Helping the Grieving

In January 2003, the son of a family in our homeschool group was hit and killed by a train. In an effort to encourage support for the family, I wrote the following article for publication in the homeschool newsletter and for copies to be made available at homeschool gatherings [edited slightly for clarification]:

Helping the Grieving

Saturday, March 2, 2002, was like any other Saturday – running errands, cleaning the house, doing homework, and preparing for the upcoming week. Jason (19) and Jenna (17) picked up a friend, Alina Christianson, to go get a coffee at Starbucks. They then came back to our home to watch a movie. No one could have convinced me that by Sunday our lives would never be the same.

A little after 1 a.m. on Sunday morning, as he took Alina home, the car Jason was driving was broadsided by another car. The young man driving the other car had been partying and was going more than twice the speed limit. He hit Jason’s car right on the driver’s side door. Both Jason and Alina died instantly.

Our wonderful son – intelligent, gentle, funny, Godly young man, best friend to his sister, leader among his peers – was gone in an instant. His hopes, dreams, future, graduation from college, possibilities for marriage and children all died with him.

The thing that I’ve observed personally, along with recent reading I’ve done on the subject of grief, is that most people are not sure what to do to help a grieving family. Sometimes the grieving family isn’t sure what to do to help themselves or what they need! It’s not typically a subject where people have received instruction beforehand. It’s not a subject people typically tend to read about “just because.” When the occasion arises, most people don’t have the time to read an entire book on the subject. Because of lack of instruction or understanding, sometimes help is poorly given – or not given at all.

As one who is “on the other side of the fence,” I thought it might be helpful if I made some suggestions for those who wonder what to do to help. I realize it seems like a tricky thing to figure out what to do or say, and there are no formulas; but maybe these guidelines will help. They are written from my perspective of losing a child in an automobile accident, but can apply to any grieving person.

  1. Be there. Support is crucial. “Being there” can mean just keeping someone company, watching a movie together, going for a walk, doing a chore. Don’t necessarily expect to sit and visit. The griever may or may not feel like talking. I sat like a zombie for a long time and just didn’t have the energy to carry on coherent conversations. I have found, from research contained in books I’ve read and from my own personal observation, that grievers tend to fall into two categories – those who feel tremendously supported and those who feel tremendously abandoned. Although it is never easy to lose a child, those who have adequate support “recover” (for loss of a better term) more quickly than those who don’t. Those who feel abandoned feel like they have support for about a week and a half, and then nearly everybody disappears.
  2. Do something. Bringing a meal is a good thing, but it’s only a start. Anyone, even a stranger to the family, can do that. If you know the family at all beyond just an acquaintance relationship, look for any practical help you can be – folding clothes, cleaning bathrooms, yard work. Be gentle, but tune into the daily responsibilities or necessary jobs that the family has no energy to do. Don’t say, “Call me if I can do anything.” It’s nearly impossible to make any calls at all for a long time. Be specific. “Do you need help with ______?” or “What is something I can do that will be of help to you?” If the griever responds to your offer, be sensitive to the fact that asking for help is hard, and he or she probably needs your help right away. Don’t offer something if you don’t mean it. That’s worse than doing nothing. You may have thrown a small lifeline to the griever, only to pull it away. Be creative and look beyond the basics. For example, put together a memory book. Think about how the griever would typically show caring, loving or serving (as in Gary Chapman’s book The Five Love Languages). The way a person shows love is the way he or she would most appreciate having loved shown. Also, remember that the family may be under a financial strain on top of everything else they are dealing with. Burial and cemetery costs are very expensive, so some monetary contribution may help. It doesn’t have to be money, though; sometimes people feel awkward concerning money. Even a weekend away, a gift card, a day trip, tickets to a show or something else may be nice treat.
  3. Perception of time is not the same. It may have been one day, one week, or one month to you since you called or stopped by, but it may have seemed like an eternity to the grieving family. To us, weekends used to represent relaxing family time, a houseful of teenagers hanging out, or some fun activity with any number of people. After the accident, weekends were horrendous – long hours to try to figure out how to fill, a house that shrieked its silence. Sunday was no longer a joyous family day when we went to church together, out to lunch or to a movie. It also represented the day of the week Jason died.
  4. Don’t make the assumption that someone else is doing the job. That may not be true. A large turnout at the funeral or memorial service does not equate to support in the trenches. We are the hands and feet of God in this world; there is something you probably should be doing. The Word says, “God demonstrates His own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom. 5:8 NIV) To “demonstrate” means to show clearly, to make clearly evident. John 15:12 (NIV) says, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.” The line of logic is clear between these two verses. God loves us and did something to prove it; we are commanded to do the same. If you demonstrate something, you don’t just say something. You do something. Telling the grieving family that you love them and are praying for them (as long as you really are) is great. Putting action to your words/faith is even better. The “problem” with the death of a child is that it calls into question the goodness of God. Why didn’t God protect that child? It’s easier to pretend it never happened. Avoid. Out of sight, out of mind. The flaw in this behavior is that it’s never “out of sight” for the grieving family. As a matter of fact, it’s in our faces all the time. It’s in every nook and cranny, every event and holiday, every minute of every day forever. Pretending the death never happened or never talking about the child may be interpreted as lack of caring. Write a note, make a call, stop by, tell your favorite memory, remember birthdays, remember death anniversaries. It may not be someone else’s job. Maybe it’s your job to do something.
  5. Assumption, Part 2. Don’t assume that the family has each other to help or “be there” for each other. That’s like the drowning saving the drowning – everybody goes down. I’ve had people say to me, “It’s a good thing you and the Christianson’s (Alina’s family) have each other.” The same principle applies. It’s too hard. We’ve all been trying to keep our heads above water. Assuming that extended family is a support may not be true, either. There may be no local family or the extended family may be incapacitated with grief, too.
  6. Be consistent. Grieving is a long walk. It’s not like a wound to your physical body that heals over time. It’s not like starting at the bottom of a hill and climbing steadily upward. It’s up and down. It’s backward and forward. It takes a lot of energy, depleting all reserves. It honestly takes more than one person to be a support. We all have busy lives, but consistent support pays off. If you look at the story of the Israelites fighting the Amalekites in Ex. 17:8-13, you will notice something interesting – a lesson that could easily apply to support in grief. As the Israelites fought, Moses stood on a hill with the staff of God in his hands. As long as he had his hands lifted, the Israelites won. When Moses’s hands grew tired so that he could no longer keep them lifted, the Amalekites started winning. Aaron and Hur came to his rescue. They got a rock for Moses to sit on, and one of them stood on either side of Moses. They held his hands up and steady until the battle was done. They came alongside him to support him when he needed it most. They stayed with him. Personally, it’s hard for me to feel like someone who calls once every few months to “see how I am” is really a support. I am a guarded person, anyway. To bare my broken heart to someone requires a lot of trust in that relationship, a consistent “being there.” Don’t misunderstand me – by consistent, I don’t mean to the point of neglecting your own family or responsibilities. Just steady, ongoing.
  7. Say something. Don’t avoid us. Grieving does not make us blind or stupid. It may actually cause hypersensitivity because hearts and emotions are so raw. We do notice when someone pretends he or she doesn’t know us or didn’t see us. And it hurts. They’re called secondary wounds. We have unwittingly been made victims of a terrible tragedy. We did nothing to cause it. It’s not contagious. Don’t cause further hurt by pretending you don’t see us. The flip side to this, of course, is to put your brain in gear before you speak. Probably the biggest mistake people make is to say they know how the griever feels…or compare it to the death of their a relative or pet. Because every person is unique, no one grieves the same. Another thing to avoid is making the griever feel like you know when it’s time to move on. If the griever didn’t ask for your opinion, it’s best to keep it to yourself. It helps to have some empathy in the situation. How long would it take you to “get over” the death of a child? Just say you care.
  8. Be sensitive – but not too sensitive. That sounds contradictory, but the “bull in the china shop” mentality doesn’t work. Don’t come marching in with your own agenda. You may think you have a great idea and just want to do it right then! But don’t mow over the griever in your enthusiasm to do something you think would help. Do something, but be gentle. Take time early on to listen, notice, observe, interact. The time to do something or say something is right away when the need is so great. Later may be too late. As time goes by, it gets harder and more awkward to do or say something. On the other hand, don’t be offended. If something you would like to do seems not to be readily accepted, try again another time or try something else. Don’t quit trying, just try again later. Be open. No two people grieve the same or have the same needs. It’s okay to say, “I’d like to help and was thinking about doing _________. Is that okay or would something else (or another time) be better?” Or “I’d like to stop by to see you or to help. You don’t entertain me, and feel free to tell me if you’d like me to go.” Don’t be offended if we don’t act or react the way we used to. We are no longer the same person we were. We don’t mean to be rude. We may have just been having a particularly hard day. Grief is exhausting on every level you could possibly imagine.
  9. Don’t forget the siblings. Encourage your children to include the siblings in “regular” things they used to do. Children and young adults don’t like to be treated differently and may act as if everything’s fine (emphasis on the word ACT). They need break from the grief, though, and hanging out with friends doing normal activities is a good thing. The best way to encourage your children is by your own example – by doing something yourself, by including the siblings in what you do, by encouraging your children to include the sibling.
  10. Further reading: When There Are No Words by Charlie Walton; How Can I Help by June Cerza Kolf; After the Death of a Child by Ann K. Finkbeiner; When the Bough Breaks by Judith R. Bernstein; The Compassionate Friends website.

I could probably illustrate a few more points, such as “Motives matter (don’t make us a project); “Even small kindnesses count” or “Don’t worry that your crying will make us sad; we’re sad anyway.” But, suffice it to say, I understand it’s difficult to know what to do or say when someone’s loved one dies, particularly when it’s a child. It’s uncharted territory for many people – even for the grieving family – and it makes things awkward and uncomfortable. I do encourage those around the grieving family to step outside their comfort zone, though. Support helps, encourages, and comforts. Lake of support creates the exact opposite.

© 2011 Rebecca R. Carney

The Christmas Luncheon

From my journal dated December 14, 2002:

I went to Debra’s* Christmas luncheon today. She had called a few days ago to invite me. I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to go. I didn’t want to be a wet blanket on a joyous occasion. Doing “Christmas stuff” has been so hard for me this year; it just makes me so sad. When I voiced my concerns, Debra told me that so many others attending were going through some really hard times. She kept emphasizing that to me – the “really hard times” that everyone was having. It seemed as if she was trying to make sure I knew that other people are in the same boat, that “it’s tough all over,” or something like that.

I couldn’t help but wonder whether any of those “really hard times” included the death of a child. Lord, help me, but I wanted to shout at her: “Have any of them had a child die?? No??!! Then don’t talk to me about really hard times!!” I know that just sounds so selfish. I know other people have things going on in their lives, too.

I decided to shape up my attitude and go. Mostly, I just sat in the corner…not much to say. I just felt like I was on the outside, looking in. Observing. My heart just wasn’t in it. No one was really very comfortable around me, and it was kind of awkward. Oh, well. I’ve never really been much of a small-talker. Now it’s next to impossible for me to sit and chit-chat. The conversation mostly just went around me, anyway.

Everyone talked about their kids. Debra’s daughter is dating a great guy; Margo’s son just got married and daughter is engaged; Kathy’s son is bringing home his girlfriend for Christmas, and they’re so excited to meet her; this great event; that great event. What am I supposed to talk about? Eric, who is really struggling right now, very stressed out [by many difficult issues], weight down below 120 pounds (for a guy almost 6 feet tall)? Jenna, who I’m so worried about, who is dealing with so much stuff, who is so lonely and really struggling? Joe and me? Well, it’s not been a very good year.

Joe and I had arranged for him to call me about 3:00 as an out, if I wanted or needed one. I did feel like a wet blanket. It seemed like people were relieved when I left. I should have stayed home. I really tried, but I’m having a hard time feeling the Christmas spirit this year.

Vulnerable

From my journal dated July 8, 2002:

Have been going through yearbooks and photo albums lately. It seems like all of those good times are long gone. Jenna’s 18th birthday is coming up; Jason’s birthday two weeks after hers. I know she misses him so much. They’ve been best friends their whole lives…always there for each other.

I don’t know what to do to help my precious girl. Maybe it’s not up to me to “rescue” her. I just hate to see her hurting…and being hurt by other people…left so alone, just like Joe and I are. It’s not fair! I’d take all her pain if I could.

The Formal – I hope you dance

From my journal dated May 25, 2002:

Jenna and Joe

Jenna’s high school formal was last night, her last as a senior. We bought a beautiful pink dress when we were in Oklahoma. She made an appointment to get her hair done today, and it turned out so beautifully. She looked like an absolute princess!

She had petitioned the homeschool board to bring an outside date. She was so concerned that no one would talk to her again…like the way they ignored her the night of the graduation meeting. After some debate, the board agreed, and she asked Jason’s good friend, Justin, to go with her. It’s a good thing she brought Justin, because it was more-or-less like she thought…not many of her classmates even talked to her once she got there and only one other guy besides Justin asked her to dance. It sounded like she had a good time, though.

I’m so proud of her. I know it wasn’t an easy thing to do. She realized that this was an event that was an important one in her high school experience – one that had the potential to be awkward and uncomfortable; one that could be disastrous for her. She took steps to do whatever she could to do make it a positive experience for herself. She took the initiative to petition the board for a waiver of their rule so she could bring an outside date, and clearly articulated her concerns from her perspective even though there was initial opposition. She asked Kari [Alina’s sister] and Elizabeth to come over and get ready with her, to go get their hair done together.  Such a mature way to respond…way beyond her 17 years.

Oh, my precious boy

From my journal dated May 5, 2002:

Oh, my precious boy,

Joe, Jason and Jenna

It seems like you should walk in the house any minute. I miss you so much! We’re just not the same without you.

We went to Jared’s Spring concert today, and it just seemed like you should be there, too, cheering him on. You should have been there talking to him after the concert congratulating him on a job well done, going to dinner with us. You should be doing all those things with us.

It just doesn’t seem real. I look at pictures, and your love and life look back at me. So full of love and life…you just shouldn’t be gone.

I still look down the driveway every day to see if you’re home, if your car is sitting there. It’s automatic…you’re supposed to be coming home. It’s so empty without you..and it’s going to feel that way for a very long time.

I was in the grocery store yesterday – whenever I’m shopping I subconsciously think of what I need to get for my family. And, as I passed by the apples, my very first thought was whether I needed to get more apples for you. I had to just stand there and concentrate on not falling apart on the spot. Such a small thing…such a big hurt.

Jenna doesn’t want to go to church with us any more. She says it’s too painful to go there – it’s where we always went together…and it’s where your memorial service was. Sunday was always our family time – church together, out to dinner, enjoying each other’s company, doing something fun. I understand how hard it is for her.

Going to church is so hard for me, too. Every time I walk into the sanctuary, I look up at the big screen and envision your picture from the memorial service there. I hear people joyously singing and clapping…and it feels like another world to me. I picture you the Sunday before the accident, singing with your hands lifted to God. But you’re not here any more.

How I wish you were here!! My heart cries out for you to be here. We miss you so.

I love you with my whole heart. My precious boy; my beautiful, handsome boy. Beautiful – inside and out. Beautiful blue eyes. Great hugs.

You deserve to have a life.

How can you be gone? I just can’t comprehend it.

Graduation preparations

From my journal dated April 9, 2002:

Tonight was a planning meeting for Jenna’s graduating class…planning the graduation ceremony, Grad Night Out. I went to the parent meeting, and Jenna went to the student meeting.

I had to look all over for Jenna afterward. She had gone upstairs…didn’t sit in on the student meeting at all. When she walked in the room, absolutely no one said anything to her. Nothing. No hello. No small talk. No hugs. No nothing. Not even the normally really friendly kids. It was like she wasn’t even there. Invisible.

It was so hard for her just to go to the meeting…and then no one even talked to her. She was so upset and hurt. Can’t say as I blame her. Wow! She is so alone…only 17, and so alone. It’s such a tough, tough place to be.