Grief is difficult, uncomfortable, and scary...especially for those grieving, but also for those who love them. You don't want to say or do the wrong thing, but you don't want to not do anything either. This is a quick guide to how you can be supportive and loving during this tragic time.
1. First and foremost, talk about the loved one who's passed. Even if its uncomfortable at first, it will become easier. If you didn't know the person who has passed, or know them very well, ask to hear about them and learn of them through stories and pictures. Just hearing others say their name can be so sweet, especially when its years later.
2. Try to be sensitive to important dates and anniversaries. At first, the time and day of the week the person died on will be difficult to get through every week (ie, Monday at 8:33pm). After many months, then just the date of the month may be hard (ie, the 22nd). The person's birthday and death dates ("angel day") will always be important milestones to acknowledge...send an e-mail, a card, drop off flowers, etc. Tell them you're thinking of their deceased loved one. Relay a happy story about him/her if you can remember one, especially if its something they haven't heard before. Memories like that give them life again, even for just a few moments.
3. Never put a time line on someone's grief. Grieving never stops or gets "better", it just changes. "But its already been a year!" No...its only been a year! If the loss was traumatic (ie, young age, child, unexpected loss, violent loss, prolonged illness, multiple losses, etc) the time needed to grieve is even longer. Don't be surprised when they still sometimes express grief and difficulty one year later, five years later, ten years later...
4. Cliche statements such as, "They are in a better place" really aren't comforting to the person grieving. It can invalidate their natural and normal emotions of pain, sorrow, and loss. This also goes for "At least they aren't in pain anymore" "God needed him/her" "His/her mission in life was over" "At least now you don't have to worry about them anymore". Pretty much if it begins with "At least..." or "But...", just don't say it.
5. If you don't know what to say, just say, "I'm so sorry you have to go through this."
6. If the person needs to analyze the circumstances surrounding the death, just let them talk and rehash anything as many times as they need to. (its all part of cleaning out that closet!) Again, don't be surprised if this still happens months, and even years later. The brain needs time to accept the loss...it truly feels like a nightmare, that its not real, and you have to keep reliving it for months for it to finally stick.
7. Don't be offended or worried if your loved one chooses to be alone. Everyone grieves differently at different times. Sometimes you want to be alone, sometimes you want companionship. Sometimes its just too hard to attend certain events because they trigger difficult feelings (ie, baby showers, play dates, family get-togethers, church, holiday events, parties). Please still invite the person grieving, but let them know either in person, over the phone or through e-mail that you understand if they can't make it (and mean it!).
8. Understand how physically tired, absent-minded, and frazzled grief can make someone, even months and sometimes years later. It is truly like living in a deep fog with heavy blankets piled on your shoulders...you are physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually exhausted. Even the easiest task seems impossible. Grief can also cause short term memory loss.
9. Please be sensitive in what stories you tell or e-mails you forward to someone who is grieving. Some stories about "faith", "miracles", "tender mercies" or "counting your blessings" can be very traumatic and trigger extremely difficult feelings (especially when those e-mails have pictures of suffering people). If you've got good news, keep it short and sweet, or save it for someone else all together. Its not that the grieving person doesn't want others to be happy, its just really hard to hear about it when you're hurting so, so much.
10. Instead, send personally written cards, e-mails, or even just drop off a small treat. The simplest handwritten "I am thinking about you today" can mean so very much to someone who is grieving. It is often the simplest words and gestures that have the biggest positive impact on healing. (ice cream is always welcome!)
11. Do not, I stress, do not get offended if your loved one doesn't answer his/her phone, return your calls or e-mails, or turns down invitations to go out. Don't assume that they don't appreciate your effort! Sometimes they just don't want to put on a "happy voice" right then or burden anyone else with their grief. It can also be very emotionally draining just listening to phone messages, reading e-mails, etc, so sometimes it takes awhile to build up the strength to do so (let alone actually replying afterward!). Don't give up on them...just try again next week (or next month).
12. Most bereaved people will not offer information on how they are really doing unless they feel safe in exposing their true thoughts, and like you truly want to understand. Make time to ask "How are you doing?" when you are in an appropriate place that offers some privacy and you have time to sit down and really listen. (inappropriate places include aisle 9 at the grocery store, or the hallway at church!)