By Barbara Carroll and Rebecca Bowie
Bereavement Support Group Facilitators
We live in a society that is grief phobic. We do not like to be faced with death; we would prefer to avoid it. We don’t understand the complexities of grief and, as a result, most of us do not develop skills to help us grieve the loss of our loved ones, or the skills to help others who are bereaved. When someone we know loses a loved one, we often don’t know what to do or say, how to offer comfort, or how to best support them. Our intentions are good but we are awkward. In our awkwardness, we often do and say things that are not helpful to those who grieve, and sometimes they are hurtful.
To provide some tips about how to support those who are grieving, we asked participants in the Bereavement Support Group what others did and said that had either helped them move through their grief, or been hurtful. Below are their list of Do’s and Don’ts.
1. Say “I am very sorry for your loss of your husband, mother, daughter, etc”. Just to say I am sorry seems like a platitude unless you acknowledge the specific loss.
2. Be sincere. For instance, if you ask, “How are you?” be prepared to hear the answer and to let the bereaved know you are not just wanting them to say “Fine”. Let the person know you truly want to know how it is for them right now.
3. Acknowledge the loss. Pay your respects, send a card, and go to the funeral. Let the bereaved person know you understand that their life is very different now, that losing a loved one is a big adjustment, and that the person has not only lost the deceased but also the hopes and dreams that they shared.
4. Keep in touch. Say hello to the bereaved person when you see them out on the street or in the grocery store. They do not have the plague! If you are uncomfortable asking them how they are, just say, “It’s good to see you”.
5. Phone. Group participants said they appreciated being asked “Would you like me to call you in a couple of weeks?” They appreciated people who said “I’m only a phone call away” but only if the offer was sincere. They also appreciated short phone calls to see how they were doing or just to say “I want you to know I’m thinking of you”.
6. Let the bereaved person know it is OK to talk about their loss whenever they want.
7. Offer a hug if it looks like a bad day.
8. Use touch – a hand on an arm or a shoulder can be very comforting.
9. Continue to invite the bereaved to social events. They will decline if they are uncomfortable.
10. Talk about the deceased. Mention his/her name and share memories. It’s not upsetting, it’s comforting.
1. Abandon the bereaved person. Bereaved people are acutely sensitive to those who dodge into the next aisle in the grocery store or cross the road rather than say hello, and to being excluded from social gatherings to which they would normally have been invited.
2. Make assumptions about what the bereaved need. Ask them.
3. Don’t say, “I know how you feel”. You don’t, you just know how you felt when you had a loss.
4. Don’t ask, “What happened?” unless you know the bereaved person well. Some grievers like to repeat the story many times, others would like to choose whether and to whom they disclose details.
5. Don’t make comments that minimize or trivialize the loss. Examples from our group members include: “He/she is in a better place”, “It’s a blessing they are no longer suffering”, “Life goes on”, or “You need to be strong for others”. The implication is that the bereaved person does not have the right to be grief stricken.
6. Don’t ask about future life plans such as “Do you have a new friend yet?” or “Are you going to sell your house now?”
7. Don’t make comments about how the bereaved should be feeling, or how they should be progressing through their grief. Examples are: “Pull your socks up, get on”, “You’re over it now, aren’t you?”, “The first year is tough (implying it must be easy after that)”, “Get over it”, “You are wallowing in it, stop feeling sorry for yourself”, or even “You are moving too fast”.
8. If the bereaved is a family member with whom you have been in conflict in the past, leave the conflict behind and show support.
9. Don’t say “Have a nice day”!
10. Don’t go to the griever with your problems. They don’t have the emotional energy.
11. Don’t say “I am there for you” and then be busy every time the bereaved person reaches out.
There are many more examples of what to do and not do when someone you know has lost a loved one. What the examples above show is that it is not difficult to show support for a bereaved person. You can do it in small ways by sending a card; by phoning to say you are thinking of them; by acknowledging that they have had a loss and that it is hard for them; by mentioning their loved one in conversation; by offering a hug; and by allowing them to cry. You will do more than this for people you know well, but even one of these small acts is helpful.