I recently received a phone call from the manager in a company here in Kelowna, where one of the employees had lost a sister very suddenly. The leader was concerned for the employee, and asked what more could be done to help this person, as their performance was really affected. They said that although the cost of therapy was covered, the other employees were unsure what to say to the grieving person. As I lost a parent when I was in my teens, I knew first-hand what grief was like, and what was helpful.
Listen more than you speak
Let the grieving person talk about their experiences, and their loss. Listening closely, paying attention, and being patient with that person is very helpful. When you choose to listen, you are communicating to the other person that they are top priority to you, that their feelings and thoughts are highly important. Not only do they feel valued as a result, but they are able to sort out the jumble of feelings and experiences that they are going through. Often, clients comment that what is really helpful about psychotherapy is being able to tell their whole story.
Acknowledge that they are hurting
It is very painful to lose a family member. And every loss is unique. Although I know what it is like to lose a parent, I do not know what it is like to lose a sibling in a car crash. Just acknowledge that they are hurting. Do not tell them that you know how they feel. You cannot know exactly how they feel. They had their own particular relationship with the dead person, and their experience is different from yours. However, you can clearly acknowledge that they are hurting, and that you feel sadness that they are going through such a painful event.
See tears as a marker of their love for the dead person
In our culture, people are expected to be stoic at a funeral, and not cry. They are praised for ‘being strong’ and not weeping. This seems odd. Tears show how deeply they care for the person, and how painful it is to lose them. Each person will cry or not cry according to their personality, but they should not feel ashamed of it. There is one group of people who do not cry at funerals, and they are psychopaths. They have no emotional attachment to others, and essentially do not care if someone is alive or dead. At my funeral, I hope my family members cry. I certainly would at their funerals, because they are extremely important to me. In fact, I have told my wife I expect her to fling herself on my coffin, sobbing hysterically, as her fingernails scratch the finish off the wood. I even said that if she did not, I would sit up in my coffin and expect more of a display of emotion. For some reason, she did not find this particularly funny.
Jesting aside, we need to see tears in a different way. They come forth in times of pain, and when you lose someone you love, it hurts very deeply. Look at tears as a sign of how much they care for the other person, not as something that they have to be ashamed of.
Ask what would be helpful
At times, people who are grieving want to talk about the person they lost, and their pain. At other times, they just want to play pool. Ask them what they want. Ask if they want to hang out, or to talk. When you do so, you are showing you care for that person. You are making them the priority. You cannot fix their pain, but by demonstrating that you are with them, that will give some comfort to them.
Ignore the calendar
Do not expect people to be ‘over it by now’. That is one of the most hurtful things to say to somebody. Often, it takes a year or two for people to walk through the majority of their grief. But again, each person is unique. Losing a child is extremely painful, and parents will feel the pain for many, many years. If the person committed suicide, then emotions can be far more mixed (anger, guilt, shame) than if the person died from an aneurysm. Do not hold them to a calendar. I have seen clients in psychotherapy who were still strongly mourning the loss of their father, 25 years earlier. This made more sense if you take into account that they were in an unhappy marriage, a lousy job, and that each day, they imagined what their father, who was loving and wise when he was alive, would say. As a result of working together, they were able to resolve much of their grief, and move into a new phase in their life.
In summary, you can be with the person. You can be a companion. You cannot fix them, but by listening deeply, acknowledging their hurt, honoring their tears, and asking them what would be helpful, you can ease some of their pain.