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Death & Dying

How to Behave at a Service and During the Grieving Period

Kathryn Patricelli, MA

grieving mother and daughterDepending on the type of funeral and burial, these events can be quiet, solemn affairs where guests may be crying, hugging, and sharing memories; or large, vibrant party-like gatherings in which the person's life and death are celebrated and guests are found laughing and chatting. During this time of grief and loss, we are called upon to support others who are also grieving. Regardless of the rituals or ways in which they are conducted, this can be an awkward period. Many people are unsure what to say or do that is helpful. Many worry that they will inadvertently cause additional problems for grieving people by saying or doing the wrong thing. Grief is highly individual, so there really is no set formula for how best to help grieving people. However, here are some general principles of behavior that are generally appropriate:

 

  • Don't Minimize the Loss. Often while wanting to make the mourner feel better, we may actually accomplish the opposite by minimizing the loss, or insinuating that the mourner is not behaving as others expect. Avoid using phrases like, "She led a long life and it was her time" "It was God's plan for him to leave now," "Time heals all wounds," and "He was in such pain, it was probably for the best." These phrases attempt to offer comfort by framing the loss in the context of religion or a larger perspective, but all can easily come across as efforts on your part to minimize the mourner's feelings of loss and grief. These phrases can easily leave the grieving person feeling angry and with the impression that you are insensitive or afraid.

    The best types of comments avoid any attempt to frame the loss, and instead, simply comment on the difficulty of the situation, how sorry you are that the loss occurred, and how you can support or help the grieving person. A heartfelt and simple, "I'm so sorry for your loss," is very appropriate and can mean a great deal to mourners.

  • Listen. Instead of trying to offer "helpful" comments, you can help by simply being present and listening to what the grieving person has to say. Many grievers simply need to vent their overwhelming emotions. Being heard and acknowledged often makes them feel better.

 

 

  • Reach Out. Many people hesitate to reach out, and instead choose to wait for the grieving person to ask for assistance. However, the griever may be dealing with so much that he or she is unable to let others know that help is needed. He or she may also feel ashamed or embarrassed. Having a family member or friend offer support or encouragement can be very welcome and much needed.

    Help should be offered in the form of specific tasks that the griever may need assistance with, rather than a general "call if you need anything." Grievers are often overwhelmed and not thinking straight; they may not know what they need. Offering to cook a meal, run errands, shop for groceries, clean the house, babysit or pet sit, take children to school, etc. are all good examples of specific and helpful things that you can offer to mourners.

  • Don't be Afraid to Mention the Lost Person. Often people fear that if they use the deceased person's name or refer to the loss, they will make the mourner upset. However, most people feel worse when those around them act as though the deceased person or the relationship never existed and that nothing has changed. Acknowledging the loss is frequently beneficial to the grieving process. A corollary bit of advice is to try and treat the grieving person normally rather than "babying" them. Normal interactions can help the griever start to resume regular activities and relationships.

 

 

  • Suggest Professional Help. If you are worried that a griever is "stuck" in their grieving process, experiencing difficulty acknowledging the reality of the loss, or displaying signs of physical or mental illness (such as long-term changes in appetite, sleep, energy level, ability to concentrate, etc.) encourage that person to see a therapist or a medical doctor for further assistance.

 

 

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