Last week I looked at some of the myths about grief that can get in the way of recovery. Correcting our thinking in this area can be helpful but it can also leave people feeling fearful of saying or doing anything with the worry that they might get it wrong. Nobody wants to say the wrong thing. Nobody wants to make it worse. And the fact is that almost nobody feels confident in navigating such delicate issues. I want to share some of the things I learned from Roslyn Crichton’s booklet, “How to Help Grieving People.”
1. Open the door to conversation. Most people struggle to know what to say to someone in grief. I was amazed to hear Crichton share that, “Nobody said any words that made a difference in [her] pain.” While people’s advice never helped, their listening ear did. She encourages people to use phrases that give the grieving person an opportunity to share. For example, “This must be so painful for you,” or “What has it been like for you?” Words like this invite conversation.
2. Be willing to listen. Crichton shares that people who have not been able to come to terms with a loss even after many years invariably have seldom talked about it. It is in the telling and retelling of painful memories and feelings that the reality of the loss can be grasped and accepted. Just having someone who will listen without critiquing or lecturing provides the grieving person an opportunity to process thoughts which, if left bottled inside, will get in the way of their recovery.
3. Share your own memories. While the tendency can be to focus on the grieving person, sharing your own memories honours the deceased and expresses what you share with the mourner. By sharing your memories, you give the grieving person an opportunity to reflect on their own and also enjoy a different side of the person who has passed away.
4. Provide companionship. Grief can rob energy and being alone after the death of a spouse can add to the strain. Crichton describes her feelings this way, “I felt a great sense of isolation and aloneness and disbelief that the world seemed to be carrying on even though my daughter was dead. I wanted to scream out – ‘stop, don’t you know what has happened?’” Offering to relieve someone of certain chores, making time to be with the person at times when the loneliness may be most acute and remembering the loss at anniversaries and holidays can make a big difference.
5. Affirm the person in their grief. As a society, we’re not very comfortable with expressions of grief and mourning. Encouraging these expressions, however, is critical to a person’s recovery. Crichton, for example, suggests people maintain eye contact when a person cries to assure them that you’re not uncomfortable with them expressing their pain. And laughter needs to be affirmed as much as tears do. Similarly, with feelings of guilt and regret, she encourages people to listen and allow the person to process their feelings rather than denying them. Forgiveness of wrongs and recognition of false guilt happens when a person can voice their feelings and reflect on them in safe company. Ask questions and listen rather than act as an umpire for the person’s thoughts.
6. Remember the children. Children seldom express their grief in the same way that adults do, but their pain is real, nonetheless. After the tsunami in Japan, a grieving mother expressed to me her frustration that her children just wanted to play when she felt that they should be showing more appropriate levels of sadness. I learned from Crichton that play was their way of coping with the still-internalized sadness they felt. She encourages people to pay attention to children at funerals and say things like, “I’m sorry your dad died. He was a special person. I’ll really miss him.” While the child might not give much response, they need to be comforted and affirmed in their grief just the same.
You can read Roslyn Crichton’s booklet on-line at The Coping Centre’s web-site.
May God give all of us help in being a part of the support and encouragement of grieving people around us.
In awe of Him,