How To Provide Compassion and Support Following Tragic Loss

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Can you remember the last time you went through a reception line at a wake or funeral? Did your heart beat a little faster? As you approached the grieving family, were you nervous about this encounter? Did you have a clue about what you would say and how it would be received? Well, join the human race; this is not something we wake up wanting to do on any given day. It is sad, it hurts and we are often completely at a loss on how to handle any conversation with the grieving.

To complicate things, let’s consider that the loss of a loved one is surrounded by controversy, tragedy or even stigma. What do I mean by stigma? Here are some examples: alcoholism, suicide, drugs or any addictions that can result in overdose or death, obesity, other eating disorders, mental health issues, even homelessness and violence. Death is loss. We all participate at some point in a funeral event; illness, the elderly, the infirm, but some losses today, more than ever before, can be surrounded with questions and whispers. Who can possibly know what to say to people that are experiencing such devastation that oftentimes sits under a dark cloud? If you are nervous simply approaching the reception line, imagine what the family is feeling being in the reception line.

Being a prominent family member in the grieving line for my son Drew is one of the hardest things I ever had to do. Everyone knew the cause of Drew’s death, which was suicide, and yet here we all were in this civilized dance in the form of a never-ending string of guests avoiding the obvious. The guests from my perspective had one goal – getting through it as quickly as possible. I watched people shudder and balk when they came to rest in front of me, knowing that they would rather be anywhere but there. Often what I observed was how they looked around me or past me instead of at me. They usually voiced something that sounded like it came directly from a script, repetitive and oftentimes with such speed it was practically non-comprehensible. Then they moved on, and said it again and again in the progression. I never judged this; the line kept moving, but I learned something very important. This incredible lack of connection didn’t help me at all. It didn’t give me hope or comfort; it didn’t bring me closer to possible healing. The line at the funeral home eventually ends, but the discomfort continues at the local post office, the next birthday party, the grocery store, town meeting, etc.

A funeral is not the only gathering that can bring on a verbal paralysis from one human being to another when it concerns tragic loss. Let’s consider the physician at the hospital when a loved one has succumbed to death from drugs, self-harm, violent injury or mental incapacity. Nurses, first responders such as fire and rescue, EMT’s and police are often at the scene and must encounter the family in some way with the tragedy that took place. They can often be jaded by repeat offenders, morbidity on a daily basis, exhaustive measures that fail and simply because of repetitive stress. I can safely say that my experience with the onsite investigative team at Drew’s death still cause me to shudder. I was treated akin to being a criminal.

What I came to understand is this; in spite of the mountainous helplessness that we can all feel under these circumstances, there were some humane, benevolent friends and even some people I hardly knew, that overcame their discomfort and fear, did or said something so incredibly vital to me, that they personally moved me along the healing process just by being present. They made a difference. They made an amazing impact to my soul within moments. Unless you experience this situation yourself, you cannot imagine the change you just might make in a person’s life by being genuinely engaged with them at the moment they need it most.

The following tips suggest how you can make a difference when being in the presence of a grieving person, especially when the loss is of a tragic or stigmatic nature. Not one of these tips will ever let you down, even if you don’t carry it off perfectly. The fact that you use each one with your eyes forward and say them from the heart, you will bring comfort to the individual you face.

  1. Always look the survivor directly in the eyes, no matter how hard this is for you. Everything you say from this moment on is going directly to the heart of the person you are talking to. If you look somewhere else, the survivor really won’t believe what you say.
  2. Tell the survivors that you love them, and that you loved their loved one. There is nothing more comforting to a survivor than knowing that the loved one was cherished, no matter what the cause of death. A family member wants to remember how important the life of their lost one was to others.
  3. If you don’t know what to say, tell the survivor that you are without words, but you possess honest presence and support for them no matter what. The survivor gains their strength from your honesty and directness.
  4. If speaking fails you, touch. Hold hands, hug from the heart, stand with them, stand behind them, touch shoulder to shoulder. Touch from one person to another still remains the most effective communication tool known to the human race.
  5. Remember, this is not now, or ever will be, about you; if you have history, feel the need to vent, have an axe to grind about anything, you must choose someone other than the survivor to spill any angry and hurting thoughts, as righteous as they may seem to you. And do it at another time and place. This tip has no exceptions.
  6. If the survivor wants to talk, be quiet and listen. Speak when asked to speak – your silence is not a bad thing. For the survivor, there has been a plethora of noise up until now, and their concerns or words have been lost or ignored. Never, ever interrupt if at all possible.
  7. Reflect when invited to do so. Walk down memory lane when a survivor says they are ready and wants to take you there. Don’t be the one to decide that old scenarios, events and occasions are ready to be introduced.
  8. Please don’t be curious and ask questions everyone will regret. Now re-read Number 8 at least 10 more times. Do not, under any circumstances break this tip rule. It will only have a painful and damaging outcome. AND, you can never take the words back.
  9. Accept humor from the survivor – don’t be shocked by it. Humor on the part of survivors is not a bad or irreverent response. It is very healing. And humor can be the invitation for you and everyone else to relax into what can seem endless stress. Always be appropriate with the humor. You will know when a story will bring a smile to a family member who has been so sad.
  10. Remember the survivor, long after everyone has gone home. Their pain and isolation remains, often for years. It doesn’t have to mean weekly check-ins or visits. It can simply be a card a couple of months after the loss, a bunch of flowers left on a doorstep, a casserole of their favorite food, or a message left on an answering machine. Suggest a quick lunch and make an appointment to drop in.

I have 4 female friends who I consider “life-ers”. Every single one of them taught me these 10 tips first-hand, long, long before I knew how bad I needed them. I thank them for their intuitive insight, their loving ways, and their undying devotion to our friendship. Ladies, you know who you are. I love you.

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