One of the blogs I follow in my professional work, griefminister.com, shared some months back a list of Eight Reasons We Don’t Help Grievers. He reflects on how his own mourning experiences taught him people we think will be there sometimes turn the other way. As we can see from this list, much of the avoidance is tied into feeling that if I don’t know, then I would rather avoid than make a mistake. His list is a lesson to realize that the goal is to support the mourner, be present and not allow one’s fears to stand in the way of giving to others.
Mourners need other people to support, comfort and encourage them as they go through grief. As a mourner myself, I remember the times I felt really alone. Unfortunately, I found that some of the people I thought would be there for me were not…for one reason or another.
There can be many reasons why those around a mourner don’t reach out to help. The reasons can include:
- Feeling uncomfortable around mourners. One of my most painful memories is of a close friend avoiding me during my early grief. I had just returned to church services a few days after the double funeral for my wife and two-year-old daughter in May 1993. As I walked down the church hallway, I saw a friend not far away. As I approached him, he saw me, then his eyes darted side to side nervously and he took off in another direction. His avoidance of me at that moment heaped more pain into my already breaking heart. I felt shunned, devastated and alone. I knew what C.S. Lewis meant in his book A Grief Observed when he wrote, “Perhaps the bereaved ought to be isolated in special settlements like lepers.”Everybody can feel uncomfortable when confronted with the harsh realities of dying, death and grief. Mourners need others to step out of their comfort zone into the world created by their loss. Remember, when you feel uncomfortable it’s not about you; it’s about the mourner and his or her needs at that time. When you enter into and are present in the painful world of the mourner, your presence, availability and support can lighten the mourner’s grief load at that moment and bring significant results.
- The fear of doing or saying the wrong thing for the mourner. The worst thing that can be done or said to a mourner is NOTHING. So don’t let your fear of causing more pain in the mourner’s life keep you from doing anything at all. The most important thing to remember is that you’re not obligated to say or do much of anything at all to provide the mourner with the support, comfort and encouragement she or he needs. In fact, the best thing you can do for the mourner is to simply be present, available and listen without judging or giving any unsolicited advice. The ministry of presence in someone else’s grief lets the mourner know that there is someone who cares and is there for him or her. Listening ears, an occasional nod, and a simple “I love you” or “I am so sad to see you hurting so much” can go a long way to make the darkest times in life seem a little more bearable.
- Not wanting to be intrusive in the mourners’ personal time. Respecting the mourner’s privacy is important, but many friends and family members use this excuse to not do anything at all…or to just cover up their fear of dealing with a potentially emotional situation. The truth is that mourners need occasional solitude but they also need others around them to form a support system to help them through the grief journey.So fight your fears and your discomfort and reach out to the mourner. Don’t be surprised, scared away or take it personally if your efforts are met with rejection or hostility. If the mourner lashes out in anger, remember she or he is not angry at you. The mourner is angry at the situation and life at that moment. Respect their space, apologize and return at a better moment to be there for the mourner.
- A lack of understanding of the grief process or experience. Often those around the mourner have no idea of what a person in grief is going through. Maybe they have never had a major loss in their lives. Maybe they are simply not very good at dealing with emotional stuff.Show the mourner that you want to help and honor their story by listening to them and what they are experiencing. You don’t have to have a Ph.D. or counseling license to help a grieving person. Mourners can teach you important life lessons about grief…especially about their grief experience. Make sure they understand that you need them to tell you what they want or need. Be present, listen and do things that will show you care for them.
- An inability to deal with the expression of emotions. Many of us find it difficult to express our emotions and to hear others express their feelings and thoughts. Again, an uncomfortable situation with a mourner is not about us, it is about them and their needs. Sometimes in life it is our turn to receive from others: sometimes it is our turn to give. Now is your turn to give back to mourners the comfort that others have given to you when you struggled in a life crisis (2 Corinthians 1:3-5).
- The friend or family member is grieving too. On occasion the people around a mourner may be grieving the same loss or another loss in their life. If that happens to you, be honest with the mourner as you spend at least some time for them. Explain to them you want to be there for them and that you will be, but sometimes it may become too painful for them to deal with. Most mourners will understand and appreciate your honesty. If you simply avoid them to avoid further pain without telling them why, you run the risk of inflicting additional pain on the mourner.
- What culture and our family has taught or not taught us about dying, death and grief. Many of us have learned from culture and our family that grief is a short process that must be gotten over quickly and should be talked about as little as possible. Therefore, we can have little tolerance when a mourner’s grief process is “too long” and all that the mourner wants to do is talk about their loss and its effects on his or her life.We can often think that if grief goes longer than “normal” there must be something seriously wrong with the mourner.The truth is that grief takes as long as it takes and has no timetable other than its own. Every grief is unique to the mourner and his or her relationship with the loved one who died. Also healing in grief involves dealing with painful emotions and thoughts needing to be expressed to others in some way. Be present, patient and understanding with the mourner, allowing them the time and space they need process, express and heal in their grief.
- A lack of empathy and/or compassion. I think that I can safely say that if you have read this far into this article, you don’t deal with a lack of empathy or an inability to be compassionate with those who are going through grief. A bit of wise advice is that if you know someone like this, be kind, courteous, empathetic, and compassionate toward them because of their situation or nature. Mourners would be wise to spend more time in places and with people that make them feel safe, supported and cared for.
Written by Larry M. Barber, LPC-S, CT author of the grief survival guide “Love Never Dies: Embracing Grief with Hope and Promise” and the Spanish version “El Amor Nunca Muere: Aceptando el Dolor con Esperanza y Promesa” available online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and http://grief-works.org/book.php . Also available for Kindle and Nook. Larry is the director of GriefWorks, a free grief support program for children and their families in Dallas TX http://grief-works.org.