- Don’t be judgmental and try to direct someone else’s mourning. “You should do this” or “You should do that” merely makes the mourner question his/her own grieving experience, increases self-doubt and incompetence, and magnifies the stress.
- Don’t try to set a grieving schedule for others. Mourning takes time and one person’s timing is not necessarily appropriate for others. Therefore, telling a griever to get busy, get rid of the deceased’s “stuff,” or asking, “Aren’t you over this yet? It’s been two months!” etc. does much more harm than any good.
- Don’t think you are helping by telling a mourner that “You are doing so well!” This may seem like encouragement, but it actually can make the mourner feel like he/she needs to live up to your expectations. Assuming a role of “doing so well” may be inconsistent with how they really feel.
- Don’t tell others to expect time to heal the pain of grief. Time alone does not “heal all wounds”; it is what a person does with the time that “heals the wounds.” Mourning is an active, not a passive, process.
- Don’t believe you can ever know how another person feels. Even if you have had the same kind of loss, what happens to someone else does not mean he/she faces the same challenges you did. It is impossible for you to crawl inside their skin and see the world the way they do. Telling a mourner you know how they feel is just not true, and he/she knows it.
- Don’t use cliches such as “You’re young and can have another child.” or God works in mysterious ways.” or “You’ll find someone else.” While you may be trying to instill some hope, these kinds of statements convey a sense that you are downplaying the pain of their loss and minimizing the importance of the person who died.
- Don’t be vague about providing help by saying something like “Call me if you need anything” or by delegating help to others. These actions send the message that you really do not want them to bother you with their grief.
If these are things you SHOULD NOT do, what SHOULD you do to help? Here are some suggestions that will make a real difference to mourners:
- Do provide a safe, confidential, open line of communication so the mourner has someone to talk to. This means being serious about listening and using the 80/20 rule – listen 80% of the time and talk 20% of the time. This also means being patient as the mourner works through and tells his/her story. Some repetition is necessary so the mourner can see his/her situation from different angles while putting a shattered life back in order.
- When you do talk, include a description of your own losses and of how you dealt with them. Your self-disclosure can be helpful to assure the mourner he/she is not the only one who has felt pain. After Johnny Carson died, Ed McMahan said in an interview that when his son died, Johnny was the first person to call him. (Johnny’s son had died years before.) During the conversation, Johnny said that there was never a day he did not think of his son. Ed stated that was the most meaningful thing anyone said to him. Mourners can learn from your experience without you having to tell them what to do.
- Do make yourself available for the mourner and offer specific help. This can range from taking the intiative to call to offering to perform specific day-to-day tasks.
- Expect the mourner to have “good” days and “rough” days. Mourning is like a rollercoaster with its peaks and valleys. There will be times when this will require your patience, but keep in mind that mourning is a series of ups and downs and your support can be very valuable on the rough days.
- Appropriate physical contact – a hug or an arm around the shoulder – can be reassuring to the bereaved when words seem to fail. Also, be prepared to share extended moments of silence and do not be tempted to fill in the void with idle chitchat. Quiet time is processing time.
- Remember that the lowest level of functioning for a grieving person typically happens 5-7 months after the death. It is then that most supporting people go back to their daily routines and the bereaved can feel abandoned and alone in his/her grief. To be a true supporter of a mourner is to be there for him/her when others have left.
- Finally, there are situations when a grieving friend or loved one may need professional help to progress in his/her mourning. If you are supicious this is the case, then gently suggest that perhaps the grief is more than what the mourner can handle alone. If the mourner is receptive, help him/her find good professional assistance.
Mourning is not a solitary activity; it requires social interaction and integration. Providing compassionate, caring support to mourners suffering from the death of a loved one is one of the most important acts of kindness we can give each other. The presence or absence of that support is a major determinant of how well the grieving person works through loss and puts his/her world back together.