This spring, I had more requests for documentation than usual from my daughter’s university as I went through the financial aid process.
After providing them with countless materials, they came back to me, again, to say they still had questions about my marital status. When I let them know that my husband passed away three years ago, the reply was: “Can you prove that?”
I assured her that, yes, I could certainly prove that my husband is dead, and then I said, “You might want to develop a more sensitive way to get what you’re looking for.”
It clicked for her then that she’d been downright rude, and she apologized.
The fact is, people are well-meaning, but knowing how to respond to someone else’s loss isn’t always easy. So, I offer up these tips that could be useful to you or to others:
Acknowledge the loss. If someone tells you their husband, wife, child, mother, father or even the family dog or cat died, simply offer, “I’m sorry for your loss.” These five words work whether the loss is recent or age-old, and they are important because, no matter how much time has passed, it is likely there is still some measure of hurt in your friend. When a loss is recent, or if you have not seen the person since the loss occurred, it is especially appropriate to offer acknowledgement. People worry that raising the topic will “remind” their friend of the loss, but that reality, for them, is ever present. It’s helpful, less awkward and compassionate when condolences are offered in an upfront manner, and keeping it short and sweet is just fine.
Assess the needs. Some people might want to be left alone for a time. They may seek privacy, and it’s best to respect that need. Others will want company, distraction. Try to assess what your friend needs and act on that accordingly. For those who want solitary time, send a card once a week or once a month for as long as seems appropriate or call and leave a voice mail every so often to let them know you’re thinking of them.
Do something. For those who seem to need to lean on you, don’t ask what you can do, choose something that you would like to do, and do it. Those who have suffered a loss don’t know what they need or what will help, and even if they do, they might not be willing to ask for help. So, call and ask if your friend would like to go for a walk, to the movies or out for lunch. Tell them you’re coming over to help them address thank you notes. Bringing a meal is great, too, but wait a week or two – or even a month. This will ensure you aren’t bringing over the fourth casserole of the day, and it will let them know you know they are still grieving even though time has passed.
Hang in there. Your friend will want to talk, and your role is simply to listen and let them know you care. This could go on for some time. Please don’t suggest they “get over it.” Everyone processes grief differently, and some people take longer than others. Good things to say include, “I’m sorry you’re having such a hard time,” “It’s okay to be sad,” “Do what you need to do.” Again, it’s much more important that you just listen; it’s not necessary that you try to fix things (you can’t), or offer advice (there’s not much that helps.)
Know your limits. You don’t have to become your friend’s caretaker or therapist. It’s fine to have boundaries if the need seems too great for you. Acknowledge that you know how hard it is for them and suggest they join a bereavement group or see a therapist or try to meet others who have also experienced a loss. If you have the energy, help them to make those connections. If not, let them know when you are and are not available to them. If you choose to make yourself available, make sure you can be present and patient.
A portion of this blog first appeared in the Daily Hampshire Gazette’s Funeral and Estate Planning Guide.