Dealing with death
Death - It's such a difficult concept for even the maturest of adults to understand. You would think with all of the death that happens in this world that we would have a better idea of how to cope with it, or even help our loved ones survive the loss of someone close to them. But we don't. So, today, I wanted to talk to you about my personal experiences and ideas for how you can support someone who recently experienced a loss.
I am touching on this topic because I went to a funeral yesterday for a 34-year-old man who left a wife and three kids behind. It was tragic to say the least. Every moment of the viewing and funeral forced memories back into my head of the time when my dad was sick and eventually died. I stood and watched as people awkwardly hugged the widow or offered her some story to try and relate to what she was going through. This entire experience reminded me that people simply do not know how to deal with death, so I thought I might use the opportunity to provide examples of things I believe could help.
I should warn you that my points are unabashedly honest. I recognize that anyone who shows up is just trying to be there for their friends, relatives or colleagues, but if we want to be effective in how we are helping, then we have to know where it is that we are falling short. Take a look at a few examples below of things I have heard people say/do while trying to support. I also provided suggested solutions for how we can help manage the grieving process. The truth is that there is nothing we can say or do to make things better, but we can make sure we are effective in how we are helping out.
"I know what you are going through."
Actually, you do not. I find that we try so hard to relate to others through our stories that we fail to realize their experiences are different. I do not care if your grandmother also had breast cancer or your grandfather also had dementia; you do not know what that person is going through, so you should not say that.
Here is why: My father died of a rare form of dementia while he was in his fifties. If your grandmother died from dementia at 93 then that is a completely different situation. While both are tragic, your grandmother lived a full life and my father left behind a child in middle school. Most likely you did not have to wipe her ass or pick her naked body up off the shower when she fell or assume any of the caregiver responsibilities that go along with it. It's not the same.
Here's what you could say instead: "My grandmother had another form of dementia and I know what kind of a toll this disease can take on a family. I recognize it isn't the same, but I do know there are many struggles along the way and I am happy to listen if you need to vent."
"Just let me know what I can do to help. I'm here for whatever you need."
You have to understand that when you say, "Just let me know what I can do to help.", this adds one more To Do to someone's long list of items they have to take care of. Now they have to figure out a way for you to help (and one that you will be comfortable with). Even though you are trying to do something nice, this can add more stress to the individual's life.
If you do continue to say, "I'm here for whatever you need", then be prepared that "whatever" gets asked of you. I can tell you from experience that I got fed up with hearing that sentence. I started telling people how they could help. I would offer up a few options: Something to do monetarily (i.e. buy a gift card to Costco), something they could do physically (take my dad for a few hours so my mom can get a break), and one other thing that we needed at that moment in time.
I would very matter-of-factly say, "Thank you for offering! We need a lot of help with yard work so if you want to come over on Saturday, we will be doing fall cleanup in my mom's yard. Or if you don't have time to help, I know she can always use a Kroger gift card." (Deer in headlights). The absolute shock that I saw on people's faces from the mere suggestion that they help (after THEY offered) proved to be quite a conundrum. I wasn't trying to be sassy - or maybe I was because I was struggling with a dying father and the realization that it truly does take a village. Either way, please do not offer your help if you are not willing to give it.
Here's what you could do instead (if you have time to physically help): Identify what it is that you are capable of helping with and just do it. For example, a widow may need her lawn mowed. Go over to her house and mow the lawn. Put up the Christmas lights. Shovel the driveway. Whatever it is, just show up, be there, help out.
Here's what you can do if you don't have a ton of time (and can financially afford it): Send a gift card to Uber Eats/Grub Hub/local restaurant so that he/she can endure one less night of cooking. If they have young children you could ask how to donate to their college fund.
Here's what you can do for a colleague: I encourage you to figure out what tasks you can take over for that individual so they do not come back to a pile of work and stress. Make sure their boss is in-the-know and that their project teammates are informed of their absence.
Here's what you could say (if you don't have time or money to offer): "I know there are no words to make this pain go away. Whenever you are ready, I would love to hear a story about your loved one. Sometimes talking about them helps to show that they are still with you in some way." Another alternative: If you happened to know the deceased, you could offer up a funny story about them and remind them that these little stories show what a great person they were and that they are still with you.
The most important thing to remember is: Don't make false promises. If you tell them you are going to come over to help wash windows, make sure you show up. They just lost a loved one, they don't need any more disappointments in their life.
It's not about you.
I can't tell you how many people I had to console at my father's funeral and tell them that everything was going to be alright. That's not ok. It's not ok to walk up to a widow and tell her you don't know how you are going to get through the passing of her husband.
Everyone has their own way of dealing with death and it is certainly ok for you to grieve. In fact, it is very much encouraged. But remember your audience when you are speaking at the viewing or funeral. Remember that the widow is doing everything she can to simply stand upright in that moment. The funeral should not be about how you are going to cope with the passing, even if it is a loved one. It's about paying your respects and being there for the immediate family members.
It's not over after eight weeks.
There is a point in time roughly six to eight weeks after someone dies where everyone forgets what you are going through. It's as if everyone expects the grieving period to be over. Let me tell you that it is not. People who experience the death of someone close to them will have their ups and downs for many months and years to come.
If the person that died left a spouse or children behind, imagine how alone they might feel once the chaos of the funeral dies out. Asking them what you can do to help throughout the funeral planning process will significantly overwhelm them. Everyone wants to help in the beginning. I encourage you to set a date on your calendar a month or two after the funeral ends to either send a gift card, help at the individual's house, or grab a coffee to check in on how they are doing. It doesn't have to cost an arm and a leg, sometimes a quality phone call can mean so much more.
I have a few friends whose fathers or mothers have also passed away. I make it a point to reach out to them throughout the year and ask them how they are holding up. I also put the anniversary of their parent's death in my calendar and set a yearly reminder so that I am reminded they might be especially struggling throughout that week/month. If they are a colleague of mine and I see that they are struggling, I tell them what I can take off their plate to help manage their stress.
I know from experience that death can be awkward to deal with, especially as an outsider looking in. We fight so hard to say the right thing that we end up saying the exact same thing as the hundreds of other people walking through the doors of the funeral. If you truly want to help, then I encourage you to keep this page somewhere for safe keeping. Every death, every relationship, every grieving process is different, and it isn’t about saying or doing the perfect thing, but rather showing up consistently for your people and helping them in their time of need.
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