Research shows that over 2.5 million American deaths are projected for 2012.
The American Cancer Society, estimates 577,190 American deaths from cancer, for this year. That is over 1,500 cancer related deaths per day!
If you combine online and offline news, with what you hear from your family, friends, co-workers and neighbors, you will notice that you're faced with news of someone's death, every day.
Given the number of deaths we hear about or experience, directly or indirectly...
Why is death still so difficult to talk about?
Why do people get tripped up, or feel awkward when it comes to consoling someone who is grieving a loss?
Why do people continue to tip-toe around death, acting like the bereaved are sleeping babies that we need not wake?
The answers to these questions have to do with the fact that we, as a society, are still not comfortable with our feelings, with our truths, with communicating with others. Although there are always exceptions and I am in no way speaking for everyone...in large part "We" fear the inevitable, we fear pain, and instinctively don't want others to be in pain, either.
When we see someone else facing or confronted with death, we are: reminded of our own mortality; flooded with memories of our own losses; unknowingly forced into thinking about all those we love, the "what if's" and "When's".
Growing up, the majority of us are taught how to: read; write; break down sentence structure in english class; discover how things work in science; use our imaginations through art; review and learn from our history and solve math equations...among other things. A large number of us spend a minimum of 12 years in school. We may learn how our brains and bodies work in biology class, how to make mac n' cheese, salads and brownies in home ec class, how a battery operated baby doll can turn our life routines upside down and backwards in child development class, how to balance a checkbook (if we are lucky) in independent living class...
WHY...isn't it required to have at least one class credit in humility, compassion, sympathy, honesty and respect?
WHY...is human interaction and communication not a pre-requisite for life, pre and post highschool?
Maybe we can eventually change our curriculum to add these types of classes, but in the meantime we need to know ways in which we can improve how we process real life information, act and react to certain life situations, one of these being death.
I, personally, have experienced great loss in my life, including almost losing my daughter, on more than one occasion: once as an infant; another as a young adult; and lastly when she escaped death from Aurora Colorado on her way home. (Blog Entry: Escaping Death From A Colorado Movie Massacre)
Over the years I have studied what has, or has not, worked for me in my time of need. I have also observed and worked through grief with many others, as well.
In order to help you either continue, or jump start your education on the passed over human studies which I mentioned above...I have included Loss Guidance Tips (below) for you to review and apply when applicable, on how you can better support someone who is dealing with loss.
Loss Guidance Tip1 - The First Day Counts
Although a great deal of shock is still present and few who grieve will even remember what was said to them...don't hesitate to let someone know you are there for them. Let them know that you want to help them in anyway you can. Don’t think that just because others are comforting the person who has lost a loved one that you should wait to see or talk to them. Your support, a glance, a hug, a gentle squeeze of the hand, it all counts.
Loss Guidance Tip2 - Restrain Yourself From Saying What "you think you should say"... Say What You Feel I guarantee you, nothing you ever say from you heart (with heart) will ever hurt the one you say it to...after all, they are already experiencing the worst pain there is, the loss of a loved one.
For example, refrain from saying the following so-called comforting phrases like:
"I understand what you are going through"
"time heals all wounds"
"we may not understand why it happened, but I am sure there is a good reason".
In all honesty, these words have never helped me when I was on the receiving end...and I have yet to find someone that felt that this sentiment had helped them in their time of shock or while they grieved.
Why do most people feel the need to tip-toe around someone who is dealing with death, when this is as "Real" as it gets?
Religious beliefs aside,
Let's be honest...
Loss is painful!
You feel like a Mac truck hit you head on, you're exhausted (even if you never show it), and you don't know how you're ever going to get up and walk forward again, let alone stand.
Be honest and true to yourself and to them.
If you're too worried about what to say, then say nothing and learn from the next Loss Guidance Tip.
Loss Guidance Tip3: Your Presence Says Far More Than Any Words You Could Ever Speak
It's normal for you to feel the need to say something, especially when it's quiet.
You may think you need to distract them, in order to take their pain away.
You may feel pressured to try to fix things...
Everyone processes pain and mourns in their own way, on their own time. They need to be respected and allowed to grieve, no matter how it may affect you. If their crying makes you uncomfortable, then you need to work with someone to understand why and learn what your own limitations are in helping the one who is experiencing the loss.
Remember their pain is their’s, it doesn't have to be yours. You have yours to own.
Don't misunderstand me, intentions are good and honorable when you try to comfort someone.
Just be sure to ask yourself...Am I saying this to make me feel better, or to make them feel better?
Death, of all things, should not be awkward. Walking out of a bathroom and down a hallway of people with your skirt tucked into your underwear, that is awkward!
Loss Guidance Tip4 - Listen, Listen, Listen.
Whether you are a passive or active listener....Be a good listener.
Be there for them and don't feel like you have to say anything. A nod of the head or eye contact will do just fine. If appropriate, a hug or gentle touch, is all that is needed for someone to feel like they are not alone and that you care.
Remember...This is their time to release; their time to get mad, cry, laugh, and scream; their time to process what they're feeling. Just let it happen.
If you feel that the grief and depression is life threatening at any time while you are listening, then get them the right support. Make sure you know the difference between someone saying the words: "I just want to die" versus an actual threat of them taking their life. It is very common for someone to say they don't want to survive a loved one, when they are grieving without it being a true threat.
Grief strikes people differently. You may witness that the reactions of a child may vary based on their age or prior experience with loss, just as an adult's reaction differs.
The best support you can give an adult is to let them know you care, that you are there for them, first and foremost.
Secondly, offer to help them with any small task that gets forgotten or pushed aside during this time; help with anything that does not require a big decision.
Minor house cleaning; taking the garbage out on trash day; taking dress clothes to the cleaner or pressing them; make beds or arrange hotel rooms for out of town guests; answer calls and take messages; offer to help with transportation to and from errands; cook and provide easy to reheat meals...all of these ideas can be a great help and huge relief at a time where focus and energy is challenged.
Loss Guidance Tip6 - Don't Forget the Kids
When someone dies, most of the focus is on the greiving adults and on the many details following the announcement. It's the children's grief that is often overlooked, dismissed or under estimated.
Children need to feel safe and welcome to ask questions. They also deserve to hear the truth. One of the best little natural lie detectors we have, are children. So, respect them and try not to dumb down your answers or talk in circles around them. Their gut can tell them when something is not right and the last thing they need to feel during their loss is that they have no one they can trust.
Remember that their stress and fear is very real. Don't fall prey to the idea that "they are only a child" or "they probably won't even remember much". This is just as real for them as it is for anyone. Even children too young to talk can feel the shift in energy and the absence of a loved one.
(For more on Children and Loss, I will be posting another blog.)
Every griever needs to find and choose a means of closure that works best for them, regardless of how uncomfortable it may make you feel; don't worry about what others think. No routine or ritual has to dictate a person's method of closure.
The speed at which one can recover from a death, and the quality of their process, depends greatly on the closure that takes place between their loved ones and the deceased.
The very best thing you can do is give them unconditional support. Allow them to say goodbye in their own way. As long as their way is not harmful to them or anyone else, then let them find their solace.
Closure is crucial to a griever's ability to heal and move forward in their life. If they are not able to grieve and find closure, then destructive behaviors almost always result. If they need help in finding closure, suggest that they get some outside help with a coach, therapist or spiritual guide to work out ideas that feel right to them.
Loss Guidance Tip8 - Give On-Going Support
Following the initial announcement of death, much of the focus is on the activities surrounding the funeral. The bereaved and the family are supported during this time, but what about afterwards? usually the number of people that offer a helping hand dwinndles considerably after the day of the funeral. To be blunt, the body may be buried but not all the stress and grief that goes with it, those things are very much above ground!
Give on-going support to the one who has buried a loved one and to their family for weeks and months to come. This gesture does not have to turn your own life upside down.
For example, if you are stopping by the grocery, give them a call and ask if you can pick up anything for them. If you are going to a school function, suggest that you ride along together. If there is a holiday party that a spouse usually went to with them, offer for you to join them so that they can still go and not feel so alone. If you see that their trash cans have not been brought in for a day or two, pull them up to the house for them.
Supportive gestures don't have to be elaborate or work intensive to have an impact, and most of them only take seconds to do. Be the difference, in their day.
Loss Guidance Tip9 - Help The Bereaved Take Time For Themselves
Following the funeral activities, it is important to let the bereaved mourn; process their grief and find their closure. During this time there are a lot of emotions and details to attend to every day. One detail that often gets overlooked is taking time out.
When a loved one is lost, there is a tendency to not do anything that they may have done with their loved one who past, too many memories. This is an important time to start making new memories. It is time to treat the living as they are alive.
It is hard to rationalize doing something for yourself when you are facing survivor guilt, internal or external blame, shame, loneliness, abandonment, etc...The idea that you deserve to take time to do something nice for yourself, is not often factored into the day-to-day survival routines that are assumed after death.
That said, do not try to erase or fix feelings, do not try to replace the lost loved one...choose things like a day trip, go and get supplies for a favorite hobby and go somewhere fun to create together, sign up for a class to learn something new, have a picnic or spa day...anything that can reveal that life can go on with memories not in spite of the loss. Help them understand that they deserve to be happy.
You can certainly ask the griever what they might want to do and then go about meeting their wishes. Please keep in mind, when you ask, that they may not be up for making big decisions yet; that just picking out the right shoes can be a big decision some days for them.
Never force anyone to do anything they do not want to do, it can make things worse. If you get a "No, not today, I don't feel like it" then think about how you asked and what all you said...this is a time for easy over stimulation. Too much info may backfire and you may be better off just asking if they would go on a drive or walk with you.
Although some people may go from 0-60 in their recovery process, baby steps are often the key to a healthy long term loss recovery, for most people.
There are many stages of emotions and healing that a person goes through when they are confronted with death. Anger is one of them.
Death makes you angry!
Angry at yourself,
Angry at the person that died,
Angry at the doctors,
Angry at the person or persons that may have created the situation that resulted in the death of the one you lost.
Angry at people that don't really know or understand what you are feeling,
Angry at God,
Angry that you cannot live out your future plans with the one you lost,
Angry at everyone and anything at any given moment...
There are many reasons to be angry and it's okay that the one grieving feels ALL of their feelings. This period of healing is transitional, if they get the help they need.
Anger is normal and is NOT to be prevented or stopped, as long as it does not cause harm.
Simply put...anger is an outward expression or release of fear and pain and is often one of the hardest stages to get through, without help. If you are the one supporting the bereaved, you must find a way to accept their emotions, to separate yourself and your feelings from their outbursts. You are not the target, even if you feel like one.
When you are a witness to this type of anger as a family member, friend or employer, you may not know what to do or say. It may be frightening for you to view. Regardless, there are things you can do, or have others do, in order to help the griever through with their anger, enabling them to heal faster.
The first being...don't take anything they do or say personally; see beyond their anger; see the anger for what is really is...a tremendous loss.
People often, when angry, lash out at the person closest to them. When this happens the best thing to do is to redirect their anger in a way that is productive.
After separating yourself from the emotional element...listen to them and their anger first; let the griever know that their anger is justified is second; third, let them know that you're there for them and accept their feelings without judgment. After which, you can then ask creative questions to help them redirect their energy or attention to more constructive pathways. If you are experienced or a trained professional, you can suggest options to the bereaved to help them eventually get rid of their anger.
When you are listening, do not say statements like:
"we know the doctors did their best"
"God must have their reasons"
"this too shall pass"
These words rarely help. If anything it makes them madder when they are already angry. Keep in mind, angry people are not usually very rational, so try to refrain from generic seemingly rational statements.
When you are questioning them in a constructive way for redirection, try to say things like:
"What are you mad at, specifically?"
"If you could talk to the person you are mad at, what would you want to say to them?"
"What are you most afraid of right now?"
Know your own limitations, before you ask "focus questions" like the ones I have mentioned. If you are not ready for any of the possible answers, I urge you to find a support person or group that can be objective and field such emotionally REAL answers.
No matter what you choose to do, or how you go about offering your help, remember that you are not the source of their anger, their pain and fears are the fuel for their current fire...and like any fire you have to get help to put it out or it will continue to burn until it consumes everything in its path or until it fizzles out on its own.
CJ Harlan © copyright 2012
If you have questions about anything you have read, or about helping someone with their loss,
Please contact me, by clicking on the link I have provided for you.