About a month ago, I had just completed my research about a looming national health crisis that was going to be the focus for this column when I answered a telephone call that changed my life … for the worse.
It was my favorite cousin, the big sister I had never had when I was growing up. She was in tears as she haltingly informed me that her husband of over forty years had unexpectedly passed on.
Throughout my life, my cousin had always been steadfastly there for me. Now the tables had turned and I needed to be there for her. But I had no idea how to best support her. What should I say? How could I alleviate her pain? I honestly didn’t know what to do. I felt totally impotent.
I can’t remember what I said at the time but I suspect it was wholly inadequate. I promised to check up on her first thing in the morning. It took me awhile to collect my thoughts and I then called an associate who put me in touch with a bereavement counselor.
She helped me understand what my cousin most needed while grieving. So I’ve decided to devote this edition of FULL SPEED AHEAD to how to best support someone who is struggling with the passing of a loved one.
Grief is a painfully long process. It’s not something that you can fix but it is something that you can help to alleviate. By providing small acts of kindness and thoughtful gestures, you can create great comfort for the grieving person.
Many of us feel tongue tied or uncertain of what to do in the face of someone’s loss. First and foremost, honor the deceased's existence by saying their name. A grieving person doesn’t want to feel that their dearly departed is vanishing from everyone's memory and conversation.
In my case, talking to my cousin about her husband in name and deed was much better than saying, “I’m sorry for your loss.” Yes, it prompted tears but it also gave her respite to smile; bittersweet as it may have been.
Acknowledging that there is no quick fix while affirming your confidence that things will improve offers a much needed ray of hope. Let them know they will eventually heal their broken heart, even if a piece will forever be missing.
Most bereaved people find it difficult to ask for help. They need you to take the initiative.
After a few weeks, the calls and expressions of sympathy tend to diminish and a sense of isolation can set in. This is the time for you to reach out. Put reminders on your calendar to provide the continual support a grieving person sorely needs.
On a similar note, don’t ask if you can do anything. It makes the bereaved person feel needy and inadequate. Instead be proactive, state that you are going to provide specific help wether it’s picking up groceries, assisting with meals, or dropping by to talk.
Be sure to listen and not advise. A sympathetic ear can be a godsend.
People often work though their grief and trauma by repeatedly recounting the same story. It’s your ability to sympathetically listen and not your sage advise that they need at this point.
Most importantly, don’t be judgmental. It’s important to be flexible and open to a person’s way of grieving. Remember you can’t take the pain away, but your presence can help to lessen it.
Let your friend or family member heal at the pace and in the manner that’s right for them. Telling them that, “You should cry” or “It’s time to move on” isn’t what is needed or helpful.
People who are suffering from the loss of a loved one have experienced a tsunami like change in their emotional landscape. They are spiritually devastated. You have the ability to provide them with a much needed life line.
Be gentle, be considerate, and above all be there for them until they can walk out of the darkness back into the light of day and begin repairing their life FULL SPEED AHEAD.
Allan Goldstein is a retirement coach and Long Beach resident.