What to say to the bereaved?
As I get older, I have the occasion to attend more and more memorial services and funerals for loved ones, friends and acquaintances. That isn’t very remarkable. Each year, more than 250,000 Canadians die and, as we each get older, we are simply much more proximate to the majority of these deaths that occur predominately late in one’s life. Still, whether a recently deceased has died before their time or after a ripe old age, when attending these celebrations, knowing what to say to truly express one’s sympathy can be problematic. There are often unique factors surrounding each death that our good senses can, for the moment, sometimes seem paralysed as we approach the grieving to express our condolences. In a past article found in Everythingzoomer.com, clinical psychologist Dr. Stephen Fleming debunks some myths we hold for comforting the grieving. He says it is a myth to believe ‘The grief-stricken will recover.’ It is the word ‘recover’ that is the problem. While the deceased’s life is ended, the relationship they held with their loved ones doesn’t have this biological limitation. There is an ongoing attachment with the deceased that has been developed and earned through years of life. He affirms that you don’t put ‘closure’ to that. The deceased remains a part of your thoughts. He goes on to assert that recovery from a loss isn’t like recovering from the flu. “There is no closing of one door and the opening of another.” The second myth is to believe that ‘it just takes time.’ While time certainly changes the expression of one’s grief, there is no evidence that any degree of time will end it. “If it was a significant relationship and that person is now gone, there is no way to know how long or how intense the grieving will be.” We needn’t be alarmed by his deductions. He says what we can do that may help.
Initiate contact: Offering to come by sometime or inviting the bereaved to ‘look us up’ isn’t positive, if the bereaved has to initiate contact, it almost always won’t happen. Dr. Fleming instead suggests that we initiate contact with the bereaved, saying things like: “On Tuesday let’s do lunch. I’ll pick you up!” Or “This Saturday I am taking you to a movie I think you’ll enjoy.”
Record important dates: Know our friend or loved ones important dates; the deceased’s birthday, Father or Mother’s day, Christmas, anniversaries etc. The calendar can become, for the grieving, a psychological minefield. Being available by gently asserting ourselves into the life of those grieving would be of greater value than well expressed sentiments.
Use the deceased’s name. We should refer to the deceased by name without hesitation during the immediate loss and beyond. “If you don’t, it conveys they never existed.” Whatever the relationship has been, it hasn’t died in the mind and hearts of those around them.
There are added, effective expressions of sympathy. For myself, I am familiar with the help of Christian prayers offered by others for the deceased and their families and added forms of witness to their memory. I’m sure other cultures and faith traditions have added experience. With an aging society, and with most deaths occurring past age 65, it will become a more common experience of ours to attend more funerals. When you think about it, it’s our privilege. Regardless of our discomfort with grief, we should do our best to express what may help to comfort the grieving as our relationships will be lived, statistically, for longer than in any period of history.