Have you ever been in the following situation? You learn that a family member or close friend has lost a loved one. You would like to reach out, but the prospect fills you with trepidation. What should you say? How should you handle things if the mourner cries or becomes agitated? For most of us, providing effective support to the bereaved does not come naturally. In last week’s post, I described how our feelings of discomfort can lead us to make remarks that are unhelpful. For example, we may offer platitudes (“He’s in a better place.”) or make statements that minimize the loss (“At least he didn’t suffer.”) Fortunately, there is an almost failsafe way to enhance your skills in providing more effective support: learn more about the grieving process, and about what the bereaved want and need from others.
Facts about the Grieving Process
- The Many Faces of Grief. Typically, bereaved people confront us with powerful emotions that are constantly changing, not an orderly sequence of stages. As one support provider expressed it, “In the morning, she was calm, almost numb. By the afternoon, she was enraged and was railing at the fates.” Consequently, it is hard to know what to expect and how to react.
- The Trajectory of Grief. Outsiders often assume that mourners improve steadily over time. As Whitson (2005) has indicated, however, “Just when we think we are making progress, grief has a way of rising up and slashing us right through the heart.” (p. 12). A wide variety of events can trigger such a reaction. One bereaved parent went into a tailspin upon learning that the drunk driver who killed her son would not be prosecuted. Mourners often describe this process as “One step forward, two steps back.”
- The Intensity of Grief. The pain of grief can be almost unimaginable in its intensity. One of the most painful aspects is coming to terms with the finality of the loss. As Nicholas Wolterstorff (1987) stated following the death of his son, “It’s the neverness that is so painful. Never again to be here with us—never to sit with us at the table, never to travel with us, never to laugh with us. A month, a year, five years without him —with that I could live. But not this forever.” (p. 15).
- The Irrationality of Grief. In attempting to work out their feelings, bereaved individuals often make remarks that leave us not knowing what to say. For example, a mother may express painful feelings of guilt regarding her child’s death, even though there was nothing she could have done to prevent it. Such comments may heighten our anxiety about providing effective help.
- The Depletion of Grief. In most cases, particularly at first, grieving people have no energy to handle even the most basic tasks of daily life. Mourners also may experience what some people have called “lack of brain.” They get confused, lose things, and forget what is told to them.
- The Concealment of Grief. It is common for grievers to hide their pain. Whitson (2005) admonishes her support providers to “be suspicious of my smiles. I learned very quickly to hide my misery so I won’t drag other people down. Don’t always believe my mask. “ (p. 75). Bereaved individuals sometimes speak of putting on an “Academy Award performance” when they are with others.
While knowledge about the grieving process is helpful, it is not enough. The next step is to learn everything you can about what bereaved individuals typically find comforting. Research suggests that these approaches are likely to work:
- Taking the Initiative. Because of their inertia and “lack of brain”, it is unlikely that the bereaved person will call you. It is important that you take the initiative and call them. When you call, don’t make a general offer to help (e.g., If there’s anything you need…”). Instead, make an action plan—for example, “I’m coming over on Saturday morning to shovel your walk.” Or, “I’m coming over in an hour to take you to a craft show.” If the mourner refuses, call later and try again. A man who lost his wife commented that, “I really didn’t want to go to the basketball game, but my brother-in-law insisted. It was the best evening I have had since my wife died.” Mourners are also very appreciative of help with specific tasks, such as shopping for groceries, mowing the lawn or taking the car in to be serviced.
- Presence. In many cases, just being with the bereaved is the best thing you can do. It is not necessary to entertain them, just be with them. As one woman explained, “My neighbor came over and just hung out. We watched TV and ordered pizza. Her presence was very comforting to me.”
- Physical Contact. Bereaved individuals are often comforted by a squeeze of the hand, an arm around their shoulder or a hug. Hugging says a lot without words.
- Validation of Feelings. One of the most important ways of supporting the bereaved is to encourage them to share whatever they are feeling in a nonjudgmental, accepting way. Recognize that you don’t have to solve their problems—simply listen. Make comments that invite further expression of feelings (e.g., “This must be very painful for you.” Or “I’d like to understand it better”).
- Is it Progress or a Mask? If a bereaved person appears to be doing well, remember that this could be just a mask. Stay in contact with the mourner, and continue to offer support. In fact, if you are close to the mourner and she tells you she is doing fine, you might say, “No, I mean how are you really doing?”
- Stay the Course. Many support providers drop out of the picture right after the funeral is over. Mourners find this to be very hurtful. It is during the weeks and months after the funeral that the bereaved person needs you the most. Continue to check in with the mourner by calling or dropping by. Knowing that someone cares enough to do this is very healing. And make every effort to offer solace at those times when mourners are particularly vulnerable—for example, on weekends, on the anniversary of the death, on Mother’s or Father’s day, or on the deceased person’s birthday.
What are the hardest things about providing support to the bereaved? In my experience, one is overcoming your own avoidance. The motive to minimize contact with people who are suffering is very powerful. If you cannot break through this avoidance, you cannot help the bereaved. Another very difficult aspect of providing effective support is to listen to strong feelings without interrupting, changing the subject, or offering unhelpful support attempts such as minimizing the loss. As one bereaved individual has advised, “Just shut up and listen.”
While the potential pitfalls may seem insurmountable, the results of providing effective support can be enormously beneficial to you and to the mourner. To learn even more about what to say and do, please consult the books and websites below.
Aleshire, L. (2009). 101 ways you can help: How to offer comfort and support to those who are grieving. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, Inc.
Finkbeiner, A. K. (1996). After the death of a child: Living with loss through the years. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
Keogh, M. J. (2005). As much time as it takes: A guide for the bereaved, their family and friends. Charlottesville, VA: Hampton Roads Publishing Company.
Peterson, C. (2005). Call me if you need anything…and other things NOT to say: A guide to helping others through tragedy and grief. St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press.
Whitson, S. G. (2005). How to help a grieving friend: A candid guide to those who care. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.
Wolterstorff, N. (1987). Lament for a son. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Camille Wortman Ph.D. Bio
Dr. Wortman studies grief with a special focus on sudden, tragic loss.Learn More