What Can I Do To Help?
by Wilfred T. Dil – Founder of Dil’s Funeral Services
Most of us want to be helpful when grief strikes a friend, but often we don’t know how. We may end up doing nothing because we don’t know the right – the helpful things to say and do.
1. Don’t try to “buck them up”
To the surprise of many well-intentioned helpers, it is inclined to make your friend or neighbor feel worse when you say, “Come now, buck up. Don’t take it so hard!”
When someone has lost their partner or close friend or child, it is natural and normal for them to take it hard. In such a situation “being bucked up” makes the person feel that you are minimizing their loss. But the honest attitude, “Yes, it is tough, and I realize what you must be going through”, makes the other person feel free to express grief and begin to work through it. The “don’t take it so hard” approach can create guilt feelings about grieving, deprive the person of the natural emotion of grief and so stop the safety valve we all have.
2. Don’t try to divert them
Many people visiting the bereaved purposely veer away from the subject. They make small talk about sports, TV, the weather – anything but the reason for the visit.
This has been called “trying to camouflage death”. The task of the mourner, difficult as it is, is to face the fact of death and go on from there. It would be far better to sit silently and say nothing than to make obvious attempts to distract. The sorrowing friend sees through the effort to divert them. When the visitor leaves, reality hits them all the harder.
3. Don’t be afraid to talk about the person who has died
Well-intentioned friends often shy away from referring to the deceased. The implication is the whole thing is too terrible to mention. The more helpful approach is to talk about the person as you knew them, to recreate a living image to replace the picture of death. Recall the last time you saw them; refer to things they have made or done, to centre the conversation on them.
When visiting a woman whose brother had died, a wise friend simply said” I didn’t know your brother very well. Tell me about him.” The woman started talking and they discussed her brother for an hour. Afterwards she said “I feel relieved for the first time since he died.”
4. Don’t be afraid of causing tears
Many people feel that they have really put their foot in it when, after saying something about the person who has died, their friend has begun to weep. In fact, more often than not, they have helped their friend to express grief in a normal, healthy way. That is far better than to stifle grief when friends are present, only to have it descend more crushingly when they are alone.
Fear of causing tears, probably more than anything else, makes people tense and ineffective. Rather than mentioning anything closely related to the dead person, they talk about a wide range of irrelevant trivia. They are actually depriving their friend of the greatest help they could give them. That is, to help them to experience grief in a normal way and move on from it. Expressing grief is good: repressing it is bad. If a comment of yours brings tears – remember – they are healthy tears.
5. Let them talk
Sorrowing people need to talk. Friends worry a lot about “saying the right thing”. They should be more concerned about their ability to listen.
If the warmth of your presence can get your friend to start talking, keep quiet and listen, even though they repeat the same thing a dozen times. They are not telling you news but expressing feelings that need repetition. If, after your visit, your friend has said a hundred words to each one of yours, you’ve helped a lot.
6. Reassure – don’t argue
Everybody who loses someone has guilt feelings. They may not be justified, but they are natural. A husband feels he should have been more considerate to his wife; a parent feels they should have spent more time with their child; a wife feels she should have made fewer demands on her husband. The yearning “If only I had not done this or that – if only I had a chance to do it now”, is a characteristic of normal grieving. These feelings must work their way out. If the person is wrong, verbalising the feeling is probably the best way they can see for themselves what they feel is not always realistic when exposed openly. If their guilt feelings are based on fact, it is far healthier for them to own them and thereby loosen their cancerous grip.
Above all, never say “You don’t really feel that way”. The person is thereby encouraged to lie to you rather than deal adequately with mixed-up feelings that need to be brought to the surface where they can eventually be let go.
7. Communicate – don’t isolate
Too often the one who is bereaved is overwhelmed with visitors for a week or so; then the house is empty. Even good friends sometimes stay away, believing that people in sorrow like to be alone.
There is nothing worse than such “silent treatment”. Not only have they lost their loved one, they have lost us too! It is in that “after period” (sometimes lasting years), when all letters of sympathy have been read and acknowledged and other people have swung back into daily routine that friends are needed most. Keep in touch; see your friend more often than you did before. See them for any purpose: for lunch, for shopping, for an evening visit, go for a drive. They have suffered a deep loss. Your job is to show them, by implication, how much they still have left. Your being with them is tangible proof to them they still have resources.
8. Perform some concrete act
For example – grieving people have often lost all interest in food until a friend brings over their favourite dish and simply leaves it there for lunch. Such a concrete deed carries the immense implication that you care. We should make it our business when a friend is grieving to do at least one practical tangible act of kindness. Here are some possibilities: run errands with your car, take the children to school, bring in a meal, do the dishes, make necessary phone calls, pick up the mail, or help acknowledge cards.
9. Swing into action
Action is the symbol of living. While we perform real acts for our grieving friend, we do not wrap him or her in cotton wool and sit them on the sidelines as an observer of us living out their life for them.
By swinging into action with your friend, whether at their hobby, sport or work, you help build a bridge into the future. Perhaps it means painting the garage with them, or weeding the garden, or spending an afternoon browsing through the shops.
Someone visiting a man whose son had died, knew his hobby was restoring furniture. “Come on”, he said, “let’s go down to the basement.” They sanded a table together. Later, the man said, ”that was the first time I felt I could go on living.”
Sorrowing people tend to drop out of things. It is no disrespect to the person who has died for those who grieve to begin enjoying life again.
10. Get them out of themselves
Once you have your friend doing things for him or herself, their grief is nearly healed. Once they are doing things for others, they are healed.
Volunteer work or involvement with a community group, are ways of getting people “out of themselves” and back into active life. That is not to say that they won’t have “bad” days occasionally. But service is a great antidote for self-pity. More importantly, it helps the person find opportunity to invest themselves in others, and to find new meaning in life.
Remember, normal grief is not an illness. It is a natural and healthy response to a situation involving the loss of someone precious. By being able to care for people who are grieving, we can all make a profound and lasting contribution to their emotional health.