Four years ago, my running partner died unexpectedly after a weeklong illness. I was very close to her and her family, and helping them aided me in my own grief process. This same family lost a son-in-law suddenly a few months ago. I found myself re-living some of the same experiences and having some of the same feelings of shock and grief. Again, being able to serve was therapeutic.
Part of life is dealing with loss. The death of loved ones is difficult to deal with. No one grieves in the same way, and it's sometimes hard to know how to help those who are sad. As I've helped friends grieve, I've learned six important lessons that go beyond sending a sympathy card.
Listen and be there
Being a presence in the life of someone who has experienced loss is helpful. When my friend lost her husband and found herself a widow at age 32, she needed to process her situation through talking about it. As friends stopped by to listen, she felt uplifted and supported.
Sometimes hearing phrases like "It will get better," and "Things will be all right" is not helpful, especially if it's hard to imagine things being better. Listening and being present are often enough.
Ask, then do
Thankfully, people are often willing to help and offer assistance, but vague offers may not ever come to fruition. I've learned not to say "Let me know if I can do anything," and instead say "What can I do?" In the first few days after a death, there are many tasks to be completed, most of which are difficult. Bringing in food, arranging childcare, helping with housework, and helping the family as they grieve are all things to be done.
If you know the family or person well, you can step in and do things without being asked. For example, I heard my friend say she didn't have anything appropriate for her son to wear to the funeral, so I went and bought him some new clothes. Be careful to respect privacy and preferences of others as you help. Generally, good intentions will be appreciated.
It's been three months since my friend's husband died. In some ways, it's harder for her now than it was at the beginning. She's getting used to being a single mother and is trying to adjust her life plan. I try to take her out at least once a month on a weekend and check in with her weekly, as do many of her other friends. If you know someone who is working through loss, continue helping as you can. I anticipate helping my friend in any way I can for as long as she needs.
Life goes on and the grief lessens, but it can take time. If someone you know is moving through the stages of grief more slowly, be sensitive. Holidays, birthdays and anniversaries may be difficult for years to come. I try to follow the lead of others before bringing up subjects that may bring sadness. My running partner's husband was very closed off about discussing his wife, but was happy to chat about other things. When we had him over, we tried to keep the conversation light and interesting.
April is a terrible month for another friend of mine. He lost both of his parents in the month of April and feels their absence each year at that time. My husband and I try to remember his loss and acknowledge it and also try to distract him by planning a night out or a fun activity. Remembering what dates may be difficult and offering love and support will help ease suffering.
A wonderful way to help friends grieve is by honoring their loved ones. I hosted a walk by the river a year after my running friend's passing to honor her love of the outdoors and being healthy. About 40 people attended, and we all had a chance to honor her. Visiting graves, sharing memories and reaching out are also good ways to honor. If a family sets up a memorial fund or scholarship, consider a contribution. Here are some lessons we can learn through grieving.
Death is a part of life, but that doesn’t make dealing with it any easier. Show compassion and empathy in these ways or others to help those you know and love grieve and remember. By doing so, you’ll bring hope and healing.
Amy M. Peterson, a former high school English teacher, currently lives in Oregon with her husband and four children. She spends her days writing, reading, exercising and trying to get her family to eat more vegetables.