Years ago, my family and I moved to a small, bucolic town in New Zealand, where we were immediately taken to a group of expats and locals. We felt deeply connected to this community when I gave birth to a beautiful little boy at the local hospital.
When our son was three months old, a doctor heard a heart murmur. Twenty-four hours later, he died.
The invitations have stopped coming. The phone has become silent. My mourning was marked by an isolation deeper than ever.
Later, many of these people apologized. They told me that they were terribly sad and anxious about what had happened, but that they did not know what to say. My loss was so great that the words seemed inadequate, even pitiful.
They did not say anything, for fear of saying the wrong thing.
What can you say?
Although it is not easy to answer this question, one thing is certain: it is worse to say nothing than to say the wrong thing. Here are ways to respond meaningfully to people who have suffered a huge loss.
Here are 5 behaviors to help someone who has lost a loved one:
1. Manage your own feelings first.
The anxiety we feel is real and personal. Our intuition, however, is to ignore it, to find ways to numb it or to minimize it. It is a mistake.
If we first manage our own anxiety, we will be in a much stronger position to respond well to the person most directly affected. Do the things you can do to manage stress. A walk in the woods, meditation or yoga, or talking to a trusted friend can help.
2. Next, focus on the other person.
Remember that the isolation they experience is almost as painful as the shock and sadness of the loss itself. If you avoid them because you do not know what to say, this avoidance only serves your needs.
Our friends and loved ones need our comfort, support and commitment during moments of grief.
Although there is no good thing to say, there are things to never say. “Everything happens for a reason” or “I know how you feel.” How do you know there is a reason for this, and what difference would it make to a bereaved person, anyway? And you do not know how they feel.
3. Admit that you do not know what to say.
It’s a good start. Try something simple that breaks the ice and start a conversation, or at least send a message to the other person to tell them they are not alone.
“I’m so sorry you’re going through this. I wish I could say the perfect thing, but I know there is no adequate word to describe the situation. I just wanted you to know that I’m worried and that I’m here with you. “
If the person is ready to talk, listen. This is the most important thing you can do.
Listen to his story without interrupting it. Do not turn the conversation around with statements like, “I know what you’re going through, my dog died last year. “
Do not tell him what they should feel. Just acknowledge their pain and listen to what it’s doing to them.
We all manage shock and distress differently. Some people are angry, while others seem numb. Still others are turning to gallows humor. Your job is not to fix them but to give them the space to be what they need to be.
5. Instead of saying, “Tell me if I can do anything,” propose doing something concrete and specific.
Taking an ordinary task is often the most useful. Suggest going shopping, driving the kids somewhere, or cooking a meal or two. Ask if you can call tomorrow, or if they want to stay alone for a few days.
Today, even though I remember the loss of my son, I think of the only person who was really there to comfort me. She came to my house with a bottle of brandy and said, “This is everyone’s worst nightmare. I am so, so sorry that it happened. “
Then we sat on the lawn and she poured me a drink listening to all the horrible details.
When I look back now, I still feel how her gesture helped me through those early days of mourning. She did not try to comfort me or make sense of what happened. She did not even try to comfort me. His mere presence was enough to comfort me.
You can not fix what happened, but you can sit with someone side by side so that he feels less alone. It only requires intent, a willingness to feel clumsy, and an open, listening heart. It’s the unique gift that can make the difference.
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