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

“A Dismal Business” – A defense of books and blogs on grief

I read an article yesterday questioning the necessity, quantity, and quality of books and blogs currently written on grief, and it keeps crossing my mind. Since I can’t quit thinking of it, I might as well say something about it.

The crux of the article was that the author felt there were too many books and blogs on grief now. (The article dated August 19, 2011 is entitled “Too Much Grief” on theguardian.co.uk website.) Her take is that grief is private and one should not write about it, at least not publicly. Keep it to yourself. As she concludes her article, she says, “Don’t give me grief.”

I couldn’t help myself. I had to write a comment. Here’s what I said:

“As a bereaved parent, I thought I would take a minute and add my comments in response to your article and the successive comments. In 2002, our son was 19 when he was broadsided by a drunk driver going more than twice the speed limit. Both he and his best friend died instantly.

In an effort to understand the grief process – and just to try to find answers to so many unanswered questions following the death of a child – I read nearly every book on grief I could get my hands on. It gave me insight into the grief process, helped me understand my reactions, and let me know I wasn’t alone. At the time, there were not a lot of books on grief (many were more clinical and scholarly in nature), and there certainly were no blogs written on the subject.

In “times past,” death was part of the cycle of life. I realize we all know it’s part of the general cycle of life, but I mean that it was more integrated into our daily fabric of life. If a loved one died, they were brought into the home for a wake or whatever. Family and friends (those who lived close by and had for a long time) came by to comfort the bereaved. The bereaved had adequate support for as long as it was needed. The bereaved wore black or an armband as an outward symbol of their grief, and it was an acknowledged and respected symbol.

The pendulum then swung over to the point where stoicism was the acceptable method of handling grief. Funerals and burials were handled by churches and cemeteries or funeral parlors. Grief was considered private; and a person who handled his or her grief privately, with strength and stoicism, was admired.

In a more mobile society, families lived father apart. Friends and acquaintances no longer knew how to respond to a grieving person, and a bereaved person sometimes had to do without adequate support. A public display of grief was no longer tolerated. Speaking of a loved one made people uncomfortable. The bereaved had to go underground.

People didn’t know how to respond to those who grieved. They would avoid them, duck down the aisle in a store, pretend they didn’t see them. Grief makes people uncomfortable, and people react poorly and without understanding to the bereaved.

In my opinion, the current number of books and blogs written on grief or memoirs about the death of a loved one is a result of the pendulum swinging back more toward a middle ground. It is a direct effort to fill the void of intolerance and lack of understanding of those who grieve. It gives a voice to the bereaved to be able to speak about their loved ones, whether in print or over the internet. It also creates a community of support, one that has been sadly missing during the “stoic” period. I, for one, applaud those who articulate their grief experiences in book or blog. (I do agree, however, that it should be well written!)

For those who agree that grieving is a “dismal business” and that grief should be handled privately and out of sight, my guess would be that you have never had a really close loved one die. Believe me, I do not wish it on anyone; but, once your precious child has died or you have lost someone very close to you, you see things very differently. Your depth of understanding and tolerance for all things grief grows exponentially.

I used to be that person who found some excuse to avoid funerals, who was uncomfortable around people whose loved one had died. I was that person who distantly observed and felt sorry for that “poor person” sadly walking through a cemetery. It was foreign to me. Now I have a whole new perspective, because that person taking flowers to her son’s grave and sadly walking through the cemetery is me.”

It’s just not fair

From my journal dated July17, 2002:

I went for a long walk with Suzanne* yesterday. She said she had wanted to get together, but decided to wait a while since it looked like we had so many people here for us right after Jason died. Maybe a lot of people thought the same thing…and yet we were almost all alone.

I’m trying to have more grace for those who are calling and are at least trying to do something now. God, give me grace!! Help me! It’s such an effort for me to “chat” and trust them that they really care. Some of them, like Suzanne, I can tell are being real about it. Some, I think, just couldn’t do anything. There are two sides to every coin. I know I only see ours. Maybe the flip side would surprise me. Maybe my side would really surprise a lot of people!

I did have a good time walking with Suzanne. She wants to walk regularly, she said, get back in shape…although she’s certainly in better shape than I am! I’m so out of shape…plus I just don’t feel very good. No energy, sore throat, my lungs hurt, pain in my chest.

We talked a bit about Jason and the accident. Suzanne thinks that Jason had done what he was supposed to do here on earth and had done it well, so God took him home. She said she finds comfort in that. She asked me if I thought the aid unit got there fast enough and if they got them to a hospital to try to save them.

I can’t think about Jason being hit like that. He physically took the whole brunt of a car going twice the speed limit. It hit squarely on the driver side door. My precious boy. It’s just not far.

I don’t know the answers to any of the “why’s.” All I have is questions…and pain…and sadness. There’s not much else to me right now.

“Everyone thinks I’m okay, but I’m not”

From my journal dated July 2, 2002:

It’s just so hard for us to come home – for Joe, Jenna and me, anyway. This house used to be a haven, a fun place where people came for parties, to watch movies, to gather. And now it’s just so blasted quiet. We try to figure out how to leave, and, once we’re out, how to delay coming back. Nobody wants to come here…not even us.

I went to help Mary with the formal pictures today. I’m so glad she called. It’s nice to have some place to go after school. I just hate coming home to an empty house. It was just nice to hang out with her, to have an activity to do while we chatted a little. She gave me a big hug.

Mary said a lot of the kids are still having such a hard time. It’s really hard for me to tell; no one really talks to me about it. I see so few of them, and those I do seem to be moving on. I know that’s not necessarily the case…maybe it’s just an appearance, a front. Yesterday Jenna said something to me along the line of “everyone thinks I’m okay, but I’m not.” Maybe she’s not the only one who feels that way.

I don’t think any of us want to deal with it…it would be easier to just sort of shoves it down or away to think of something else. Maybe that’s what some of these other kids are doing. Maybe they stay away from us because they can’t deal with it, don’t want to make us sad or something. Out of sight, out of mind? I don’t know.

Time Warp

I was rereading my journal entry from April 27, 2002 where I wrote about telling Debra* how we’d been left alone so much. Her response was that it had only been seven weeks, like that was not enough time to be as lonely as I felt. I had also written comments in other entries to the effect that it seems it was an eternity ago…and yet it seems like it was just yesterday. That got me thinking about how perception of time and future change following the death of a child. It’s like you enter a time warp.

When your child dies, it’s like your sense of progressive time is thrown way out of kilter. (A LOT of things are thrown way out of kilter…and time is one of them.) In “regular” time, one thing progresses after another. Your child is born, he learns to talk and walk, he gets an education, develops relationships, you see certain inclinations and strengths. You look behind and see what’s happened, and then look ahead at the trajectory of those things to see somewhat expected outcomes. You see trajectories for yourself, for your children, for your family. It’s logical.

The death of your child is not logical and it throws that whole trajectory system out of whack. The past is still there, but the trajectories into the future are gone. Blown up. Obliterated.

In “regular” life, you walk through one day generally (or specifically) making plans for the next day, the next month, the next year. You know that you are walking on solid ground – a life with a path that follows a trajectory into the future – and that your next step will more-than-likely be on solid ground. When your child dies, the ground just disappears and you’re left in the dark facing a huge, black chasm. You don’t know where to step next; the ground is uncertain and shaky.

Added to that is the fact that, for a bereaved parent, just getting through one moment, one hour, one day at a time takes a lot of effort. Living one day, especially early on, knowing that your child is forever gone and that you will have to learn to live without him takes an unbelievable amount of effort and energy. You have to concentrate on things that you would normally take for granted. Like breathing, putting one foot in front of the other one step at a time, trying to make even the most basic decisions. That may sound like an exaggeration, but it’s true. It takes concentrated energy to do anything and everything.

Generally, we can count on getting a certain amount of things done in an average day and plan accordingly. You know approximately what a day will hold. For a bereaved parent, that perception of time changes. An hour/day/week in a bereaved parent’s life does not equal an hour/day/week in a non-bereaved person’s life. An hour, a day can become llllooooooonnnnnnnnggggggggg, especially if the bereaved parent has little support or is left alone. A week seems like an eternity. It’s like those scenes in the movies or on TV when the film editor has cranked the speed to super sllllllllooooooowwwww mmmooooootttttttiiiiiiiiooooooon. Time drags on endlessly.

Have you ever been in a position of just sitting, waiting for someone or for something to happen? If you don’t have a book to read or something to do, it seems like time can stretch really long. You’re so glad when it ends and you can move on to something else.

For a bereaved parent, the time stretches really long, especially if there is not a strong support system…but there is no “something else” to move on to. There is no place to go to get away from the pain. It may seem to those around a bereaved parent that checking in once in a while (once a week, every couple of weeks, once a month) is support. But if that’s all there is, it may seem like it’s a little too “few and far between” to a bereaved parent.

We mostly had people who would call or visit once in a while. One gal was around more at the beginning, but then dropped off quite a bit within a couple of months. While I was thankful when someone would call or visit, it seemed like a long time in between and I felt incredibly alone in the meantime. My perception of time was not the same as others. I struggled with feeling abandoned by people I counted on to be there for us for consistent support from the beginning and, because of my personality and the fact that it seemed like it was so far between moments of caring, I ended up being very guarded with my hurting heart.

I also noticed that both Joe and I lost track of our ages. It was like time was passing by, but we were still the same age as when Jason died. I still feel like I’m that age. It’s weird. It’s like time stops…yet keeps on going. Time warp.