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Helping Friends Who Grieve

May 5, 2008

I’ve never liked the idea of posting articles from somewhere in my blog. But I couldn’t resist from posting this article here, in my space. This is one article, which I liked very much. It taught me how to behave with people who are in grief, a nice lesson told in a wonderful way. Here goes the article:

“In 1989 our daughter Kaitlyn, 18, was the victim of what police term a “random shooting.” My husband, Don, and I were summoned to the emergency room at midnight. Kait was in a coma. She dint regain consciousness and died the next evening.

I have a few clear memories odd the 24 hours that kait clung to life, but I do remember we were not alone. One friend arrived with a bag of coins so we could make calls from local public phone. Others met our out-of-town children at the airport and drove them to the hospital. A Neighbor took care of the dog.

Until the loss of our daughter, I didn’t know how to act when confronted with tragedy. Afraid to do more harm than good, I held myself at arm’s length when friends were grieving. I sent cards and flowers, telling myself they knew I was available if they wanted me. Nobody ever called to say I was needed.

I realize now that people in crisis need others around them. It’s better to do something awkward than to do nothing- and the kindest words are often the simplest.

Here’s some advice I wish I’d been given when heartbreak was a stranger:

Don’t be afraid to intrude. This was my worst fear. Reluctant to barge in where I might not be welcome, I’d withdraw in the mistaken belief that people experiencing tragedy need privacy.

I recall the way I avoided a teaching colleague. When she was hospitalized with cancer, I made a duty visit. It was stilted and awkward. How do you converse with one so ill? It seemed callous to chat about everyday matters. I waited another week before visiting again. But I had spared only myself. This time I found her room empty – she had died.

Another cancer victim told me, “During the worst of my illness, people who visited regularly were my lifelines. They didn’t have to stay long or make conversation. Just knowing they cared enough to stop by my room kept me from feeling alone and forgotten.”

Take the initiative. Your friend may be suffering too much to know what he or she needs. The first person to arrive on our doorstep after kait died was a recent widow still adjusting to her own loss. She took one look at our faces, then loaded us into her car to shop for a cemetery plot. Other friends took over our phone and answered the door. One neighbor mowed our lawn; another put up incoming relatives. None of these people waited to be asked to help. They saw what needed to be done and did it.

Don’t say “I know how you feel.” We heard this a lot, and it didn’t go down well. “You can’t know how I feel!” I wanted to scream. “You are not kait’s mother!” Even people who had experienced similar tragedies had not lost this particular child in this particular way.

I didn’t find it helpful; however, when the mother of a girl who had committed suicide described her own slow, painful return to normal living. “At times I thought I had gone around the bend,” she confided. “I’d hear my daughter’s footsteps in the hall or her voice singing in the bathroom. One day I even fixed lunch for her. I sat at the kitchen table, eating my sandwich, pretending she was across from me eating hers. It was something I needed to keep myself sane.” I found this account reassuring when I went into my own “crazy time,” walking night after night to the phantom shriek of the telephone summoning us to the hospital. The dead girl’s mother didn’t preface her story with “I know how you feel.” She simply told me how things were for her and let me relate to them.

Don’t look for a silver lining. Efforts to minimize tragedy are not only ineffective; they deposit a truckload of guilt on the person who is suffering.

“You have other wonderful children,” one woman reminded us. “Imagine how awful it would have been if Kait had been an only child!” Another acquaintance – believe it or not, a psychologist – said, “at least you know your daughter’s struggles are over.”

Of course I was grateful for the family I still had, but that had no bearing on the fact that we’d lost Kait. Was I expected to rejoice that Kait’s “struggles” were over, when her life was just starting?

It was also hard to be told “This is god’s will.” While it is natural to want to share your faith, do so very gently – and only when your friends bring up the subject.

Write a letter of condolence. Store-brought cards don’t take the place of a personal letter, no matter how short or awkwardly worded. Every member of our family has drawn strength from the sympathy letters we received.

The most meaningless letters described happy memories. A classmate recalled Kait’s valiant efforts to water-ski. “She was tired and freezing, but she wouldn’t give up for anything.” One note came from a serviceman who’d been Kait’s pen pal. He wrote, “Your daughter was bright and funny and had such intriguing views on things. I feel sunlight has gone out of my life.” Those letters told us not only that people cared, but that Kait’s life – though short – had affected the lives of others.

Recognize that recovery takes time. For months after Kait’s death, I’d lie on my bed by the hour, unable to focus my mind. Just the shopping and housework took all the energy I could muster. Well-meaning friends asked, “when are you going back to work?” It was hard to convince them that I was too drained to be productive and that, when the time was right, I’d know it.

Be there to listen. Your presence and your willingness to listen are two most precious gifts you can offer. The people we found most comforting made no attempt to distract us from grief. Instead they encouraged Don and me to describe each excruciating detail of our nightmare experience over and over. That repetition diffused the intensity of our agony and made it possible for us to start the healing.

Working through grief is a long, slow process. It may even take years. What helps is the little things – replenishing groceries, cashing cheques, returning library books. Most of all, caring enough to help others bear the unbearable.

I’m working again, and Don and I are rebuilding our lives. We’re starting to make plans for the future. “Two steps forward,” we tell ourselves, “for every step back.” We’ve come a long way – thanks to the help of our friends.”

I know that it’s very long but it’s worth a read and a lesson to remember.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. vishnu permalink
    May 10, 2008 4:47 PM

    hi.. nice article.. worth a read.. u know.. even i dont know how to express my self when friends feel bad.. thinkin i would increase their pain, i never dare to talk.. but after this.. i feel.. one should react immediately & tell them im thr to help u.. after all.. a friend in need is a friend in deed.. good article dear.. whr did u get it??

  2. Mystery permalink
    May 10, 2008 5:33 PM

    @vishnu
    ya really good article.. same case with me thats the reason i posted it here so that others ll read it..

    its an article from readers digest…
    a very old copy of it..

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