Column by Andre McCarville
On May 8th, the Family Life Office and Immaculate Conception Parish in New Germany hosted the Mass for Widows and Widowers. It was a beautiful liturgy and luncheon with over 140 in attendance. But with that beauty comes the reality of what was remembered: everyone there lost someone very close to them. While we believe in the resurrection, the pain of the loss is very real. What do you say to someone who has just lost a loved one? Being with a grieving person can be very difficult, and many people avoid it altogether because they don’t know what to do. Wouldn’t it be great if there were a guide to talking to people who were grieving, and a list of things to say to make it better?
Here is the problem. Nothing anyone can say will make it better. The deepest desire of the grieving person usually is to have the person they just lost back, or at least an opportunity to make things right with them, and no gentle word of compassion can offer this. Knowing that you can’t fix this situation may seem like a huge burden, but actually it is quite the opposite. When we know we can’t make the situation better, we are freed from thinking there is a technique or trick we should know, or a wise saying that we should be aware of, that will help this person. It also frees us from thinking we are going to make the situation worse. While there are more helpful and less helpful things to say to a person who is grieving, the only thing a person can do to alleviate the grieving person’s pain is to journey alongside them in their grief. The worst thing a person can do is to leave them to grieve alone…unless you’re obnoxious. Then it might be best to just let them grieve alone.
So how do we companion another person through their grief? Once we know their deepest desire, we can journey with them in the chaos of their grief, even if we don’t have the gift of bringing back their loved one from the dead. Talking about the person who has died, and allowing the bereaved to talk about them, allows the healing to begin. People need to cry over the loss of their loved one. When a grieving person cries, that’s not a problem. That’s the solution. The strong and compassionate caregiver will be with them in their pain, cry with them, and give them some space when they need it.
I should make mention that there is one other thing that a person in grief may want that you can provide for them. They want the world to stop. They want everything to pause and recognize what they are experiencing and experience it with them. It may be difficult for them to witness parades and celebrations, big political events, or even to know that someone else is going to run errands as if nothing has changed. To the grieving person, the entire world has changed. While you can’t stop the rest of the world, you can stop yourself and enter into the experience with them.
It has often been the practice not to bring up a loved one who has died, because we are worried that one who is grieving their loss will suddenly break down at the thought or mention of them, and we may try to change the subject if the person is mentioned. While this seems charitable from the outside, it is not reflective of the reality inside. The person who is grieving is constantly thinking about the one they lost. So bringing the person up will not make the bereaved suddenly think about them. It will verify to them that the person isn’t gone from the world. It will help them to know others are thinking about them. It will help them to realize the person isn’t completely gone. This being said, follow the other person’s lead, as every person will grieve a little differently. Look for signs that they don’t want to talk about it, as this may not be the right time. Just know that if they bring their loved one up, it is always the right time to talk about them.
More helpful things to say and do:
Let the person know you are there for them. There is nothing wrong with saying, “Let me know if there is anything I can do for you,” but know they will almost never ask. So with that being the case, plan to show that you mean this. Check in with them often. Bring over food for the person. Invite them out for coffee or to go shopping. Sit and listen to them. These will help the person to know you truly meant what you said.
If you don’t know what to say, it’s ok to tell them. “I don’t even know what to say, but I’m so sorry for your loss,” is fine. Your presence is more important than your words.
Tell stories about the person who has died. Stories about the deceased that the bereaved may not know are wonderful to help them continue to grow in relationship with the one who has died. Stories that you both share allow bonds between you to deepen and shared memories can bring some joy into a sad situation.
Ask the grieving person to tell stories about the deceased. They will have so much they want to say about this person. They may not know where to begin, and so it can be beneficial to prompt them, such as asking, “How did you two meet?” or “What are some of your favorite memories of them?”
Look at pictures together. This is an excellent way to bring the memories of the person back to the present. Ask about the pictures and let them tell you about their experiences together.
Sit in silence together. Sometimes people just want to be with another person without saying a word. It may feel awkward or uncomfortable, but for many people, it is just what they are looking for.
After a time, allow some normalcy to return to their life. Invite them out to do things. You don’t want to force them out before they’re ready, but at the same time you don’t want them to feel abandoned because everyone is afraid to talk to them. Many will also be wondering if life will go on now that this person is gone. Offer invitations often enough so that they know they have options available to them, and offer to pick them up if you can to make it easier for them.
Come to visit after others have stopped visiting. The first week there will be many who come and offer sympathy and support. After that it will slow down. Within a month’s time it will all but come to an end. Every month you could call or send a card to the person you know is grieving.
Recognize that for the bereaved, every holiday is going to feel like a punch in the stomach. Especially in the first year, the experience of knowing that a person who was there last year will never be there for this holiday again brings with it a painful emptiness. In future years, it isn’t that this emptiness disappears, it is more like the bereaved become better prepared to experience it.
Be ready for anything. People grieve in different ways, and they will be in different stages at different times. Sometimes the bereaved will be sad for their loss of a loved one. Sometimes they will be confused as to the meaning of their life without that person as a part of it. Sometimes they will be angry: at God, at others, or even you. And sometimes they may be doing well and want to focus on something other than their grief. Follow their lead, allow them to express what they’re feeling, and journey with them.
Less helpful things to say or do:
You’re probably going to say some things that you shouldn’t. That is ok too. It’s better to try when you aren’t sure what to say than to avoid the person altogether. But if you can avoid saying the less helpful things and say more of the helpful ones, this is a step in the right direction.
It was God’s plan. Oftentimes, a response in the bereaved from a statement like this may be something along the lines of, “Then God is a jerk. Why would God want to do that to her/him? Why would God want to do that to me?”
He/She is in a better place now. The bereaved may often think, “Why isn’t the better place here with me?”
God must have wanted him/her. This can lead to thoughts of, “I wanted him/her too. Why does God get them and I don’t? Is God that greedy?”
Don’t make any statement that begins with “At least”. Such as, “At least they died quickly.” This leaves the person feeling that they should be grateful and not grieving because some basic requirement was met.
I know exactly how you feel. Chances are high that you don’t. You may have had a similar experience, but everyone’s grief is different as their relationship to another person is unique. If people already know you lost a loved one yourself, they may reach out to you because they feel you will understand. That is excellent. But it is important not to try to convince someone else that you do.
Be strong. This is the same as saying, “Hide your pain.” It’s better to have the person let it all out. There is no way out of grief and no way around it. You have to go through it. Bottling it up will cause problems in the future.
What our parishes can do.
People need companions more than well-wishers. The bereaved need someone to journey with them, to be with them through the trials. To know they are not alone. Our parishes can and should be this for them. In every parish we should have a bereavement team. This team does not have to be trained psychologists who form support groups – useful as those personnel and groups are. This team is about a ministry of presence and companionship. They check in with the bereaved on a regular basis, making sure to remember “marks” after the cards and visitors have stopped coming: the one month mark, the three month mark, six months, a year, the deceased’s birthday, anniversaries, and so on. Just sending a card at those times would be a compassionate place to start, but if visits can be made to the bereaved, that would be better. Taking the person out for coffee or a shopping trip may be better still, if the person is ready. For various reasons, a grieving person may not want visitors to come into their house. Meeting them outside their home to take them somewhere can reduce this problem.
What will make our companioning especially effective will be our prayer for the person. As Christians, we are called to be more than nice people. We are disciples of Christ. Our connection to Him will make all the difference when we desire to be present to a grieving person. When we companion a person through their grief, we allow Christ to touch them through our hands. When we pray for them, we invite Christ into a difficult situation. If a person asks you to pray for them, don’t wait. Do it right then and there and do it out loud. You don’t have to put on a holy voice or sound preachy. Just pray for
them wherever they are, and pray for the soul of the one who died. This is a profound Christian witness, and a comfort to the bereaved.
Grief ministry is nothing more than a ministry of presence. Do not be afraid to comfort the afflicted. It is nothing more or less than journeying alongside a person through their darkest moments to help them know they are not alone.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are at my side. Your rod and Your staff comfort me.
– Psalm 23:4
Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.
– Matthew 5:4
I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be His people and God himself will always be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, [for] the old order has passed away.”
– Revelation 21:3-4
Author’s Note: Not all grieving has to do with losing a loved one. It may have to do with losing a job or a relationship being broken. There are similarities with the loss of a loved one as well as differences. While some of the above may apply here, there are also differences that deserve their own article.
Andre McCarville is the Director of the Family Life and Missions Ministries of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown. He is also the diocese’s Campus Minister at Penn State Altoona.