Helping Others Cope With Death

“I felt helpless,” remembers Jennifer Hartley when her best friend’s father passed away. “I didn’t know what to do or say to make things better.”

Many of us are often faced with similar situations. What can we do or say when a family member or friend is faced with the death of a loved one? How can we support them through their grief?

Open the line of communication by showing genuine sympathy, care and concern for the individual. Tell the bereaved you’re sorry about what has happened and reassure them they will make it through this dark period.

Forms of nonverbal communication are comforting. An embrace, held hand or even a sincere note can give the grief-stricken individual motivation to make it through a difficult day.

“The one thing I remember was my aunt embracing me,” says Tara Craig when her 86-year-old grandfather passed away. “There were no words. Out of all the people I talked with during that time, her hug was the one comforting memory.”

Emotional support during this time is critical for the bereaved. Remind the person to be patient with himself or herself. As with any life changing event, healing will take time.

Being a good listener is vital in helping an individual cope with loss. Let the person talk about the deceased. More importantly, allow the bereaved to express their feelings. Whether it’s sadness or anger, showing emotions is the primary step in healing.

“I think the one thing I did for my grandmother was listen,” remembers Tara Craig. “I would let her talk about my grandfather. Even when she repeated herself, I never discouraged her. We laughed, cried and remembered together.”
Physical support for the bereaved can occur prior to and following the funeral. Before the funeral, assist in keeping record of visitors, phone calls, cards, flowers or other gifts received. Offer to house sit during the funeral or visitations to prevent burglaries while the family is away.

“The greatest help we received was from a lady at church,” remembers Janice Kersey when her daughter, Michelle, passed away from leukemia. “She was a tremendous help in organizing things at the house during a time when people were constantly in and out.”

The days following the funeral will be difficult for the bereaved. You can help with thank you notes or offer to do errands. Anticipate difficult periods such as holidays, birthdays or anniversaries and don’t hesitate to reminisce if the bereaved desires to do so.

Although there are numerous things that you can do to support a grieving individual, it is just as important to remember the things not to do.

While an individual is grieving, do not try to find something positive out of their situation. It may make the person feel worse than they already do.

“The last thing I wanted to hear was how I should be happy that my father wasn’t suffering anymore,” says Barbara Dawson when her father died after a long illness. “How can I be happy knowing that my father is dead?”

Being judgmental or telling the individual how he or she should feel or act can be detrimental. Whatever feelings of grief a person is experiencing, encourage the bereaved to express them.

“If I started to feel down or cry, a former friend of mine would tell me I needed to get control of myself,” says Janice Kersey. “She would get agitated and change the subject if I started to talk about Michelle. I had lost my daughter. Who needs a friend who isn’t going to be supportive in a time like that?”

Letting the individual talk about the deceased is part of the healing process. Do not change the subject. The person needs the time to talk and remember.

Don’t let an uncomfortable feeling or a sense of helplessness keep you from reaching out to the bereaved. Ignoring the individual during this time is not only detrimental to him or her but can damage the friendship or relationship you share.

“A lady I considered to be a good friend never offered condolences or visited,” says Sallie Jamerson who lost her mother after a brief illness. “That really hurt me. I think it’s better to say something rather than nothing.”

While helping the bereaved through grief, it is important not to take his or her anger or harsh words personally. The person is overwhelmed with emotions. Visualize how you would feel in a similar situation.

“I remember talking to her on the phone after I found out about Allen,” remembers Kelly Cox whose long-time friend, Carol, lost her grandson in an automobile accident. “It startled me to hear so much anger in her voice because it was so unlike her.”

Individuals dealing with the loss of a loved one need a strong support system. Their grief will diminish if they have someone to share it with. Encourage, listen and offer a shoulder to cry on. Knowing that you care will help the bereaved as he or she begins the journey to acceptance.

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