Chaff is the dry protective casing on grains. Separating the wheat from the chaff means to separate what is useful or valuable from what is worthless. Sometimes we need to do exactly that when dealing with grief and those who are grieving. It can be hard to know how to support a grieving relative, friend or co-worker. You may be afraid of saying the wrong thing, so you say nothing at all, which leaves the bereaved person feeling uncared for and isolated. It is also hard for the person who is grieving to communicate that he or she wants or needs support. In the beginning especially if the death was sudden and unexpected the griever is probably numb. Oftentimes, if one hasn’t experienced the death of a loved one, there are unrealistic expectations of how the grieving person should, feel, or how quickly he or she should return to the activities of daily living. I had an acquaintance say to me, “you aren’t over that yet?” What he was referring to was the death of my beloved child and it had only been a few months. This was a guy who had four healthy children at home. I wanted to punch him right in the nose.
There are many things you can do or say to help, but remember that everyone’s grief experience is different. You never grieve the same again. Each person that we lose has a cumulative effect. The recent death of my friend and former colleague Bill Strothman had a profound effect on everyone who knew him but even more so for those of us who had also lost another colleague a very short time ago. Bill’s passing was a tragic accident while Kathi’s was from a long-term illness but for those who were still grieving Kathi’s death Bill’s brought intense emotions right back to the surface.
Some of your thoughts and suggestions may be appropriate and others may not be. If you’re unsure of how to support someone who is grieving, ask him or her to tell you what if anything would help. Just stating that you care and want to help can give comfort. You might want to contact the bereaved person by telephone, sympathy card, in-person visit or by sending flowers. Attend the memorial or funeral service if you can to show the deceased loved ones that you care. Ask specifically how you can help. Don’t leave it up to the bereaved to contact you. Instead of saying, “call me if you need anything.” You might want to say, “I am here day or night if you need help or an ear to listen. I will call you in a few days to check in with you. So, think about what you need…cars washed, lawn mowed, windows cleaned, dinners made, kids picked up from school, etc.” Then, follow up. If and when he or she wants to talk about it – listen don’t talk. Don’t offer platitudes. Don’t say you understand if you have never been through it. Just be present and listen- listen-listen with compassion.
These are examples of what NOT to say:
- At least you have other children.
- He lived a good long life.
- It was God’s will.
- You can always have another baby.
- She’s in heaven now so be happy.
- He’s no longer in pain.
- Just focus on the good times.
- At least you have other children.
- Time heals all wounds.
- Count your blessings.
- You have so much to be grateful for.
- You’re lucky you had her for ___ months/years.
Cry with him or her and whatever you do let the griever say whatever and however he or she wants to without judgment. Newly bereaved people can be angry at the person who died. Let him or her vent. If the person is really angry knot up a dish towel for each of you and beat the dust out of couch cushions or bed mattresses. I did this with my son when he found out he was terminally ill and he beat up the sofa and his bed until he was exhausted but it helped him process his anger and me mine.
Don’t start talking about yours or someone else’s grief experience. Just listen. Don’t talk about the stages of grief. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote those for the dying and they have been bastardized inaccurately. And, since everyone grieves differently and the emotions go around and around – steadfast “rules” never fit and they don’t help. Don’t judge how the person is grieving. Don’t suggest that there is a time limit or a “normal” pattern to grief. There just isn’t.
Grief is definitely a process. It takes some years or the rest of a lifetime to process. Don’t cringe or try to change the subject if the griever brings up the deceased. I have found that for most people it takes an average of four months for the numbness to begin to subside and then, he or she needs support more than ever before. Sadly friends and non-immediate family members have gone on with their lives and don’t think to check-in with the griever. Please keep in contact and continue to support the bereaved. The first few years of holidays, anniversaries, and birthdays are tough. Don’t forget to mention how much you miss the deceased too. Do not think that bringing up the person will make the griever sad. He or she is already sad so it can be uplifting to hear that the deceased was loved and is still missed by others.
The first Christmas after my son died was so hard for me. Gathering all of the cousins for a group photo made me want to cry because there was an empty spot for Cory. Then, when all the gifts were being distributed to the children it was fun to see their faces and it reminded me again that Cory was missing. So, when my brother and his wife handed me a card with my son’s name on it and inside was the acknowledgement of a donation made in his name to a charity that we supported it let me know that he was not forgotten. That gesture meant so much to me. They did it again the following year. I so appreciate how thoughtful they were in memorializing Cory!
If your friend is showing signs of depression or expressing suicidal thoughts encourage him or her to get professional help immediately. But, don’t force the issue and don’t sound as if you are judging his or her behavior. Say with love and compassion that you want him or her to get some help because you are worried. Don’t go into a long laundry list of behaviors…just say you care and want to assist him or her in getting the help that is needed in order for him or her to feel better/stronger/lighter.
Forget the chaff just separate the helpful from the useless and be there for your friend/relative/colleague.