I really appreciate Michele Neff Hernandez, Founder of Soaring Spirits Loss Foundation, sharing her personal story and insights with us on how to help loved ones who are grieving. The Soaring Spirits website is full of useful resources, inspiration and information on Camp Widow that Michele hosts annually. You can also find Michele on facebook and twitter.
Death is an inevitable part of the circle of life. Yet the final separation of one loved one from another often leaves bystanders feeling helpless, and maybe at a loss for what to say or how to help those who are left behind. When my husband died in an accident almost five years ago, I couldn’t think of one single thing that anyone could do to ease my pain. I felt as though half my body had been ripped away without warning; leaving me in a state of shock and aching to put my arms around the man I loved. In the face of this kind of pain, what is a friend to do? How can you reach out to someone who doesn’t answer the phone? When is insisting to help overstepping a boundary? Is there any practical thing that will ease the pain of someone who is grieving the loss of a spouse, a parent, a child, a friend? Should we mention the name of the person who has died, or does that inflict additional pain? Here are a few suggestions for small kindnesses that do make a difference when reaching out to someone grieving the loss of someone they love.
Speak from your heart. Words do matter, and shared memories of a loved one are priceless. If you remember something specific about the person who has died please share your memories. Being told stories we have never heard about the loved ones we have lost is a gift that validates the impact their life had on others.
Be yourself. Speak in a way and behave in a way that is natural for you. Continue the same relationship you had before: close friend, acquaintance, friendly neighbor, or friend of a friend. Offer help only if you are able to follow through, and in a way that makes sense in your life. Can you drive the carpool? Offer to drop off a meal? Mow the lawn once a week without even knocking on the door? Take the kids for a play date for the afternoon? Small kindnesses go a long way.
Give freely. Grieving takes a lot of energy. Sometimes that means common courtesies are neglected. Don’t be offended if your card, flowers, meal, or note goes unanswered or appears to be unnoticed. It may take months or even years for a word of thanks to come your way, but know that your effort may have been just the lift your friend’s spirit needed that day.
Leave a note or leave a message. If you call to check in and the phone is not answered, leave a message. Words of encouragement from others are so valuable, even if your friend can’t respond. Stick a note in the mailbox that says I am thinking about you. All it takes to let someone know you care is a small gesture to say so.
Keep checking back. The first few months after someone dies are often filled with people willing to help, to listen, or to check in and see how you are doing. But by month six, seven, eight, the calls have dropped off and grieving people often feel isolated and depressed. Your friend may still need to express their feelings of loss months, and even years, after the death of their loved one. Just a word to say I remember, and I care may help your friend speak what is in their heart.
Wrapping your arms and heart around a grieving person is a gift that will never be forgotten. Your kind words matter, your thoughtfulness has the potential to be a light in their day, and the memories we all share about people who have gone before us cement their on-going place in our hearts and minds.