Monday, December 16, 2019

Voices of Experience: Reflections on Helping The Bereaved: 7 Do's and 7 Don'ts

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay 
by Jennifer Chiaramonti, MSEd, NCC, LPC

One who knows pain, can help others without gain.  ~ Abhijit Naskar

This morning I woke up from a nightmare. My heart was racing, and I was sweating and crying out with anxiety. In the nightmare, something terrible had happened and I was being pursued by dangerous people who were intent on doing me harm. To save my life, I had just one day to quit my job, pack a few things, abandon my home, and disguise my identity. I had to go to another state where I would be expected to start over with a lower-paying and less satisfying job, a new spouse (a man I disliked), and a home that didn’t feel like home. Any delay would cause the pursuers to close in.

My husband, Greg, died four months ago. And I believe that I had the nightmare because last night I experienced a social interaction in which I felt pelted by rapid-fire questions about my plans now that I’m a widow. I wish I could say that this was an unusual experience, but in fact, several people have inquired in a manner that has felt like an interrogation. This uncomfortable questioning began almost immediately following Greg’s death, certainly within the second week.

I realize that most of us truly mean well and care about being kind and helpful in the wake of a death. We do our best, and yet we still often say clumsy and insensitive things to the bereaved. So having this nightmare, and realizing what likely caused it, prompted me to sit down and write some dos and don’ts to help us all more effectively navigate the tricky arena of grief support.

Here are seven “DON'Ts” to consider when a person you love has experienced the loss of someone close to them.

1. Don’t bombard the newly-bereaved person with questions. 

I met Greg online and relocated cross-country to marry him. We had only been married for six years when he died, and it turned my world upside down to go from a major relocation, to finding a new job, to planning a wedding, to buying a house, to trying to start a family, to organizing a funeral in just a few years. I understand that people were, and continue to be, very curious about what I’m going to do now. I certainly have experienced my own internal tornado of questions around what the future will hold.

So while I understand people’s curiosity, those who have approached me have handled it like a high pressure job interview or a bad speed-dating event (think auctioneer voice): So what are your plans now? What have you decided? Where do you see your future? Are you selling your house? Are you leaving your job? Are you moving back to _____ ? When do you think you’ll want to date again? You know you don’t want to wait too long! You’re still young!

No. Just no. In my experience, the grieving person is doing all they can manage just to breathe, eat something – anything, do the most rudimentary housework and pet care, demonstrate a tiny semblance of social skills – especially on the job, and exert lots of willpower not to melt down in public.

When someone dies, time stops for the broken-hearted. Days run together.  We, the grief-stricken, feel our way forward moment-by-moment in survival mode. There is no long-range planning happening for a while, nor should there be.

Questioning the bereaved person in an intense manner and/or in the first few months following a death is only going to cause your loved one to feel anxiety and self-reproach on top of the unbearable pain of their loss. In my case, I felt like a deer in headlights each time this happened. At first, my inner dialogue went something like, Wait, am I SUPPOSED to have these answers? Do other widows have this stuff figured out so soon after their loss? What’s wrong with me that I don’t? And just like that, I wasn’t just broken-hearted, I felt like a failure, too. But after a while, I realized that I wasn’t failing at anything; the person asking the questions was failing me. I was right where I was supposed to be so soon after a major loss. Dazed. Confused. Exhausted. Overwhelmed. Traumatized. Taking things one day at a time.

Before you open your mouth to ask what the bereaved person is planning or doing next, first stop to consider if you are asking out of love, concern, and a desire to be helpful, or out of nosiness and a wish to see the grief nicely wrapped up and finished because of your own discomfort. You may honestly need to ask perhaps one or two of these questions if you are involved in helping to manage the estate and affairs of the deceased, but that is not the case for most people. So if your role means that you must ask questions, please proceed gently.

The most helpful approach of all is not to ask any questions, but to say something like this: While I wish I could protect you from further change or loss, I know that a death of this type will probably have long-term impacts on many aspects of your life. If, down the road, you find yourself dealing with things like selling your home, packing and moving, or changing jobs, I will be there to lend an ear and/or a hand with all these tasks. Don’t rush yourself to make any decisions or plans. Your only job right now is taking care of yourself. The rest can wait.

2. Don’t join a multi-level marketing business and attempt to sell your grieving person these products as part of your business launch.

It’s great that you have started a side hustle (I personally have two), but when it comes to your loved one, just put down the Rodan + Fields, step away from the Lula Roe, and keep your Mary Kay and Avon to yourself for a time. The grieving person is not an appropriate sales target. I can’t tell you how much it bothered me when people with whom I was not already doing business, and who knew about Greg’s death, tried to make sales to me in the wake of my loss. Don’t be predatory or opportunistic with a bereaved person.

3. Don’t take offense when your grieving person is slower than usual to return emails, texts, or calls, or forgets to do so altogether. 

See point #1 above. It takes enormous energy to try to act vaguely like a human being while nursing a broken heart. Sentences are hard to put together. Sentences? What even are they? Attention and memory have a dazed and foggy quality. Energy is low. Give your loved one space and time. Try not to read anything into it; you aren’t being rejected and your loved one isn’t being intentionally rude. Grief and trauma have slowed the thinking and reaction speeds of your loved one, and probably will for a long time to come. The bereaved person feels internally and externally like they are moving through mud right now. All you need to say to them is this: When YOU feel ready, that is the right time to get back to me. I will be there in the background, however long it takes to hear from you. There is no rush and no deadline. We will talk when you feel up to it.

4. Don’t push hard for social plans. 

Yes, it is really important for the bereaved to be surrounded by social support and not withdraw or self-isolate. But as with points #1 and #3 above, your loved one is going to find it very hard to shower, look and smell presentable, hold conversation, and not melt down around other people. Socializing takes twice as much effort at a time when the person has half as much energy and attention span.

With each invitation that rolls in, the grieving person thinks, I am so glad that so-and-so invited me to such-and-such, but I’m just so tired and I cry all the time and I can’t remember the last time I took a shower or put on a bra. If I don’t go, will they be mad? Will they stop inviting me? I really just want to stay in bed, but if I do, will I hurt the relationship? I can’t afford to lose anyone else from my life right now.

What is helpful, instead, is to invite your loved one to social gatherings with a speech something like this: I care about you and I want you to feel connected to me and others. You may be feeling lonely or isolated at such a hard time, but I imagine that socializing is also probably really hard for you right now. I want you to know that my invitations to get together include unconditional permission to show up in any state of dress or hygiene, to leave early if you feel tired and need alone time, and to be as emotionally messy as you may feel at any given moment. 

Alternatively, you could say, I will be reaching out to you with social invitations from time to time, and I won’t feel offended if you decline my offers. I just want to spend some time with you in order to support you, but only when getting together feels helpful to you, not one more item on your task list.

5. Don’t quote religious texts or give religious items or books, unless this type of interaction is initiated by, or requested by, the bereaved. 

Even if your grieving loved one shares your religion, it is their humanity that feels devastated by the loss and needs comforting. Let the person’s pastor/minister/priest/rabbi/imam/clergyperson handle the needs of the soul. You just be there for the broken-hearted “flesh”.

People who responded to my grief by quoting scriptures of various types, or mailing me copies of the religious doctrines or icons of their faith, absolutely meant well, and I know that. It is human nature to turn to religion in times of great suffering, and many people find this type of contact to be both comforting and encouraging. The problem is that responses of that type center you and your beliefs, not me and mine. They have felt defensive against my pain, as well as tone deaf, and caused me to stop confiding my grief in those persons.

Worst of all are the religious platitudes that a few people have tossed my way like, “God needed them more than you did”. (Really? An omnipotent deity needed my precious one and only husband more than my frail human self needed him? I guess we define omnipotent differently.)  Platitudes are really an attempt to make pain make sense, to say that as much as it hurts, there is a plan, a reason, and someone ultimately in charge. They are a well-intended bulwark against randomness and chaos. But since my own spirituality includes acceptance that that the universal human experience includes suffering, such platitudes only made me feel like the person saying them didn’t really know me, that I was being talked at, not dialogued with.

Consider, too, that although my own spirituality has been an important and positive coping tool in my grief, it is actually very common for a bereaved person to experience a crisis of faith in the wake of a loss. For them, religious resources can hurt more than help at such times. While there are many helpful articles on a grief-driven crisis of faith, for a quick and easy read see Finding or Losing Faith After A Loss.

Bottom line: Religious materials and sayings may be very helpful, but they may also seem preachy, may keep the bereaved at emotional arm’s length, and may be unintentionally hurtful, depending upon how religion is incorporated into the bereaved person’s healing process. Proceed with caution. Consider instead inviting your loved one to share with you their thoughts, beliefs, and questions about life, death, and spirituality, if they would find it helpful. Listen with an open-mind. Be a safe space for someone to explore the spiritual aspects of their loss and draw their own conclusions about what it means to them.

6. Don’t insist on talking as the only way through grief. 

Sometimes your grieving person needs a companion who will simply sit with them and not say a word while they cry. Sometimes they need a quiet witnessing presence above all else. For example, one person who stayed with me after Greg died offered to share my bed instead of using the guest room. This was really helpful when I would wake up in the morning having temporarily forgotten my loss, suddenly remember what happened, feel re-traumatized, and start sobbing. I needed to reach over and feel for a hand without anyone saying a word, and that hand was there on those worst initial mornings following my loss.

7. Don’t fret aloud to the bereaved person about how you don’t know the best way to help and how stressed this makes you feel.

Just like #5 above, people who told me anxiously that they didn’t know how to help just made me feel like I had to take care of them. This caused me to distance myself from them, because it was all I could do to take care of my own feelings, let alone help someone else with theirs.

If you ask me what I want and need in the midst of my grief, it feels empowering. If you worry aloud to me about your own feelings of helplessness and distress in the face of my loss, it feels burdensome. Practice Ring Theory and comfort in, dump out.  See this article for a helpful overview: Ring Theory Helps Us Bring Comfort In.

After considering seven “DON'Ts” when someone you love has experienced a close death, let’s talk about seven “DO's”. 

1. Do encourage the bereaved person to listen to and trust their own inner voice about what is best for them and what they need.

Cheer for your loved one when they listen to and act upon that inner wisdom. Society has a lot of expectations for what grieving “right” looks like or how long it “should” take, and a bereaved person demonstrates courage when they honor their own voice above cultural messaging.

2. Do make an offer of specific tasks that you can do and want to do, but with an open-ended timeline.

When someone dies, the closest survivor inherits a new full-time job. There are countless things to do to manage the affairs of the deceased. So. Many. Things.  All the things! Your loved one is going to need a lot of help and will be eternally grateful to you for pitching in.

If you want to come over to cook and fill up the freezer, address thank you cards, screen and return calls, have meals delivered, do yard work, walk the dogs, clean the house, help with legal or financial matters, run errands, do laundry, get groceries, answer emails, or any other tasks, by all means, have at it. When you make a specific task offer, you are saving the grieving person the burden of trying to decide what is or is not okay to ask others to do for them. This is too hard, so they likely won’t ask at all.

The most important thing is to let your loved one decide when the help happens. Why? Well, for example, you may want to send a large delivery of food. This is a very good thing and the bereaved person’s hungry belly will be grateful. But what if five other people do the same thing that day? Now the bereaved person, who may be struggling to even get out of bed, has to figure out how to store and freeze all the food before it goes bad. So, you choose the what and let the griever choose the when.

3. Do communicate that you are willing to listen to the grieving person’s story indefinitely, if, in fact, you are. 

In my experience, bereaved people are sensitive to cues that they are boring and/or burning people out by talking about their loss. Don’t fake it, because we will sense it, but if you truly can listen for months to come, make that known.  It’s not that we want to remain stuck in the loss without moving on, but that telling the story helps us to make sense of it and incorporate it into our new reality, thereby lessening the feelings of shock and disbelief. Although some people seem to relish in their loss story and take it on as a permanent new identity, for the majority of us, the storytelling doesn’t last forever. It is a transitional activity that scaffolds our way to a new normal.

If you knew and liked the person that has died, talk about what you liked. Sharing your affection for the deceased person and any happy memories you have of them can be as comforting as a willingness to listen to the loss story. Personally, nothing comforted me more than hearing people talk about what they valued about Greg.

4. Do consider how you might run interference for the bereaved upon their return to the job.

One of the best gifts I received in my grief was three days’ transition time back to work on the heels of my bereavement leave. This time was set aside for me to get used to being back at work, catch up on emails and voicemails, receive office visitors and well-wishers, and just generally get reoriented before I started doing my actual job again. Being allowed to return to work physically before I returned mentally was a huge help. I would not have had that transitional period if not for a kind and thoughtful coworker who had the idea and made it happen for me.

5. Do understand that there is a big difference between grief-driven death fantasies and actual suicidal ideation or plans. 

Your loved one may say to you, as I did to select trustworthy people in my life, that they long to be dead, yet they don’t feel suicidal. That they hate being alive and that life is still good and worth living. How can those opposites both be true at once? Well, as Neils Bohr, Nobel Prize Winner in Physics, says, “…the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.” In my case, this longing and yearning to be dead-but-not dead came from feeling permanently separated from Greg, with a deep desire to take on a matching form in order to be together again. Had someone told me that Greg did not die, but overnight was mysteriously shrunken down to a two-inch tall purple dinosaur, I would have immediately signed up to be transformed into the same. My yearnings to be dead were yearnings to be in spirit form together, to experience sameness in order to bridge the impenetrable separation between us and be reunited, not at all a desire to be literally dead. This is not the same as someone who thinks about, talks about, or actively plans for suicide following a loss. If your loved one is talking about suicide, they need immediate mental health intervention. That's above your pay grade, so seek professional assistance.

6. Do embrace your inner thinker or introvert. 

Grief is messy and this rightfully makes a lot of people uncomfortable.  Just like there is no paycheck in the world big enough for me to train as a nurse and expose myself to other people’s bodily fluids, you are not required to expose yourself to intense emotional states. Yet, you can still be enormously helpful to your loved one during this difficult time by doing research, an important but easily overlooked task following a death.

In my case, I needed to find paid or volunteer help to tackle the tasks that my spouse formerly did, but I lacked the focus or energy to even begin looking into options. Introverts and thinkers, this is your moment to shine! You can help by researching availability and cost estimates for things like pet care, child care, snow removal, lawn mowing, house cleaning, grocery or meal delivery, and more. Let the bereaved person know of your wish to assist with research for any services they may now need, gather the information, and most importantly, sit on it until your loved one indicates cognitive readiness to process the findings. Because the traumatized grief brain can’t take it in for a while.

Other ways that thinkers and introverts helped me were: making a new monthly budget and master chore chart, sorting and filing legal and financial documents, shredding old records, organizing Greg’s items into labeled storage boxes, making donation drop offs to the local thrift store, contacting numerous online accounts in order to have them closed, reading complex legal and financial documents and helping me to understand them, and going with me to act as secretary during important meetings with the court, financial planner, funeral home, and other places of business that I had to contact in order to settle Greg’s estate.

7. Do point out things that have improved for your grieving person since the initial loss.  

The first few months of grief have felt like I am constantly floundering and struggling to get it together on the level where I previously performed with ease, and this is very damaging to self-esteem. Even after setting phone reminders and using two calendars, I often forget appointments or double-book myself. Even simple items on my to-do list get scrambled thanks to grief brain. Groceries?  Got them, but forgot them in the car once I was home, and later had to throw out all the melted frozen items. Laundry? Put it in the wash, but it remained there for a week before I remembered it had to go into the dryer. By then it had to be washed again. Bills? Ha! Hahaha. My checkbook was full of duplicate and missing debit card entries, and things added where they should have been subtracted.

With time, these things improved, but it was still hard to see that I was functioning better and better as the months passed. Basically, my inner dialogue would go, Ugh! I don’t recognize myself anymore. I used to be so on top of things. Now I'm not just sad and leaking all the time, I am also a loser who can’t get anything done. So it is good medicine to hear from those around you that they see you doing better in X, Y, and Z ways compared to the early days around the loss. I also found it comforting when people expressed to me that Greg would be proud of me and how I was handling my grief and his affairs. Just remind the bereaved person that grief recovery is not linear and there will be many ups and downs and times where it feels like no progress has been made at all. That’s a normal, necessary, and natural part of healing.

Bottom line

If you have made it through this long article, your loved one is lucky. You clearly care about providing sensitive and appropriate support during a chaotic and painful time of life. You may still be clumsy in your efforts to help, but don’t worry, that is okay. You are human and doing the best you can. Your loved one will see the sincerity of your efforts to help, and that is really the most important gift you can give – caring when someone else is in pain.

© by Jennifer Chiaramonti

About the Author:  Jennifer Chiaramonti, Associate Professor of Counseling at Community College of Philadelphia, is a National Board Certified Counselor and Licensed Professional Counselor. With nearly 20 years of experience in the counseling profession, Jennifer is adept at helping individuals and groups to achieve personal wellness and career and academic success. She has developed and instructed several college success courses and hundreds of personal growth workshops. Jennifer has received awards for her leadership and service to the counseling profession. In her free time, she enjoys the arts and nature, her cats, and designing her own line of costume jewelry. Contact Jennifer via email at

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