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Finding a way to help someone who is grieving

January 3, 2009

An unpopular topic in this life is death. No one wants to address it, think about it, nor plan for it. However, it is one of the two things that is certain in life, and we've all heard the "death and taxes" cliche.

But a perplexing circumstance you may find yourself in is: "How do I help a grieving person or family?" This is one I address on a daily basis due to my occupation, but this is not something that comes naturally to any of us. We have lost many precious folks over the past year and this weighs heavy on our hearts: How do we help their loved ones?

When I was a young widow, my college did a play the summer before my husband died. They repeated it after his death because it was so timely. Though it ripped my heart out at the time, it helped a college of about 4,000-5,000 students know how to help me - and help me they did. The comfort that my precious friends brought to me was so therapeutic and was used to bring forth healing in my life.

The play was about a young woman who was widowed instantly. Those around her came quoting Bible verses and told her to "get on with her life." This, of course, was like pouring salt into her open and gaping wounds.

Then the play moved to caring people just spending time with her. A friend would call and take her shopping. Another friend would just hold her while she cried. Others brought meals and helped in practical ways. Many offered practical help with little to no advice over the next couple of years.

That play made the difference in a university full of students knowing "how" to help myself and my baby.

1. Be there. Though that seems easy enough, it is the one most important element in helping a grieving family. I have found that taking cues from them is the best way. If I visit someone who has lost a loved one, I let them lead me. If they want to talk about their loved one, they talk and I listen.

Many times we are at a loss for words. That's because sometimes there are no real words. We can tell them "we care," "we are here," but we cannot fix their grief. But simply "being there" at the memorial/funeral means more than words can express.

2. Sympathy cards are an old-fashioned, yet excellent, way to express care.

3. Remembering their loved one's birthday, the couple's anniversary, and the anniversary of the death of the loved one can be a comfort to the grieving by sending a card, making a call or offering a visit or meal.

4. Allow the person to talk. Just listening is a great gift.

5. Say, "What can I do?" instead of "Call me if you need anything." Though the latter is a kind gesture, the chances of the person actually calling you is slim to none. Think of a practical way to help and make the offer. Ideas vary according to the individual. A widow might appreciate her yard mowed, leaves raked or gutters cleaned out. A widower might appreciate a meal. A young person might appreciate being taken to a movie. Getting away from the grief gives a short escape from familiar surroundings that often brings pain. An invitation out is usually an excellent idea - think of the individual and prayfully find a way to help.

These are only a few ways to encourage a grieving individual during an extremely difficult time. It is important to remember, too, that every person is different and what helps one person may not help another. Being sensitive to each individual is the key to walking alongside someone who is hurting.

(Kimberly Short Wolfe, MA, is the bereavement coordinator/grief counselor for Mountain Hospice and holds a master's degree in counseling from Liberty University.)



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