hurricane Katrina, where people rallied round to provide anything they could to strangers who had lost everything. And, for me, my own personal tragedies when I lost my sister 17 years ago and my husband almost ten years ago and I, too, felt the gentle touch of shared sorrow. When bad things happen, everyone wants to help. Everyone offers what they can give. But people are often uncomfortable with death and confused about the right thing to do. While the intention is good and caring, there are also ways that people react that which don’t work and serve only to create a more difficult situation.
Based on my own experiences, my primary advice is to act gently and thoughtfully. Don’t offer advice or make suggestions about what to do. The worst advice I have heard is to “keep busy” or “keep your mind occupied”. When you’ve lost someone you love, it is constantly on your mind — from the second you awaken until the moment you go to sleep at night – and everyone has their own way of dealing with the pain. My therapy consisted in immersing myself in my grief – writing, reading, walking, driving, crying, remembering. The feelings are always there and, even if you “keep busy” they come out at a later time. For me, it was far better to deal with my feelings in the moment than to put off the inevitable. Besides, I felt I was honoring my loved one by thinking of them and grieving them at that time.
After my sister died, my mother told me how she’d meet people on the street who would not even acknowledge it in the fear of “reminding her”. As she told me, it was not possible for her to forget even for even a moment and it would have been impossible to “remind” her of something which was a part of her being. Far better, she advised, to express a word of sorrow or even to say “I don’t know what to say” than to ignore it completely. One of the moments which will always live in my heart is when I drove to the house of a friend after I heard about my sister’s death. Val opened her arms, held me close and cried with me. There were no words. And her gesture meant more to me than anything she could have said.
And, after the death of my husband, the people who said “It is so unfair” and “How could this be?” meant worlds more than those who said “God works in mysterious ways” or “He’s in a better place”. Even a minister at a church I had frequented said “What a roller coaster ride you have been on” which I felt to be horribly inappropriate and never returned to his church.
Having experienced death a number of times as well as being with people who have lost loved ones, I would like to share some of my own suggestions about how to deal with the situation when it happens around you.
• Talk about the person who has died. When someone dies, the family generally prefers to talk about their loved one rather than brush it under the table. Ask about their daughter/mother/husband. Share stories about them if you have them. Make reference to them in conversations.
• Don’t make small talk unless they do so first. When my husband died, I only wanted to talk about the big things – life after death, service arrangements, memories of his life… When a friend and his wife flew into town and insisted on taking me to lunch and a walk around the shops, I remember being numb and amazed at their insensitivity at wanting to do any activity at all.
• Do small things to help. Offer to pick up family at the airport if they are flying in for a service, go to their home and arrange the sympathy flowers, put gas in their car, arrange flowers, drop off meals, offer your spare bedroom to guests, provide a shoulder when it is needed.
• Don’t tell them about your circumstances or the circumstances of others around you. Comments such as “I remember when my auntie died” or “I know just how you’re feeling” are not comforting. Make it comfortable for them to talk and to cry.
• Be gentle and thoughtful. At a recent funeral for a young girl, one of their family friends commented “At least they still have the other children”. Not an appropriate comment and certainly not designed to comfort.
• Get in touch. Make a phone call, send a card, deliver flowers. Every little thing counts and is remembered forever.
• Never start a sentence with “At least…”….”At least she lived a long life”…”At least he went quickly”…”At least they are at peace now”… None of this matters. You just want your loved one back, no matter what the circumstance.
• Don’t offer religious advice. Even a devout person may turn against religion when they lose someone they love and it may not be consoling to tell them they are “in a better place”. Follow their lead. By the same token, don’t disregard anything they may be feeling or seeing during this time. I found great comfort in reading books about the afterlife and even started to write a book and interviewed leaders from various religions to hear their thoughts on life after death
• Don’t watch over them as though they are about to crumble. Our friends who lost their daughter said they constantly felt as though people were watching them as though something visible would happen in front of their eyes, instead of seeing them as the same people they had always been.
• Include them in your invitations. Reach out to them and they will respond when they are ready. Too often, when a tragedy or death occurs, people feel it’s better to “leave them alone” and neglect to invite them as they may have done in the past. Life goes on and it is better to keep reaching out and being rejected than to forget them and leave them to grieve alone.
And, above all, remember there is no time-frame on grief. It could take a month, a year or a lifetime to heal and it’s important to keep reaching out and being there.