Doís & Doníts for the Bereaved and Their Well-Meaning Friends | Print |  E-mail
Monday, 27 January 2014
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For me personally, this past week has seen the death of three close friends Ė two expected and one a complete surprise.

All of this reminded me that January is a month that seems to appeal to the Grim Reaper Ė at least in colder climes, it does. 

So I guess itís once again time to post these tips. Some are for people who are grieving.  Others are for friends, family and even random acquaintances.

So here goes:

If youíre grieving:

  • Take care of your energy. Rest. Donít overdo. Youíll be more tired and more vulnerable to illness during this time if you donít. So pick and choose priorities, and treat yourself gently and well.

  • Pay attention to what you feel like doing and what you donít feel like doing, and, if itís not too outrageous or expensive, follow suit.

  • Donít be afraid of your sadness. It wonít kill you. Itís just a feeling, after all, and youíll feel better and more energized for letting it move through you. Besides, you will use up tons of energy avoiding it, and it will catch up to you and bite you on the butt anyway. In the beginning it will come and go in waves, and, just like labor contractions, thereís relief in the in-between times. Later on it will be more like a flavoring that seeps into the day. This softens over time.

  • Be patient.  This takes longer than most of us think.  Trust that people who think you should be over it already are clueless.

Read More Do's & Don'ts

  • Avoid annoying people. Theyíll be even more annoying now.

  • Expect poor sleep and agitation for at least several months, and possibly even a couple of years, due to elevated levels of stress hormones (this is normal); then a return to more normal sleep patterns, but an upsurge in sadness and greater recognition of loss.

  • Donít make any big decisions right away, unless you have to. Let things sift and sort. Otherwise, you could do something really dumb, like sell your house before youíre ready, or marry a jerk so you wonít have to be alone. Slow and easy is a good rule of thumb.

  • Maintain some structure, whether itís going to the gym, showing up to work, seeing good friends for lunch, or volunteering at church. The structure will carry you through the times you'd just as soon stay under the covers and suck your thumb.

  • Tell people what you need - people who are capable of delivering, that is. The corollary to this is obvious: avoid self-centered or demanding people. Lord knows, theyíll keep for later.

  • Set good boundaries. Well-meaning people will be offering unsolicited advice, some of it quite bad; or theyíll be unwittingly patronizing; or theyíll try to get you to do heinous things they think are good for you. Be clear and firm with them, even if you donít feel like it. This will keep you from biting their heads off later on, when youíve REALLY had it.

  • Take care and pay attention, because youíll be preoccupied and foggy at times. So watch your driving, double-check the subtraction in your check book, and keep an eye on those stair treads.

  • Experiment with what youíre up for. Donít be rigid in your assumptions. After all, this is a time that will invite you to change and grow, whether you like it or not. Might as well change and grow. If you can, do new, interesting things, return to favorite old things, and meet good, new people.

  • Experiment with your autonomy. Use this time to figure out what you want, without this loved one to consult or consider. You might be surprised at what you discover about yourself, if you keep an open mind.

  • Projection is everywhere.  If people avoid or devalue you because of your loss, thatís information about them, not you.

  • Help somebody else.  Itís a wonderful distraction from your own suffering.

And if youíre friends or family:

  • Remember that just expressing your concern and condolences, sincerely but without slathering on your own heavy emotional overlay, is plenty. You donít want to be demanding anything back. And nobody expects you to make the pain go away.  Thatís not your job.

  • Ask what you can do. And only offer to do things that you can really follow up on. This is not a good time for polite insincerity. (Is there ever?)

  • Try not to offer something that you know the person wonít want or need. That will only make him or her feel more isolated, misunderstood and disconnected.

  • Be respectful of boundaries. Don't ambush a mourner at work or at the gym, clutching his hand with both of yours, looking deeply into his eyes and oozing sympathy. Heís trying to maintain composure and focus, and the last thing he needs is a spontaneous Grief Fest initiated by you. (Close friends rarely do this Ė itís usually a random acquaintance who oversteps in this way.)

  • Leave messages - voicemail or email - or send a thoughtful little gift, showing that youíre thinking about the person, and asking nothing in return. Itís really nice to make it clear that no response is needed or expected.

  • Donít make demands; and donít expect a normally good-natured, generous person to be their good-natured, generous selves for several months - maybe even a year or two.

  • Expect more irritation and sensitivity from your friend than usual and make allowances.

  • This is not a time to worry about where you stand in the hierarchy of closest and best-est friends. Itís natural to have hurt feelings when youíve been overlooked or slighted in some usually inadvertent way.  Just donít lay it on the mourner.

  • Donít go on and on about how devastated, upset and anguished you are over this death or loss. Compared to the mournerís grief, itís a drop in the ocean, and sheís hard pressed to care. So put a lid on it.

  • Pay attention to nonverbal cues. Watch for glazed-over eyes and fidgeting, and at the first signs of either, stop doing whatever youíre doing and regroup by changing the subject or going away.

  • Avoid clichťs like ĒAt Least He's Not in Pain NowĒ or, ĒGod Only Gives Us What We Can BearĒ.  Most people find these comments insufferable, designed to make the talker feel better, not the listener.

  • Donít expect the person to get over this in a few months. Not gonna happen. This is a process that extends for years, not months.

  • Humor, a juicy piece of community news, or a genuine request for advice in her area of expertise can be a welcome distraction and a lovely, if temporary, return to normalcy for your grieving friend.

  • Mostly, itís all about being watchful, patient, respectful and sensitive; putting aside your needs for the other personís; talking less and listening more. Yes, I know - so what else is new?

I hope some of this is useful.  

All best and wishing you well,

 



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Comments (10)Add Comment
...
written by Dr Meredith Murray, January 27, 2014
Ruth, So sorry to read about your friends' passing. What a blow! Your friends are worthy of your grief. You are not alone. Time is a great healer. I was just checking in to see if you had any more recordings. Your voice has been so soothing to me and has enabled me to sleep when I have been ill. I Took 18 months to get my life back after surgery and was just enjoying tai chi, cycling and swimming when I tripped and have now been 2 weeks on crutches and will need 6 weeks recovery. I am getting off to sleep with all your recordings. Love and hugs across the ocean. Meredith
...
written by Prudence, January 28, 2014
Thank you for the article and thank you for sharing your news. I hope all goes well for you each day.
Sincerely,
Prudence
...
written by Judith, January 29, 2014
Dear Belleruth... thank you so much for these guidelines. My siblings and I found out in September that our mother has between 6-9 months to live. DX with cancer. She's still going strong and doing well, but I find I already have "meltdowns" sometimes just anticipating what is to come. I'm a counselor and help others process grief and life issues. Thanks so much.
...
written by Bridget, January 29, 2014
Perfect timing. So glad this was in the newsletter. Just last week my youngest half-sister lost her husband suddenly and without warning. I think these tips are excellent and shared with her.
...
written by Mary, January 29, 2014
Dear Bellaruth,
Over the years, I too have found January to be the month that delivers pain in various areas. I am sorry for the losses you are experiencing right now.
You help so many people deal with so many different sorts of pain in their lives. Thank you for sharing your gifts with us
The advice you wrote about grieving should be a part of everyone's life tool kit since no one who escapes grieving in their time on this planet.
Sending light and love,
Mary
...
written by Deb , January 29, 2014
This is really good timing for me to review as a friend, but wondering if appropriate to forward to the friend who just had a miscarriage. Very early but it's still a loss that will be grieved. Some of the references, comparing to labor contractions, and sleep possibly being disrupted for months to years might seem harsh. ???
Great help overall!
...
written by Belleruth, January 29, 2014
Deb, your friend is lucky to have such a sensitive ally in her corner! Yeah, the contractions metaphor generally fits, but could be like nails on a chalk board in this instance. Wondering if you could cut and paste it as a word doc and just take that sentence out.

Also, the comment about sleep applies more to somebody who's lost a life partner or someone they've known and relied on for ages - in other words, a huge disruption and loss of support in their life that has them feeling unprotected and on high alert. Your friend's issues with sleep will likely first have to do with the uproar her hormones are temporarily in; and then of course the loss itself and fear of other losses. So you may want to dicker with that line too. I don't usually tell people it's okay to mess with my words, but this seems like a very kind exception. Best wishes to you and your friend. BR
...
written by Craig Walker, January 29, 2014
As always Belleruth, thank you for this gentle and helpful reminder. Thinking of you during this difficult time and wishing you peace. Craig
...
written by Kathi Rosen, January 29, 2014
Thanks for these. As someone who is 18 months out from a traumatic loss, I would like to emphasize that grieving goes on at a pretty intense level far beyond the few months that some seem to expect. When I lost my husband, it was as if I also lost my world and was catapulted into a new strange universe where nothing seemed the same. My task, to learn to live in that universe, is ongoing, and I can't make it go faster in any case. So please stop making comments about "moving on." They don't help.
...
written by Belleruth, January 30, 2014
Kathi R, I think this comment is very wise: "...and I can't make it go faster in any case". So true. A lot of people have trouble getting this about grieving.
Another thing that I think is good to know, is that we can be very sad and still get a lot done... especially if we're not fighting with our sadness. I swear, I did some of my best work as a therapist when I was grieving the death of my mother. I think it made me more emotionally accessible, and my clients talked more, revealed more, tuned into themselves better, had more compassion for themselves... That's my sense of it, anyway.

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