What do you say to someone who is grieving?

A good guideline when a friend loses a loved one is to express your sympathy at the funeral or visitation. If for some reason you didn't get the chance to do that, express your feelings at the first opportunity. After that, make it clear that you're willing to listen to your friend if he or she wants to talk but don't dwell on the death. 

Some bereaved persons report that friends avoid them, or else they go to the other extreme and talk about the death constantly. Neither of these is appropriate. Resuming old conversational topics while allowing the person to bring up their feelings about the death is the best way to be helpful. Death is a part of life, it should not be overly discussed or avoided.

The fact is that nothing can be said to express adequately our loss or make the bereaved family feel better. But that doesn't mean that a visit and an expression of sympathy won't be helpful. Bereaved persons tell us that it's not the words that are helpful but that someone cared enough to express their sympathy in person. Sometimes just a hug or holding your friend's hand briefly is a good way to say "I care." 

My research is based on interviews and conversations with hundreds (perhaps thousands) of people. Over the years of graduate study I researched grief and spoke with leaders in the field. With the help of the National Funeral Director association and the Dodge Company, I met numerous funeral directors who wanted to help and who reported similar stories of people' helplessness and lack of knowledge about helping.

To get practical knowledge two friends, a pastor and a psychologist and I offered a simple program in Madison. We began a group meeting entitled "The Grief You Feel" and advertised it around Madison Wi. We were stunned when on a below zero night in January 16 people suffering all kinds of death related losses showed up.
One of the most striking and significant observations we observed in working with the bereaved is the multiplicity of losses when we lose a loved one. We not only lose the person who dies we lose all of the small and large things that person meant to us.  The person we love is gone and we will be sad for that. Over time we will also find ourselves being sad, angry, lonely as we realize all the ways the person intertwined in our lives. The loss of a companion to talk or relax with, the loss of a helper  with chores , the loss of the dream that a growing child brought to our lives, the loss of a spouse to help with and enjoy the happiness of our children. These individual losses  make every loss unique. In many ways they also   prolong our feelings of loss as we encounter thee individual meanings at times we most would have wanted to be with or needed  the deceased. Enjoyable holidays, graduations, weddings, walks in the evening, help with housework and many more seemingly mundane activities that we shared, enjoyed or counted on our lost loved one are like pin pricks stabbing us with the painful reminder that our loved one is no longer here and can uncover our sadness or anger or other emotions  when we least expect it. It is not uncommon to be caught off guard at such times. While it may be startling it is also common. 

It is okay to discuss these feelings with those we love and to understand that our relationships are more complex based on love of the person as well as needs, dependencies, hopes dreams and trust.
When someone we love dies our life is permanently changed. We miss the person because we loved them and depended on them for many important things. Frequently our pain is made greater because we have to learn to do many things that the deceased did for us, often times we don't even realize all of the ways a person touched our lives until they are gone. Raising children alone, earning a living, finding a job or a career, managing the household, finding new friends can all be difficult at a time when we're saddened by our loss. 

 It hurts because we must come to understand the impact that their absence will make, and this understanding will come slowly. For a while every day will bring small reminders, but with time there won't be so many reminders and you will learn to do many things on your own

Support from friends is most helpful. We can talk about our feelings with them and they can help us with some of the tasks that give us difficulty. This is a time to ask for help (or to offer it if you are a friend of someone who is grieving), people do not know what you need unless you tell them. Sometimes we need further information or assistance. At such times we should seek the help of professionals who can help us with specific problems we may have.

Wisdom from the past invites us to prepare for the future. There are many important life events that we should and do prepare for. Some, like weddings, or buying a house are pleasant and we eagerly look forward to gathering information and planning for them. Others, like death and funerals are more difficult to think about ahead of time. They are no less important! 

Your lawyer, accountant and funeral director can help you plan for your & your family's future. If you don't have any of these, that's OK. There are many websites out there to help you figure out what you can and should do to prepare for your death. The most prominent website is the rather crassly (but aptly) named, http://getyourshittogether.org. Created by a young woman who lost her husband in an accident, only to discover that they weren't prepared at all. She spent 3 years straightening out their financial life after the passing of her husband and decided to do her best to help other people to not fall into that same trap. Take a look at the Get Your Shit Together! checklist http://getyourshittogether.org/

Seven Ponds (http://www.sevenponds.com) has extensive materials for both planning before death as well as a step by step guide for what to do both before and after a loved ones' death. Seven Ponds also has a lot of information on alternatives to traditional funerals including cremation and natural burial. 

 It's important to consider the challenges that your loved ones will face after you die. Your death will be hard enough without having to deal with the financial and legal repurcussions should you die without a will.

As in all other aspects of life, honesty is the best policy! Children can quickly see through adult uneasiness or deceit. Telling a child that the person died and giving a specific reason for the death is most honest and definitely the most helpful. Don't beat around the bush, they will know. If children raise further questions, these too should be answered honestly and patiently. 2 of the most common questions children ask are:

What happens when someone dies?

Children experience death in many ways. When a pet dies, or perhaps a relative dies it's important to answer the child's questions directly and honestly, and not to say that the person went away or went to sleep. An indirect answer may cause children to become angry at the deceased for having gone away, or angry at God, or they may even be afraid of sleep. Hiding death from children is not helpful. Direct and honest answers mean saying that the person or pet has died and will no longer be part of our lives. It's helpful to tell the child that death is natural and that when we die our bodies don't feel anything. 

You won't leave me, too, will you?

The death of a parent can be very upsetting to a child. Besides feeling sad and lonely, many children feel very insecure. The safe environment that the family unit provides has been destroyed and often children don't know what to expect next. Children need a lot of reassurance and love when a parent dies. They should be allowed to cry and to express their feelings, never berated or told to "suck it up". Children should be allowed to share in wakes, memorials and funerals for anyone who was an important part of their life, if they wish. While the gap created by death won't ever completely close, love and understanding will help bring a family closer together.

Death is not a common occurrence in the lives of most families. It is very important to reassure children that they will be cared for in spite of the fact that things will be different without the deceased. It is helpful to include children in all ceremonies and as much as possible in decisions that will affect them but only if they wish to participate. A child's loss is real and will not go away by being ignored.

That is a common statement. There is a problem with it, however, when someone we love dies survivors react with strong emotions. A funeral, while technically honoring the dead, is really more about the living. We've lost a very important part of our life and we feel sad, we are upset and we cry. We find it hard to believe that death has come. 

Often we need the formal ceremony, to begin the process of recognition as well as to realize and recognize that we do have support from friends and loved ones. By not seeing the deceased we lose the chance to confront the reality of death. Often seeing the body is an important first step to acceptance.  Many people ask why at funerals and visitations we view the body of the deceased. Psychologists tell us that viewing is usually helpful because our natural tendency is to deny death. Visitation acknowledges that a death has occurred. Seeing is believing, where simple telling is not always helpful. Visitation and viewing also play a social role. The deceased usually has many friends who would like to express their sympathy. Seeing the deceased in the presence of friends eliminates shock and disbelief. Friends are given a chance to say their goodbyes and to provide a family with some needed support.

The lack of a funeral can cause loved ones to have trouble accepting and beginning the process of moving on. While choosing not to have some type of memorial will have no effect on the deceased, it can have serious consequences to the survivors. 

I have a friend whose father was living overseas for 4 years before his death. He died overseas and, because they had a very contentious and difficult relationship she made the decision to not repatriate his body, and specifically requested that no one talk to her more about it or send any of his personal effects. After some difficulty involving embassies and language and cultural differences his friends overseas managed to put together a small but fitting funeral for him. Nothing formal, just some friends at the cemetery speaking about someone they loved, followed by a bonfire on the beach in front of his favorite bar. 5 months later, his daughter called one of his good friends to ask more about her father, and admitted that she was having trouble accepting his death. She had trouble believing he was really gone and not just "away", and she asked for some of his personal effects. His friend, having anticipated this reaction, sent his most treasured belongings (a ring, a hat, and pictures of his daughter and grandchildren), as well as pictures of him and a short video of people speaking about the man they loved, her father. This video exposed his daughter to a side of her father she had not known, the part that other people saw. It also helped her to see that he was really gone and begin the healing process, both grieving his death and making peace with a father who was not ideal, but, as it turned out, wasn't the worst.

That is a complicated question. The purpose of all ceremonies is to mark events in the lives of people and communities. Weddings mark new families; baptisms and bar mitzvahs welcome children and adolescents into society. Death marks the end of life. Students of human behavior tell us that ceremonies for saying goodbye have existed as long as man. The funeral acknowledges that a life has been lived. People express their feelings about life through ceremony. 

Funerals today come in all shapes and sizes, and that is OK. Many people have chosen to move away from the traditional funeral in favor of something that more accurately reflects the nature of the person who has passed away. Often people choose to use the opportunity to celebrate the life of the person who has died. he point of a funeral is to remember the person for who they were, and what is important is that the living have a chance to say goodbye and to grieve. 

Funerals are important to the survivors because they provide a socially accepted way for people to come together at a central point to show support for the grieving family. Many people welcome social support and going to a visitation or funeral is an important way to show someone that you care, both for them and for their loved one.

My name is Dr. Donald Steele, I have studied grief and bereavement for over 30 years. My interest in grief counselling began with a conversation with a good friend who went to mortuary school. At the time there were only a few people dealing with grief and bereavement. Little research had been done. He told me his professors taught about grief and encouraged them as funeral directors to do grief counseling but gave few strategies. It seemed like a reasonable pursuit for me to attempt to create strategies and better understand grief to help not only funeral directors but the grieving themselves as well as ancillary professionals such as nurses and even speech or physical therapists.

My friend noted that he heard two things at almost every wake. 1) What can I do to help? and 2)  some variant of "If there is ever anything they need let me know"  He noted how he thought this odd that the visitors would speak to him about this, as he was unlikely to be very involved in people's lives after the funeral. He decided he would keep a calendar book handy at wakes. When people indicated they didn't know what to do but that they were willing he would take out the book and say, "there is something you can do. How about setting a date and time with me when you will go visit the bereaved family "  That was it.  It was simple and powerful because all it required was a visit and no special skill or obligation. 

Later in my own conceptualization I used the mantra" Be there and listen". People need people and company and they often need to talk and relive their loss and the emotions that come from it. It is incredible how effective it can be to simply allow a person to talk it out.

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    As part of my doctoral studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, when information on grief, bereavement, death and dying was scarce, some colleagues and I began group work with the bereaved. Out of that work grew interviews with widowers, training with funeral workers, clergy, social workers, hospice and medical personnel. 

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    Copyright 2013, Dr. Donald Steele, Ph.D.
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