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What to Say When Someone is Grieving

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Sometimes I veer off the topic of interior design and write about things dear to my heart.  Today is one of those days.  This past week has been an unusual week of loss.  I lost an uncle who fought a courageous battle for five long months, a young family at our church lost both of their children in a car accident and one of my high school friends lost his grandchild on an innocent trip to the pool.    When sad things like these situations happen, it causes us to take pause and reaccess life.  Why do things like this happen?  Three families devasted by death.  I have had so many ask why God lets things like this happen.

The inception of this blog came from a need to focus my grief from losing a child on something positive.  It was a way for me to distract myself from sadness and focus on something that brings me good thoughts and joy.  I have always tried weave a piece of myself into the words of my blog for this reason.  I feel I owe it to my readers as well as grieving friends and family that read the blog.  You guys supported me from the very beginning.  Today I want to share some thoughts on what to say and do when someone you love has lost someone they love.

I hope you find this advice good advice, but I can only speak to my situation and how I felt.  Every situation is different, and no two people grieve the same.  I know that people want to offer comfort but unless you have lost a loved one, you don’t know what to say, so I hope this helps.

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Here are five often heard statements that should never be said to someone who has lost a loved one:

1) “Rest knowing they are in a better place”.   Reality: Yes this may be true,  but the grieving aren’t ready to hear that.  They want their loved ones with them.  The wound is too fresh to hear those words.  
2) “God has a plan and this is part of his plan”.   Reality:  Yes, God has a plan we as believers know that, but when death occurs,especially unexpected death, the state of shock is so great.  Often we are wondering how God could let something like this happen our loved one.  Hearing those words like these are like jabs to the heart.  Why us, why did this happen to our family, our world.
3) “Everything Happens for a Reason”   Reality:  Yes, it is true that things do happen for a reason, but for what reason? 
4) Time heals all things.    Reality:  Yes, it’s correct time will make things better, but there is no healing from death, only learning to leave with the reality and accepting it.
5) “Thank God you have other children” or in the death of a spouse, “Thank God you have your children”.    Reality: Yes, it is nice to have others around but no one, will every replace the hole in your heart from the loss of the person who died.  No one!
6) “He or She lived a good life.”  Reality: yes, they lived a good life, and we wish they still did.

I don’t mean to sound critical of folks trying to offer condolences, but all too often I hear these words spoken at wakes, funerals and in places where people are grieving and I wince.  I’m sure right now you are wondering what you should say and do during times of grieving if these words are right.  After all these are the words we hear most during the time of death, right?

Here are my thoughts on what to say or do for anyone grieving you want to comfort.

1) Say “I’m sorry.”  I am so sorry for your loss.  The words, “I’m sorry” said genuinely are the strongest sentiment you can offer.  Don’t underestimate the power of saying I’m sorry.    At services such as wakes or funerals, these are the best words to say. Don’t ask questions about the situation, this isn’t the time for that.  There will be many people who want to offer condolences, so just say I’m sorry.  The family will appreciate those words more than any they will hear.
2) Give them a big hug.  Everyone benefits from human touch.  When we are grieving, we need hugs more than ever.  
3) Listen, ask them if they want to talk and then just listen.  If they don’t wish to speak, honor their wishes, but do make the offer.  They will remember your kind gesture later.
4.  If you are a believer offer to pray for them and tell them you have lifted them in prayer.  Put them on prayer lists at your church, your various groups and then do pray over them.  They need your prayers.
5. Offer stories of the person they lost, if you have any to share.  Hearing stories we may not know can be so meaningful, especially funny stories or meaningful stories where our loved one did something for someone.  If you can’t share vocally for fear of getting upset, sit down and write a note sharing the stories.  Heart-felt notes are  treasured for years to come.  I still read some of the ones I received over and over again.
6.  Be there for them. Sit with them.  Yes, just offer to be there and sit with them.  You don’t have to do anything but supply companionship.  
7.  Don’t forget about them.  Once the funeral is over, and everyone goes back to life, their life is not “back to normal.”  They have to create a “new normal.”   It is often hard for them to get back to their routine because their routine brings up too many memories.  Send a random card to let them know they are in your thoughts. Pick up the phone and say hello.  If you see something that reminds you of the person, send it to them.  Sometimes those random acts of kindness are what get us over the hump of a sad day.
8.  Pay tribute to the memory of their loved one.  If there is a way to remember the person by buying a flower for the church altar for the Christmas service or donating in their name, do it.   One of the hardest, things for a parent to do is figure out how to parent a child who is no longer there.  What I learned from the late Elizabeth Edwards who wrote the book “Resilience”, a parent moves from “parenting the child to parenting the memory of the child”.   We look for ways to keep our child’s memory alive.  We don’t want them to be forgotten. 
When you take a minute to send a note on their birthday, on holidays when you know, they will be missed, acts of this type are really meaningful.   My son died on Mother’s Day weekend and to this day one of his sweet friends from college stills sends me flowers on Mother’s Day.  This year’s card included a note about how special my son was to him and the many lives he touch.  Do I expect this kind person to do this every year, no but his thoughtfulness has brought so much joy on a day that otherwise can be gloomy.  I love that he still remembers my son and me during that time. 
Other thoughts on grieving of children:
1) Do you have children who were friends or the same age of the child that they lost?  Were you or your spouse a good friend of the person who died? Possibly classmates or buddies?  Don’t guard speaking about your the deceased for fear it will upset their loved one.  Ask for  permission to continue to talk about your friend’s loved one.  If they choose not to discuss them then honor that.  If they don’t mind, then don’t sidestep mentioning a memory of the person that was special.  We want you to remember.   We are hungry for others to remember our loved ones just as we do.  Memories shared keep those we have lost which offers comfort.  Get the elephant out of the room.
I don’t profess to be an expert on the subject of grieving but having personal experience allows me to offer some insights on the subject.  I’m sure there are things I have forgotten to write and may go back and add to this post if I think of other things or if any of you offers other pieces of sage advice.  This post was written to help not step on toes.  If you have said any of the remarks mentioned above, just know the grieving understand and don’t hold malice for hearing them.  People mean the best, but unless you have lost someone, I know it is hard to know what to say, especially in the death of a child.   I hope my words help someone today.  If you have lost a child and have something to add please feel free to leave comments below.  My heart hurts for everyone grieving.  Grief is a  journey we walk alone.  We must deal with the loss of our loved one to come to a place of healing.  When we have the support of loved ones along the way, the journey is made easier.   
Words to My friends who are grieving:
I am here should you need a person who understands and can offer a listening ear.(  Please know that you will survive this great loss.  I know right now you feel as though you are in a bubble frozen in time and the world is going on like nothing happened.  In time, you will rejoin the world but with a more compassionate understanding of what it feels to lose something so special.  
Know that I am praying for each of you daily during my morning prayers.  Please know that God loves you and doesn’t want you to suffer.  He is a kind and loving God who will “walk with you through the valley of the shadow of death”, just as it says in The Lord’s Prayer.   Death on Earth means living more gloriously than ever in Eternity.  It is not death. I offer one on prayer to give you manna in the famine.
We seem to give them back to Thee, O God, who gavest them to us. As Thou didst not lose them in giving, so do we not lose them by their return. Not as the world giveth, givest Thou, O Lover of souls. What thou givest, Thou takest not away, for what is Thine is ours also if we are Thine. And Life is eternal, and love is immortal, and death is only a horizon, and the horizon is nothing, save the limit of our sight. Lift us up strong Son of God that we may see more clearly; draw us closer to Thyself that we may know ourselves to be nearer to our loved ones who are with Thee. And while Thou dost prepare a place for us, prepare for us also for that happy place, that where Thou art we may also be forevermore

–Fr. Bede Jarrett O.P.

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