Over the last four years I have worked at Cruse Bereavement Care, supporting people struggling with the death of a loved one. I wanted to share some of the things I have learned about how you can help friends and family who have been bereaved. These are the most important discoveries I made through my work at Cruse and influenced by my own experience of losing my mother to cancer in 2010.
#1. You probably won’t say the right thing.
It’s hard to know what to say to someone who has been bereaved. For this reason, people often avoid the subject or, worse still, avoid the grieving person altogether. If you find yourself getting caught up in trying to say something useful, you are more likely to settle on a platitude or cliché. When you do this, you have moved into trying to ease your own discomfort about the situation and away from supporting the person.
The common clichés include ‘it gets easier with time’, ‘they are in a better place now’ and other vapid assurances that there is a greater purpose to their loss. There may be an element of truth in some of these sentiments but it is rarely helpful when people are suffering. By offering reassurances you are suggesting that they should be thinking and feeling differently to how they actually are. This can be very isolating for the bereaved person.
Sometimes the best thing to say is that you don’t know what to say but wanted to say something. It’s ok to admit that you can’t make it better for them but you wished you could. Acknowledge your helplessness. It’s ok to stop trying to get it right. Let them know, over and over if necessary, that you are there and you care.
#2. The Powerful Witness
When someone you care about is in pain, it’s natural to want to fix it. With most problems in life there are options and solutions to focus on. Not so much with grief. Someone has died and that can’t be changed.
This is why it is so challenging to be with someone who is grieving. This is why there may be a pull to hide from them or try to say something to make it a little better.
If you can put aside your discomfort, your presence with them can speak more than a thousand words. Listen, really listen, to what they say. It will be uncomfortable, this became easier for me when I saw how simply my presence can ease some of the loneliness of grief. It may not look like you are doing much for your friend/colleague/loved one but grief is not about doing, as there is nothing to be done.
We have a saying at Cruse: “You don’t do grief, grief does you”.
People who come to bereavement counselling are often isolated or surrounded by people going through their own grief. People can get stuck in the pain of their loss because it has nowhere to go. When this pain is witnessed and heard, it often starts to change form. This is the most exciting part of the work I do, when people start to change and reconnect with life.
#3. It’s Personal.
I see this one over and over in my bereavement counselling. When someone dies all those close to that person are going through their own grieving process and it can look very different from person to person. This often creates tension and confusion amongst the grieving; from the son who is angry at his mother for getting a new partner so soon after his father’s death to the disagreements about how to honour a memory.
When someone sees a fellow griever behaving in a way they couldn’t imagine they project their own ideas and meanings about why that person is or isn’t taking a certain action. Grief causes us to become very self-focused, with strong feelings can come strong beliefs and it’s common to superimpose this onto others.
Don’t assume they should be following a certain path or cling to an idea of what they should be doing. This is easier said than done, it involves letting go, respecting others’ journey of grief and simply offering to walk alongside them for a while.
To find out more about the work of Cruse please click here.