How to Help a Loved One Cope with Grief and Mourning

Helping others survive the pain, mourning and grief associated with the death of a loved one. A poignant, true account.

Grief.  This single word is capable of eliciting a host of wildly vacillating emotions:  sadness, anxiety, helplessness, fear, numbness, and even anger.  We've all encountered it in our lives, and many of us have experienced severe, crippling grief, or know someone who has.  Sometimes, one of the most difficult situations to be in is helping someone you love deal with their own grief.   Often, we feel completely inadequate and at a loss for words, or for what we can do to help.  It can feel like a hopeless situation.  We find ourselves saying to this person, "I wish there was something I could say...something I could do..."

Actually, the good news is, you can.  There are many ways to show our love and concern that can make a profound difference.  I would like to share with you some insight I have gained from personal experience and reflection.

Six months ago, I lost my father after a brief illness took his life.  Two months before he was hospitalized, our large family had reunited to celebrate my parents 60th wedding anniversary.  My 85-year-old father presented my mom with a beautiful diamond ring, then pulled her out onto the dance floor where they waltzed to Anne Murray's "Could I Have This Dance for the Rest of My Life."  Who knew that the rest of his life would come so soon.  Dancing in April.  Laid to rest in August.  I was his baby girl, the youngest of nine children...and I was devastated, inconsolable.

I held it together for the funeral and the many arrangements that were to be made afterward.  Well-meaning people would respond, awkwardly, with statements like, "Well, he lived a good life", and, "At least he didn't suffer for long."  I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs, "I KNOW THAT...but it still hurts like hell!"  Of course I'm happy he's not suffering, and yes, he lived a good life.  But grief is not rational.  It was surreal to be standing in the airport waiting for my return flight, while watching the world carry on as usual...oblivious to my pain...and to suddenly be consumed with a wave of grief that hit without warning.  The very next day I was back at work where my boss (at the time) said to me, "You're lucky.  My dad died when I was twenty five."  Wow.  Unbelievable.

Now I know that words can escape our mouths unedited, before the brain can catch up and stop it.  It happens; and I honestly believe people do mean well.  Life just leaves us unprepared for those moments.  What to say?  What to do?  I have a few suggestions (mostly applicable to helping someone cope with a death).

1.  Just Listen.  When I'm ready, let me ramble.  Let me cry.   For godsake let me remember.  I might go on about things, but relating these stories and memories gives credence to my reason for suffering.  I know I have to let go and move on without them...and I'll get there...bit by bit, but in the meantime, please just listen.  This is the catharsis that will lead to healing.

2.  Don't be afraid to offer an embrace.  This depends upon your comfort level, of course, but there is something very consoling to have caring arms hold me tight, even if only briefly.  Sometimes when I still feel like I'm falling apart into little, tiny pieces, a loving embrace is the glue that puts me back together.

3.  Do something. Anything.  It doesn't really matter what, its the actual act of doing something that is so huge.  It's all good and fine to say, "if you need anything, call me," but you know that person won't call you.  So, take it upon yourself to act.  Some suggestions:  Bring a meal that can be used now or frozen; offer to run some errands, or arrange for counseling, if needed; come over and mow the lawn or water my plants (you can bet that my plants have been forgotten); bring a magazine you know I like (it doesn't have to be expensive) along with a coffee and scone; make a date to get out of the house together for a walk, or window shopping, or a good work out.  You'll know.

4.  Understand that grief knows no time.  The world moves on in a blink of an eye, but a devastating loss can hold a person captive for what can seem like an eternity.  I had returned to my normal daily activities and the sting of my father's death had subsided.  Then Christmas arrived and I longed to hear his voice.  Emotions would well up unexpectedly.  Two months after this, on my dad's birthday (which date is shared by one of my daughters), another wave of sorrow, although brief, reminded me that I will never again get to joke with him and share cake and memories.  Having someone close to me who understands this seemingly illogical descent into mourning is the greatest help of all.

5.  Write a letter.  Yes, an actual pen-on-paper, snail-mail letter.  Share a pleasant memory of the deceased, if you were acquainted, or something you admire and appreciate about the person who's grieving.  At the family gathering just prior to my father's funeral, my brother-in-law stood before us and offered a bit of wisdom.  He implored us "not to wait until another funeral brings us together to express our love and gratitude for one you never know when it will be too late."  Wise words indeed.

This article is dedicated to my daughter, in the midst of great, personal loss:  I love you.  I'm here for you.


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Sharla Smith
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Colin Dovey
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Posted on Mar 6, 2010