If you are expecting a bullet point presentation of “Ten Ways to Help Someone Grieve” then this is not your article. As a matter of fact I have already looked for that sort of information. It wasn’t very helpful. It has been my experience that you really don’t know what grief will look like, how to help, what to say, what not to say, until you are in the situation. The grief response is as unique as the person going through it. Earlier this week I went to a funeral. A good friend of mine lost her father. As strange as this may seem at my age, 47, I have not been to a whole lot of funerals. I felt inept with my lack of experience and understanding of the rituals and religious practices which are associated with death. So I called upon friends to help me know what I might expect and how to help.
Would there be a viewing? An open casket? A wake? A mass? A burial? What do I wear to the funeral? Do I send flowers? Give to charity? Send a card? Should I bring a meal? Which ceremonies are most important to attend? Do I call? Do I wait? My anxiety and obsession over doing the right thing detracted from connecting with my friend during her time of need.
My first experience with death was over four decades ago when I lost my father when I was four. I was not allowed to go to his funeral. So in my young mind he was there and then he was gone. I was not privy to those in-between moments between life and death. I never got to visit him in the hospital where he died. My mother, in her protection of me, did not grant me any closure or a goodbye. My mother did not use the word death to describe what had happened to my father. Instead she told me that he was sleeping and could not wake up. After this I feared sleep and to this day a part of me still does. It is not surprising that death was and still is a mystery to me.
I was thinking of my father as I entered the church to see my friend and her family. Was this ceremony something I would have understood as a young child? I also felt a growing wariness that I would say the wrong thing to my friend or her family. My social anxiety causes me to doubt my abilities especially in social situations. I decided to just say whatever was in my heart.
In the front room of the chapel, family and friends were gathered. I approached one younger family member and said, “I am so sorry.” The response I received was unexpected. “Why are you sorry? It wasn’t your fault” and then she quickly walked away. I sensed pain in her curt response. I am sure she probably heard the same words of sympathy a dozen or more times already. It was then that I realized that maybe there is never any “right” thing to say after a loss. But it is still important to try anyway.
I did get to speak with my friend and give her a long hug. She seemed to really appreciate that I came. I don’t know how people do it when they experience a loss and then have to get dressed up and be social to boot. I asked her, “What can I do for you friend?” And she whispered in my ear, “Just be here for me.” I felt comfort in her words that this was something I could do. I could simply be there for her in whatever capacity she needed. To listen. To support. To love. These rituals and services are a way to put order to the grieving process and promote closure. But perhaps more importantly they provide a way to bring people together for support.