Often times when friends, family, and community members experience a sudden death there is a paralyzing and crippling feeling of helplessness. Though I am not a grief counselor, a ministerial priest, or a clinical psychologist, I am a former widow.
My first husband was killed tragically by a car bomb in Iraq over 9 years ago. I was left with 3 very small children, one of whom was born 2 days after his father’s death. I write this to you all from my experience and nothing more. To learn more about my journey you can visit my story here.
If you are mourning today while reading this, I understand. I have been there. Your loss is real and you are not alone.
If you are reading this because you want to help someone grieving, I hope this helps you in your mission. If you find it at all helpful, please share it with others who are looking for ways to comfort those who are grieving.
1. Know what to say. If you might be visiting a loved one who has just experienced a deep loss, or are attending services for someone you know who has died, you may very well have the opportunity to speak to the grieving family. In your attempt to offer condolences, especially for a sudden and tragic death, do guard you words lovingly. Let the Holy Spirit guide you in what you say but sometimes it helps to know what would truly comfort a grieving person. This is where I might recommend rehearsing ahead of time the exact words you’d like the grieving person to hear. It will help you to not stumble, fumble, or say something more hurtful during their time of great pain.
There are certain phrases that can haunt and confuse a grieving person, however true they may be. Try to avoid these common phrases:
“He/She is in a better place!”
“God needed them more!”
“They are happy now.”
“Heaven must have needed an angel.”
“I can’t imagine.”
Try to remember that you are there to comfort them, not to make off-handed assurances about their loved one. Yes, the grieving person may understand what you are saying, however, it doesn’t address their loss—death is really about the living, for death is final.
One of the most common phrases is, “I am so sorry for your loss.” Is there is anything I can do…?” Though better than the previous phrases it is still off the mark. Why? When you omit the name of the person who died, you omit true sympathy. Their loss is a real person, who had a real life, who had a real name. So, instead try these phrases which help you to make a real connection with the griever, which will comfort them more fully:
“We are so saddened about (fill in the person’s name) passing.”
“I am so sorry for the loss of (fill in the person’s name).”
“I can’t believe (fill in the person’s name) is gone.”
“We are praying for you during this most difficult time.”
“I hope you can take comfort knowing that (fill in the person’s name) touched my life.”
“We will never forget (him/her).”
“We are forever grateful for the time we had with (him/her).”
Lastly, when speaking to the grieving family who may not know you, introduce yourself and explain your relationship to the person who died and how he/she changed you for the better or what they meant to you.
2. Don’t avoid them. If you are afraid to go up to the person who just loss someone, take heart in knowing that it is better for you to feel afraid then to have the person feel alone. The grieving person needs you whether or not you feel that you are needed. Though the emotional injuries of the grieving person are acute, raw, and palpable, remember that your compassionate words and presence will comfort them like a soft, warm blanket during their personal storm.
*Reflection: I remember the first days and weeks after my loss, perfectly acquainted people to me, whether at the commissary or at the hospital, would avoid eye contact or turn and walk in the other direction. I felt like a leper. Conversely, within the first 2 hours of being notified, friends, acquaintances, and neighbors were on my couch just their to sit with me. Though I wasn’t close with some, they comforted me in my darkest hour. I will never forget their courage when I saw them walking up my sidewalk and knocking on the door. Who do you want to be?
3. Do show you care. In the initial days and weeks to come, do send cards and flowers, do help to make meals, pray for them daily, fast for them, and visit them if at all possible and within appropriateness. Save the real sentimental gifts for the months and anniversaries that come. This will show them you have not forgotten their loved one or what they are still going through. This is a good time to create a memory box, engrave special mementos, have a Mass said, create a scrapbook, have a blanket engraved, sew something special for the kids and babies still living, send rosaries and keepsake Bibles, or even send a personal letter describing your special relationship to the person who died. It will help the grieving person stay connected to the person they loved whose life touched so many.
4. Don’t be so quick to regard the person who died in the past tense. The initial shock of sudden death can take up to a year for loved ones to come to grip with. Taking a quick stroll down memory lane and speaking about them right away as though they have been gone for a long time can be very unsettling to the grieving person. Avoid statements like, “She used to do this.” “He was like that.” “I remember when he/she did this or that.”
For the grieving person, their loved one was just there hours before, a day before, a week before and they still cannot fathom that they won’t be coming in the door, that they won’t be at the dinner table, or at Mass with them on Sunday. So, while you might believe going down memory lane will comfort them (and it will one day) wait for the grieving person’s cue. At best don’t act like life has already moved on when the grieving person is in the deep, dark pit of despair.
5. Let them be sad! As Christians, it’s very easy to sugarcoat grief with theological rhetoric but there is a time and place to encourage true hope and that’s after the grieving person learns to cope. Think of it this way, would you tell someone who has broken their leg to get up and walk. Of course not. Pain is the body’s first reaction to injury. And so the break needs to be ambulatory first, then set up to repair itself with a cast and a good physician.
Have you ever watched the movie about St. Rita? Upon the death of her husband and children, St. Rita went through the dark night of the soul. She mourned so heavily that she wandered the streets for months weeping. She was haggard, desperate, and crazy.
Grief is no joke. Realize even the most jovial griever is probably putting on airs. A person in the early stages of grief cannot think, literally, about anything else but their loss.
Remember even Jesus mourned for his best friend Lazarus! And while hope is the tenet of our Christian faith, let time and the ultimate physician and comforter, God, move the grieving person toward his or her appropriate day of hope.
Ultimately, don’t deprive them of their sadness, in fact, encourage them to grieve. God did not give us this emotional and physical response to sadness for nothing. Let them cry and cry with them.
*This post is dedicated to the family and friends of Sarah Harkins and her 5 month old unborn child, Cecilia, who died tragically on 7.28.14 from an allergic bee sting which lead to a fatal brain aneurism.
***If you’d like to donate to the Sarah Harkins Memorial Fund please go here! They have already raised $21K in just 7 hours.