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Helping those who are grieving


Many years ago I gave birth to a beautiful baby boy who, tragically, died soon after we had met. While many of the details of this time have faded into memory what I do remember is the palpable discomfort of dear friends and family who did their best to try and offer words and actions to help my husband and myself through this terribly difficult time. Fast forward and this past week we were privileged to be with my 90 year old mother in law when she died peacefully in her home. As my husband shared heartfelt condolence emails, calls and visits, I began to think about the role of the comforter and some good practices to consider when wanting to be supportive of someone grieving the loss of a loved one.

Because everyone responds to grief differently, there is no one answer as to how to comfort all who have suffered a loss. However, when reviewing some of the literature on grief, many experts suggest that sometimes saying nothing may be the most effective form of comfort. As Rabbi Reuven Bulka notes in his book “Turning Grief Into Gratitude,” “It is not the obligation of the consoler to offer words of comfort. The consoler’s obligation is to comfort, plain and simple. Comfort is achieved simply by being there with the mourner, even in silence.” It’s also OK to admit that sometimes they do not know what to say to help bring comfort. As well, though there may be an inclination to not appear intrusive, to ask the person if he or would want to share a story about their loved or a memory of time spent together. Psychologist Robert Neimeyer writes so poignantly, “We need to have big ears and a small mouth when with someone who is grieving.”

Although well-meaning and heartfelt, there are words of consolation that may not have the comforting impact as planned. It is suggested that visitors try to avoid cliches such telling a parent whose child had died that at least she was still young enough to have another child, that a elderly parent had lived a long life or that “it was for the best.” Therapist Jenna Baddeley writes “as well intentioned as these platitudes may be, they can be hurtful because they minimize and ignore the grievers current pain and effectively shut the griever down from further expressions of what they are feeling.” For this same reason, unless invited, best to avoid talking about shared similar losses. Also, rather then asking what can be done to help, gently offer ways that may be of benefit. For example, inquire about bringing some food, running an errand, tidying up the home or often most appreciated, just being present.

As grief expert Holly Prigerson writes: “Although extremely painful, grief is a normal process of accommodating to the new life that has to be lived in the absence of a loved one.” Though a loss is never forgotten, and some days will be harder than others, we seem to have the strength to adapt. Continued support from friends and family, and the passage of time can help ease the transition back into this new world.

For those who seem to be immobilized with grief, such as experiencing feelings of utter despair, deep sadness or a sense of being emotionally “stuck” please consider or have a friend or family member reach out to a health care professional.

Marci Vandersluis is a licensed social worker and has a master’s degree in gerontology. She is employed as a care manager assisting older adults in the community connect with needed services. Email: marcirobinvandersluis@gmail.com.



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