10 Tips for Interacting With the Grieving

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Image of sympathy cards and books
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Three months ago, my husband died. It still seems strange to say it, and my recent dream that he had returned to us does little to help dispel the feeling. We’ve been plodding along, my boys and I, trying to make the best of our lives and have a summer that isn’t completely miserable. In fact, we’ve even had moments of actual joy, and have felt no guilt about it. I’ve turned to Facebook to help me, using the medium to share my feelings with all my friends and family members, in part so I don’t have to keep repeating myself and thus dwell in an emotion any longer than I can tolerate, and also so that I can feel the love and comfort (in the form of comments) in my own time and on my schedule.

That said, I’ve had the opportunity to interact with a lot of people these past few months, having to break the news to someone just today when they asked how my summer went. And I know I’m still emotionally pretty raw, and my interpretation of words of sympathy totally varies depending on so many circumstances that, yes, sometimes a text message or Facebook comment is the best way to interact with me.

So how’s a person to help? People have asked me how they can support me, and it’s hard to say, in part because I’m loathed to need help. But then, pushing myself to do things all on my own tends to backfire, so I’m learning to accept assistance gracefully. So, I’m certainly no authority, and can’t speak for everyone out there who has suffered a loss or is suffering, but I was asked so I’m answering.

Ten Tips for Interacting With the Grieving

  1. Keep your emotions in check. When someone informs you that their loved one has died, follow their cue and don’t let your emotional response be greater than theirs. This includes either when visiting someone or when someone calls you at your place of business to report the death. Grieve on your own time. It is not the job of the grieving to provide you comfort.
  2. Any words, hugs (if you ask first), and rote condolences are just fine. Don’t know what to say in this situation? You’re not expected to. Nobody is quizzing or judging you. My neck was sore after receiving the hugs of hundreds of well-wishers at my husband’s funeral. I appreciated those as much as the handshakes and the wordless eye contact. All of it, all the compassion headed my way: I felt it, feel it, am comforted by it. Just say something, acknowledge it, so I don’t have to feel compelled to break the news to you.
  3. Even if you can’t come visit in person, your cards and online words help, too. The beauty of cards, texts, and emails is that I can go through them on my own time, at moments when I can bear them.
  4. Specific offers to help are more likely to be accepted than general offers. I don’t always know what I need, so when I do need something, I can’t always think of who might be good at doing a particular task, and even the thought of figuring out who could help is more than I want to deal with. So either the thing goes undone or I do it. Which is fine. It’s how I’ve generally preferred to operate, anyhow. One friend texted me and asked if I needed someone to mow the lawn. I looked outside, could answer yes, and she sent her son over to do it.
  5. Don’t feel uncomfortable if I cry. I say this not because anyone has said or done anything wrong in this regard, but just to reassure you that yes, I may cry, and I may ugly cry, and it’s okay. You don’t have to say or do anything for me (except maybe offer a tissue if you have one handy). It will pass, and I’ll continue with whatever we were talking about and be grateful you waited it out.
  6. . Don’t feel bad about laughter, either. Don’t make jokes at the deceased’s expense, only joke out of love and respect, and it’s all fine. Being able to bring a smile to a grieving family, to remind them—even for a moment—that laughter is still possible, is a gift. Bring it.
  7. Flowers are depressing after a while. Maybe offer to come to dump them all on garbage day. I do appreciate the gesture, and love looking at them while they’re healthy. But watching them slowly die away sucks. It makes a mess and creates more work. I’m not trying to take down the floral industry, and there are plenty of folks out there who did not grow up with a mom who’s an avid gardener that made watering plants a chore on par with vacuuming and dusting so that as an adult, the only reason there are plants in your house is because your husband loved them and understood you would take no part in their care.
  8. Stopping by to see if I want to take a walk is always welcome, even if I say no. The offers are appreciated; just don’t be offended if I decline.
  9. Please, please, please, don’t feel guilty for your happiness. And don’t feel like a jerk for bringing up something that makes me sad. It’s bound to happen, and it’s not your fault. Everything’s got the potential to make me sad. You can’t possibly know what will or won’t. Just the fact that you’ll talk to me helps me remember that I’m not alone.
  10. Listen to the griever. Everyone grieves differently, at different times, and the only right answer is to respect that what you are offering is not what they need at that moment, and that’s okay. You may wish to visit them, but if they’re not up for visitors, then you don’t visit. And you don’t get offended that they disrespected you. Social morés ought to take a backseat. In other words, as my husband’s high school soccer coach used to say (or so I heard countless times from my husband over the years), “Don’t should on anyone.” Pretty good advice in any situation, but especially now.

I know these turned out to be kinda specific to me, and that’s why I added the disclaimer at the start. I’m not an expert, just someone who has suffered a loss and have paid close attention to my emotional needs along this new journey I find myself on. With three sons to guide through their own loss, I had no intention of wallowing in sadness or bottling up my feelings and releasing it as anger when my grief overwhelmed me. Instead, I allow myself to welcome my feelings, recognizing my needs, and feeding it whatever it needed. Which, incidentally, involved a fair bit of chocolate, just like Remus Lupin recommended.

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