There will be many occasions in life when you will be in a position to provide support for a friend or family member who is mourning the death of a loved one. No special training is needed. You can stay on the sidelines and let someone else fill the void, or you can assist, and give strength to carry on.
Although every grief response is one of a kind, based on the nature of the relationship with the person who died and a host of other factors, here are four things you can do to help any mourner.
1. Become a committed and tireless companion. Great companions in time of loss are people who are inexhaustible listeners and won’t be intimidated by the pain being witnessed. Not an easy task, to be sure. This means realizing you can’t fix it by what you say, but you can give a feeling of hope and security by your presence alone. Being around pain is your greatest challenge and contribution.
The right people are bastions of hope for mourners who know they can be counted on. You will sense if you are the right person to be the companion, or if someone else is best suited for the job.
2. Find sound information to recommend to the mourner. Mourners and caregivers alike often need information about grief and what is normal. We live in a society that denies the inevitable and often produces poor grief models and ultimately ineffective ways of dealing with loss and change. Yet, there is an extremely wide range of normalcy in the grief process. For example, some people can’t cry but that doesn’t mean they are not deeply hurting and need support.
Consider getting information from grief counselors, clergy, support group facilitators, hospice personnel, or the vast array of resources on the internet. Double check them with others, and when appropriate, recommend them to the mourner.
3. Be someone who can say, “Keep loving.” To love and to feel loved is arguably the most powerful source of renewal and reinvestment in life after loss. Commonly forgotten as a major coping resource and provider of meaning, it takes us outside of ourselves, and leads to healing. Physician Dean Ornish put it this way, “Love promotes survival. Both nurturing and being nurtured are life affirming.” Choosing to be a more loving person is a focus that always brings reinvestment in life and adjusting to the changed conditions dictated by loss.
4. Be someone who can ask, weeks or months later, “What’s it like today?” When you receive the common response of “Okay,” immediately follow up with, “What’s it really like?” Be prepared to hear what is really happening deep inside. Since grief and adjusting to an environment without the loved one is a long term process, having someone who understands that things won’t be the same again, is of great comfort. Recognize that the mourner is developing new routines and you can help reinforce progress and the normalcy of the setbacks that occur.
At the right time, ask “What can I do to help?” which makes clear you are into being a trusted companion for the long haul. This is where you will truly be tested and can make a major contribution by consistently being there. Many support persons grow tired and gradually withdraw.
Effective support persons recognize and are willing to give much time in their roles. In this effort, they always remember that there are as many mourning styles as there are lifestyles. The mourner is in charge of how the loss will be integrated into life without the loved one. You can encourage that freedom of choice.
To summarize, mourners need tireless companions open to allowing grief to unfold in its individual way. In this vein, the support person seeks information that may help though the journey, and by their presence alone, give example of the power of love in dealing with the transitions we all must face.