Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Sympathy Tips

I just read this article in the Wall Street Journal regarding what to do when someone you know loses a loved one. I highly recommend reading the entire article. It explains different reactions to grieving as well as some solutions.

I identify so much with this article because of the radically different reactions I received when my dad died and also when my uncle died. A lot of people just don't know what to do or say or how to act. Before my father's death, I admit- I didn't know what to do or say either which is why I think this article is so important. Many people don't know how to react because they have never been through the grieving process.

The most important thing to remember is that the person who has lost someone needs support. They may not have the energy or capacity for it now (or ever) but it is important for them to know that you are there for them. Probably the best tip in the entire article: "Promise to be there in the coming weeks and months. And keep your promise." I reached out to only a handful of the people who offered me support, but it was most comforting to know that people were simply there for me.

After my dad passed away, a family member promised to call me every week. I was so elated to know that someone that I loved cared enough to do this, to keep tabs on me and offer such constant support. I was looking forward to those calls so much. After a couple of weeks though, this family member stopped calling. In the back of my mind, I knew that her promise was unrealistic. She had big ideas and was also overwhelmed with emotion, so I guess I wasn't surprised when she stopped calling, but it really would have been great if we talked every week, at least for a while. As my healing went on, I imagine I would have started calling her instead of her calling me. I imagined a small support system and that system disappeared. Lesson: do not make promises you can't keep.

From the article:
  • REACH OUT. But don't let email or texting take the place of an in-person visit or phone call. Remember, much of what we find comforting—tone of voice, eye contact, touch—is nonverbal.
  • LISTEN. Follow the mourner's lead. Let the person talk about what is important to him.
  • SHARE A MEMORY. For someone who is grieving, hearing about things the loved one said and did, and what they meant to others, is comforting.
  • OFFER PRACTICAL HELP. Can you assist with funeral planning? Babysitting? Mowing the lawn? Most people don't ask for help because they don't want to seem needy.
  • ASK BEFORE BRINGING A LOT OF FOOD.* What do the mourners want or need? It doesn't have to be fancy—perhaps milk, eggs or orange juice?
  • GIVE SOMETHING THAT WILL LIVE ON. Consider skipping the flowers. Perhaps share a memento, or make a charitable donation to honor the deceased.

And a few additional tips of my own:
  • Don't ignore them. Confrontation is uncomfortable (in nearly all cases) but this is an uncomfortable situation for everyone and ignoring them is not the way to show that you care.
  • Don't pressure him/her to respond to your condolences (and offers*).
  • If you don't know what to say, a simple "I'm thinking of you" or "I'm sorry for your loss" will suffice.  Avoid "preachy, presumptuous and impersonal" comments at all costs.
  • Don't use religious phrases or ideas unless you know for sure that the person who is grieving shares those ideas.
  • Keep in mind that men grieve differently than women. Men like to "do" things (my grandfather spent a lot of time filling bullet shells when my dad died) and women like to cry and/or talk.
*A friend of mine swears that just doing things without asking is the way to go as mourners rarely admit that need or want help or they may not realize it. Asking first what someone needs requires a response though, so use your best judgment. Is this the type of person who would appreciate a casserole, their lawn mowed or a walk? If so, just do it.

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