A Guide to Consoling the Bereaved

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Following the untimely death of her son, a mother learned some difficult lessons about the grieving process.

When our son died, people had questions regarding how to best console my family and me. Let me say that not all bereaved people are alike. This guide encompasses what was helpful to us. We are a family that chooses to grieve while living our lives. That is, we go out in public, work at our jobs, see our friends and carry on as normally as possible, given the fact that one of us is no longer living.

Tip #1 Go to the bereaved person. When our close friends heard what had happened to our son, they contacted each other and formed an informal committee. The main credo was to show up, whether it’s with food, sweets or nothing at all.


Food helps, even if the bereaved don’t eat it. In our case, we had a refrigerator full of homemade and store-bought goodies. At one point, there were four whole cooked chickens in my fridge, all wrapped and ready to eat. I had never considered that owning four chickens could make me feel loved. I don’t even like chicken, but I derived much pleasure from looking at them on their little refrigerator shelves.

Some people (I’m not sure who) stuck things in our freezer, with sticky labels. Others made fro-yo runs. Two sets of friends, noticing that my husband wasn’t eating solids, began to deliver fro-yo before breakfast each morning. Seeing him eating it in his pajamas made us feel like everything was going to be all right.  

Tip #2 Know that the bereaved are under great stress. I am still trying to figure out who gave me a “de-stressor” gift bag filled with lavender oil, incense and a pair of white and-lilac-striped stress-zapping socks. I will give such a gift to the next friend in need.

Tip #3 Make sure the bereaved sit, eat and rest. People in a grief state are overcome with emotion; shock takes a lot out of you. My daughter kept asking why her body felt like she had been hit by a truck. Grief is a physically exhausting process. It took me days to be able to walk down the block, even though prior to my son’s death, I regularly took two-hour walks.

Tip #4 Look into the bereaved person’s eyes. Be genuine. If you liked or loved their loved one or like or love them and it breaks your heart that this loss has occurred, show them that. Do not say things you don’t mean. People in a grief state notice your disingenuous attitude and they find it annoying and depressing.

Tip #5 Hug the bereaved person. Almost everybody likes to hug and be hugged. I came to this hugging thing late in life and with much trepidation because I grew up in a family that rarely hugged. But all that has changed. Losing someone you love makes you crave touch. I wanted hugs from men, women, old, young, gay, straight. I demanded hugs.

Tip #6 Refrain from offering the person your philosophy on religion, your own views on the meaning of life and/or your beliefs about the afterlife. It is OK to discuss these topics with the bereaved person if they have specifically asked you, “Do you believe in life after death? If so, will you be kind enough to share your beliefs with me?” But if they do not ask, chances are they do not want to know what you think.

Tip #7 Refrain from looking at bereaved people with sad, puppy-dog eyes, especially if they smile at you and tell you they are doing OK. Please believe me on this one: Take your cues from the bereaved person. If the bereaved person is smiling and saying hello, smile back. Do not frown at them. This confuses the bereaved person who then feels they need to cheer you up about their loved one dying. If you feel genuinely sad and tear up, that is OK.

Tip #8 Refrain from gasping when the bereaved enter a public space. My husband and I felt the need to go out. Sometimes we went to local restaurants. When we walked in there was sometimes a gasp. People stared at us in disbelief, then quickly looked down at their plates. Bereaved people need to eat; they want to be in public sometimes. It is their right to do so. Your gasping makes it feel as if they have done something wrong. 

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