By Joan E. Markwell
Most of us have lost a close relative in our lives or know someone who has.
No? You will. Unfortunately, it happens at some point to all of us. Do not be unprepared for the occasion. Like any other life-changing event there is a right and wrong way to help those going through such a tragedy. Well-meaning people offering words of sympathy sometimes manage to do just the opposite. Do not be the one about whom the grieving person thinks, “I can’t believe you just said that to me.” Do not be the one who avoids them at the office because you simply “don’t know what to say or do.”
Be prepared to help the bereaved in a way that makes the situation more comfortable without either of you feeling awkward. This is actually a relatively easy fix. Three words come to mind: sensitive, sincere and sympathetic. When someone suffers a major loss, their whole life is turned upside down. A life with a loved one missing is hard to resume. Daily routines are disrupted. Long-term effects are sometimes insurmountable. Realizing that person is no longer there in their life is hard to come to grips with. The bereaved have a long, slow process to struggle through. They need all the support available, especially in the work place.
After all, legally only three days absence from work is allowed to put such a loss behind you. Three days to grieve, prepare for a funeral, collect your thoughts, perhaps move belongings, etc. Who in this world could bury a child, a husband, or other close relative and return to work in three days and be productive? I know my concentrating and communicating skills would be out the window. We are given six weeks or more to bond with a newborn baby, but only three days to process the loss of that same child. Not possible. One must remember that it doesn’t matter the age or the circumstances of the loss of a child, they will always be some mother’s child. And loved by her as only a mother can.
After that very early stage of grief and return to work, a lot of conversation from coworkers is hard to deal with. If you do want to come by their desk and acknowledge their loss at this point, a simple, I’m so sorry to hear about _______while mentioning the deceased person’s name will make it more personal. This is an acceptable gesture. But don’t leave it there.
As time goes on, they will need more and more support, not less and less. There are many different ways to approach the bereaved and know that you are giving support to them. But because people are creatures of habit, they keep saying the same old things over and over again. Don’t. If you never said some of them again, we (the bereaved) would be so grateful!
A few phrases to avoid are: “You look so strong.” “I won’t mention their name because it makes you cry.” “God had a plan.” “Time heals all wounds.” “Be thankful you have other children.” And on and on. A person may make one of these comments, pat the grieving person on the shoulder, and walk away as they feel better. Not us. The intent was, of course, to bring comfort to the bereaved, but unfortunately those words do not.
For example, you might say, “You look so strong.” Well, yes, we are well groomed with our makeup in place, looking fine on the outside. But on the inside, we are crumbling. We are thinking, “You don’t know what H_ _ _ I’m going through.” Grieving takes a lot of work both physically and mentally. Preparing ourselves to look normal everyday is a job in itself. One could turn this around and say, “Although you look strong on the outside, I know you are broken on the inside. I am here for you.” You are being sympathetic and allowing us to lean on you.
Another example: “Time heals all wounds.” We can’t see an end to our grief. We miss our loved one every day. Plus, this tends to make us feel guilty for still grieving. In time, the mind is covered with scar tissue and the pain lessens. But it’s never gone. Turn this around and say, “I know the healing can be a long process for you. I will be here for the long haul.”
Another example: “I won’t mention their name because it will make you cry.” NO! NO! NO! Mention their name! We want to hear their name. Our tears are tears of joy. We do not want to be the only ones remembering them. We want to know their memories are perpetuated through the minds of others. Hearing stories of our loved ones brings us more smiles and memories.
One more example: “Be thankful you have other children.” This statement brings to mind, “Am I supposed to think that they can replace the one I lost?!” Each and every child is irreplaceable to a mother. There is no choice among them. Say this instead: “I’m glad you are surrounded by family to help through you this time. I know they must give you needed support.”
The newly bereaved are in such an overly emotional state, most of the time it’s hard for them to sit through a lot of functions. Those who have lost someone can be hurt, angry, or stressed. Be a rescuer. If a grieving person looks distressed, slide up and ask if they are OK. The person will be forever grateful.
If you are not sure what to say, go for the hug. I was never a touchy, feely person, but after I lost my daughter, I will take all the hugs I can get. Sometimes no words can say a lot. Remember that the bereaved need an extra dose of compassion so that they do not travel their grief journey alone. It will be a long, long journey. Remember this. The bereaved will need a little for a short time and a lot for a long time.
Be confident and in control as you approach the bereaved. Know what you are going to say. Forget the clichés. Or change their wording to make them personal to each situation. You and the grieving will walk away knowing you have brought a moment of comfort to both of you.
About Joan E. Markwell
Joan E. Markwell, co-author of Softening the Grief: What do Say and Do to Comfort a Bereaved Mother (www.joanemarkwell.com), is a small business and real estate owner who resides in Lawrenceburg, Ky. She is a former board member of the Anderson County (Ky.) Chamber of Commerce, former board member of the Spencer County (Ky.) Tourism Board and former board member and Vice President of the Bluegrass Chapter of the National Association of Women in Construction. Markwell lost her daughter Cindy – who was a mother of two herself – to cancer in 2013.