Mormons & Death Series: A Guide to Giving Comfort

Posted by on July 6, 2011 in Changes, death, Doubt, faith, Family, grief, hope, Relationships, suffering, transition, women | 40 comments

(Angel of Grief (1894) by William Wetmore Story)

Unfortunately, I am well acquainted with grief. At an early age I was told that my grandfather Brinkerhoff was dying of cancer. I was too young to know what that meant. One day shortly after his death we were told to stay outside and play, I had forgotten a toy and mischievously tiptoed back in the house when I heard something strange. I peered into the kitchen and heard my mom weeping uncontrollably, her body heaving over a large pile of dirty dishes. We had been to the funeral and the grave yard and I did not see her cry this heartily. I was both surprised that grief lasted beyond the funeral and scared about what I was supposed to do. I had never seen my mom cry like that before. I weighed my options and decided that I would probably get into trouble for coming inside and I wasn’t sure how to help anyway, so I stealthily tiptoed back outside, but I never forgot that moment.

Years later, after I had bawled (the type of crying where snot comes out of your nose) through enough viewings of “My Girl” so that I felt like I could understand grief, my Aunt Lisa’s died in a tragic car accident. I was devastated. Lisa was my favorite aunt. She was the perfect combination of beautiful, fun, and remembers-what-it-feels-like-to-be-young that pre-teen girls crave. She was a former BYU cheerleader and would still come out and do back flips on the trampoline while all the other moms watched. I wanted to be like her. I remember sitting up all night praying and praying to God to make a miracle happen and to bring her back to life. At the funeral I remember being aware of different levels of grief for the first time, if I felt this sad how bad is it for my uncle or their four young sons? I began to empathize with their grief and my own got exponentially worse. Still, I didn’t really know what to do or say and so I did nothing.

Then came the summer of ’99 that sounds like the opening dialogue to a 1990’s version of a John Hughes teen movie and I guess looking back it was the beginning of my own bildungsromane, but for me it was the summer of sadness. My grandfather Shields was slowly dying of cancer and the family got together frequently to spend as much time as possible with him. I could tell his death took a huge toll on my father. I had never really seen him express much emotion and losing his father changed that. I wanted to help but I didn’t know what to do. We barely had time to let his passing soak in when tragedy struck again. My teenage brother drowned in an accident on the 24th of July. As people around us shot off fireworks and went to BBQ’s we searched for his body. Seared into my memory from that day is the image of my father lying prostrate on the asphalt of Orem Center Street letting the reality of his sons death sink in. I will never forget the juxtaposition of the cars driving by unfettered and celebrating and our family’s indescribable loss. It was in that moment that I began to understand grief; the paralyzing, slow to burn, erratic, often unpredictable, intensity of losing someone that you will never get back. It extends beyond the present and you mourn all of the memories you shared, the possible futures that could have been, the wasted moments, and words that you cannot take back, etc.

The next few weeks and months became a lesson in giving comfort. Family was more caring and sensitive, dear friends who didn’t know what to say or do disappeared for awhile, acquaintances who did stepped up and became dear friends, some ward members offended and inadvertently caused pain, and others cared, sympathized, and brought enormous peace. Everyone meant well. However, not everyone gave comfort. Why? This post is an attempt to create “A Guide to Giving Comfort” by making explicit why some people provided incredible peace and consolation and other (well meaning people) did not.

As a caveat, I want to clarify that I am not an expert on grief nor do I think all experiences are the same. But, I have been in the positions of not knowing what to do to give comfort and of extraordinarily appreciating the people who got it right. Since the summer of ’99, I’ve tried (and failed) many times to navigate through the grief of my husband losing both parents by 30 years old, a failed adoption, my grandmother’s passing, losing two uncles to cancer, and the miscarriages of multiple friends and family. I don’t always get it right, but there are a few things that I wish I had known. For starters, the main difference between the people who give comfort and those who do not, is usually personal experience with deep sadness and loss. Most of the people that taught me the steps below have been through their own grieving process. It is this empathetic understanding that makes all the difference and I think it is something we should try to apply in our attempts to give comfort.

Things to do:

  • Give a meaningful gift: Gifts show love without being didactic and they also provide needed reminders of comfort on a daily basis. Think of small things that remind you of that person: book, blanket, pictures, art, poem, music, etc. A stranger gave me a locket after my brother’s death and I put his picture inside and wore it for years. It brought me a lot of comfort and I didn’t even know the provider. During my father-in-law’s funeral an old friend gave my husband a wooden carving that his Dad had whittled out of driftwood on a camping trip. It probably would have meant very little to his own kids, but it meant the world to my husband and it hangs proudly in our house as a daily reminder of his father.
  • Provide physical touch: Loss makes you feel like there is a gaping hole in your heart. Physical touch acts as a temporary bandage. It somehow fills that hole a little bit. Give plenty of hugs, hand holds, massages, and (where appropriate) sex. No amount of words gave me more comfort than when a roommate heard me crying on the anniversary of my brother’s death and came across the room and silently rubbed my back. Physical touch biologically calms people down and sends a surge of oxytocin (the bonding chemical) through their body, the perfect antidote to physical separation.
  • Express sympathy: An honest expression of sympathy means more than any dialogue or lesson on eternity. At the viewing, give a hug, look in their eyes, and say you are so sorry that they have to go through this. 
  • Show up (especially if you have experience with grief): Expressions of sympathy mean more from people who have experienced a loss, they also give hope. Nothing gave my family more comfort during funerals than the hugs and presence of other’s who understood what we were experiencing. “Pay it forward” once you have healed a little.
  • Take over duties: The day after my brother’s death was the 4th birthday of my youngest brother. None of us felt like celebrating. A neighbor showed up with a cake, ice cream, and decorations and threw him an impromptu party full of enthusiasm and joy, something that none of us could have provided. She did not ask if she could do it or wait for permission, she just did it and we are all still grateful. Other neighbors took over callings, mowed the lawn, brought over food, gave rides, etc.
  • Share memories of the deceased (but stick to the positive ones): People want to talk about the person they are grieving. Don’t be afraid to share your favorite memories. However, be wary of being overly praising because people want to remember an honest depiction of the person that they can relate to, not some perfect image. Also. be wary of negative stories that can be extremely hurtful.
  • Talk about the deceased at regular intervals (3 months, 6 months, 1 year, and annually): There are overwhelming sentiments of comfort immediately after death and during the funeral, but a few weeks and months later it can feel like everyone else has forgotten. One of the most difficult things about grief is realizing that the world moves on with out this person in it and so it means a lot to someone bring up the deceased at regular intervals. Set up reminders on your calendar to send a card or make a call.
  • Have a sense of humor: Nothing breaks the heavy shroud of grieving like a big laugh. It is a welcome relief to hear a funny story or joke. A dvd or tickets to a comedian show make great gifts.
  • Allow person grieving to change: All the normal rules and roles in life go on a temporary hold after a death. Don’t rush those moments and don’t be afraid that these changes are permanent. However, do allow the person to use this time to experiment with their new identity, interests, ideologies, etc. My first child was born two months before my father-in-law passed away. Giving end of life care, the funeral, and the grieving process rearranged our family patterns. We were committed to equally shared parenting before this loss and yet I was doing the bulk of the care giving throughout it. One of my biggest regrets is that I insisted on our pre-determined plans rather than realizing that this was a unique moment in time. Now that we are back to our old patterns, I wish I would have been able to patiently wait out the changes and support my husband through that time without as much fear of what it meant for the future. 
  • Recognize their need to feel and express anger and doubt: It is scary to watch people you love expressing anger or doubt and our immediate reaction might be to “fix” these problems. Instead, recognize that these are the natural processes of grief are healthy to express. Also, recognize that some anger or depression over a menial problem might be related to the recent death.
  • Recognize that everyone experiences grief differently: Some people want to be surrounded by friends, some want to be alone, some openly mourn, some hide it, some stop eating, others eat too much, some blame the world, others blame themselves, some pretend it never happened, others are never the same again. Everyone experiences grief differently and that is why it is such a difficult thing to go through with someone else. Don’t blame or judge others for the manner in which they are grieving and don’t compare the intensity or sincerity of people’s grief based on their behavior. Recognize that anyone who has experienced a loss will be struggling and make sure to pay close attention to the people who act “strong” during the time immediately after the death because they will need to go through the grieving process and will need comfort later on. 
  • Share your experiences with grief (but do not compare): Relating to others who have gone through grief is extremely cathartic. Share your stories but be careful not to say, “I know how you feel,” or compare grief, i.e. “so and so’s death was less painful that this death.”
  • Recognize that only time will heal most wounds (do not rush people): After my brother died I had a friend say, “It has been six months already, aren’t you over it yet?” No amount of scripture study, prayer, or therapy helped me “heal” from grief as much as time itself. Most people who have gone through the grief process understand that. It is helpful to give people hope and let them know that it takes time, but that it does feel different in 5 years and that they will smile and be happy again even if they can’t imagine that right now.
  • Use church rhetoric sparingly: Most people do not experience grief through words or thoughts, but through feelings. Thus, while “He is in a better place,” “It is because God needed her in Heaven,” and “You should not be sad because you will see them again,” are statements that can give some intellectual or religious peace about death, they rarely give actual comfort in moments of grieving and can even diminish the pain of loss. Instead, pay attention to the actual feelings that people are experiencing and comment on those, i.e. “I cannot imagine how difficult this would be,” “You must miss _____ terribly,” “It is okay to feel really really really sad,” etc.

Things NOT to do:

  • Comment on the mode of death: It is often impossible to get the instant replay of the someone’s death out of your mind and any comments about the mode of death is not helpful or comforting. Avoid this altogether.
  • Comment on the prevention of death People sometimes make extremely hurtful comments after death in regard to deaths that could have been prevented, i.e. “I did not think he would be stupid enough to do that,” “We should have done _____,” “It was because she wasn’t living her life right,” etc. Nothing about the prevention of the death provides any comfort to those who already feel the loss. After some time has passed, the grieving might take up the cause to prevent similar deaths, but that should be inwardly directed, not outwardly imposed.
  • Don’t wait to be asked: Step up and show up. Don’t wait for permission to give comfort. Most people grieving can barely take care of themselves let alone communicate to others what they need. Whatever your talents are, provide them. For example, make a meal, take the kids to a movie, clean the house, offer to help with the funeral arrangements, print the programs, handle the thank you cards, arrange car rides, etc.
  • Hide or diminish your own grief: Everyone experiences grief differently. A few months after my brother’s death I expressed anger that my parents had moved on already. I was still struggling and it seemed like they were living life as usual. My mom was shocked by this and thought she was helping us by being strong. She explained that every day when she took a shower she wept and wept. It was comforting to communicate about grieving and it made us feel like we were in this together.
  • Avoid talking about the deceased (but don’t do it in rushed or shallow ways): People want to hear stories about the person they miss, but be careful of when and where you bring it up. It is hard to feel like you are always the downer and nothing kills a party like an honest conversation about grief (also, no one wants to feel like they are bringing other people down). Avoid asking about death in shallow ways, for example, asking how someone is doing when there is really no time to explain, it is not the appropriate situation, and the person is forced to be polite and give a standard response. One of my friend’s moms brought up my brother’s death as I was leaving church with friends one day and I felt torn between being a normal teenager and expressing how painful it really was. I just gave a quick reply and to this day I feel strange about how nonchalant I was.
  • Make it all about you: Some people feel like giving comfort means to express how difficult the death is on them. This often backfires because it makes the person grieving feel like they need to provide comfort rather than receive it. It is more helpful to give empathy for their loss rather than explaining how the person’s death impacted you.
  • Never say, “I know how you feel”: This phrase is meant to provide resonance between two people, but it is not a great phrase to use in giving comfort. No one can know exactly how someone else feels and no two situations are alike. You can provide better comfort and develop resonance by saying things like, “I never experienced any pain as strongly as I the pain of losing a child. I am so sorry you have to go through this,” “My Dad’s death was the hardest time in my life, let me know if there is anything I can possibly do to lessen your pain,” “Our situations are completely different, but I want you to know that over time I have been able to heal from the death of my brother and have learned how to be genuinely happy again.”
  • Use church rhetoric to hasten, lessen, or truncate grief: Sometimes people use church rhetoric to try to comfort people, but be wary of trying to lessen the pain or shorten the stages of grief by doing so. Saying things such as, “You should not feel sad because they are in heaven now,” “Aren’t you glad he is with God?” or “I know you’ll see them again someday so there is no need to mourn,” project how someone “should” be feeling rather than empathizing with how they actually “are” feeling. Grief is such a complicated emotion that we should avoid any attempts of telling people what they ought to be feeling.
  • Avoid people because you don’t know what to do: It is okay if you do not know what to do. Just say as much. People who care will not expect you to all of a sudden know how to give comfort perfectly. However, they will have a hard time forgetting if you abandon them in their time of need. Err on the side of being too involved rather than not involved enough. It seems surprising, but most of the people I know say that some of their closest friends walked away during the grieving process. It is near impossible to repair that feeling of abandonment. So even if you do not know what you are doing, it is better to make mistakes along the way than to avoid it altogether.

When I first experienced my mom grieving over the dishes I did exactly what I should not have, I tiptoed away from the situation. Over the years I’ve learned that comfort comes by showing forth love, compassion, sympathy, and empathy and by avoiding giving advice and telling people how they should feel. This topic is so complex that anyone who has experienced grief can add their own examples and suggestions to this list. I know it is not a complete “Guide on How to Comfort” others during grief but maybe together we can create a resource that will help people through this difficult time. One of the most basic covenants we make when we become members of this church is to “mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort” (Mosiah 18:9). Perhaps this guide will take us one step closer to doing that more effectively.

What are your own experiences with grief? What suggestions would you add to this list?

 

 

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40 Comments

  1. After my dad’s unexpected death, the woman who provided the best “grief ministry” was a colleague who had lost her husband to cancer at age 30. The “day after” my dad’s death, she left a basket of comfort food and teas on my door step. And then she checked in, regularly and unsentimentally (but warmly). She checked in on my sleeping habits. She offered me her copy of Didion’s “Year of Magical Thinking.” She gave me the name of a nun/Reiki practitioner who had helped her husband in his last days. She let me cry in her office. She told me about the surreal experience of picking up her husband’s cremated remains carrying them to her home in a shopping bag, like groceries — opening space for me to share. Her combination of practicality, stoicism, and deep care was one of my anchors. She had made it through the waves of her own grief a day, week, month, year at a time and was unflinching in being present with me in mine. I will love her always for that.

    • How beautiful Deborah. Thank you for sharing. What a blessing to have her in your life at that time. It seems like there always is one person that just “gets it” and helps you along the way, even if its not the people you would expect.

      Also, there is a lot of practical ideas in your comment as well.

  2. Without reading the post—and with all deference to the serious nature of it—I can’t scroll past that weeping angel. I have to stare at it. Don’t blink.

  3. Thank you for this. I’ve learned that being an optimistic, upbeat Mormon isn’t all we are supposed to do. I’ve had a lot of opportunity to mourn with those that mourn recently. I was talking to an old roommate about her 2nd miscarriage. She has no children.

    She was promised in a priesthood blessing that this child would become a leader in the church. She told me she believe God loves her, but that’s about it right now. I told her I was so sorry things turned out the way they did. I had no idea what to say to that. We just sat and cried together.

    A part of me felt bad for not making some expression of faith, but after reading this I think I did the right thing.

  4. This is brilliant, Whoa-man! Thank you so much- I think you covered everything so very well. All of the do’s and don’t you included are spot-on, there is nothing I could think of to add. Thank you.

  5. Thank you so much for this thoughtfully written post. Death is stifling. My grandma, whom I have always been close to, is in the process of dying from an aggressive cancer. Your post gave some great insights on how to manage my own grief and bolster my family. Thanks

  6. I love that your neighbor provided for your brother’s fourth birthday in your time of need. I wish I were so thoughtful and brilliant.

  7. This is an incredible post. I’ve experienced far too much death and tragedy in my life, and I’ve been present for the grief of others, and I know that if I or other had read this post things would have gone so much smoother. Thank you so much for posting.

  8. What I miss most from my wife’s recent passing is the human touch. It isn’t just sexual intimacy, or the kiss good-bye when I left for work in the morning–I miss holding hands while driving. I miss having her lean on me as I helped her up and down the stairs to the front door, or while she was getting into or out of the car. I miss her putting her feet in my lap when we were just sitting and watching TV. I miss her coming up behind me and giving me a hug while I made dinner. I miss running my hands through her long hair while we were just sitting next to each other. I go weeks now without any kind of human contact beyond a couple of handshakes at church. Sometimes they say all someone needs is a good shoulder to cry on. I could use one of those. That is the hardest part for me. I’ve got three little dogs that climb into my lap as soon as I even start to sit down, but I really miss a human to hug, or to hug me.

    • I’m so so sorry. This was an incredibly delicate and perfect description of the little things that cut so deeply after great loss. Thank you so much for sharing.

      I cannot agree more or express more fervently how important human touch is. Sometimes we get so used to it it that it becomes impossible to live without but too awkward to ask for or receive it from strangers. I hope and pray you find some comfort and touch in your life.

    • thank you, anon, for sharing this. I think so often we overlook these little things that allow grief to so fully pervade our lives. I know my experience is very different, but as a single person who lives alone, but who has known the joy of human contact on a daily basis in the past, the absence of simple human touch is a pain I feel often, sometimes very physically. It’s not just a kind of mental and emotional missing–it’s physically so real. I’m so sorry that you’re dealing with this now. I wish there was something I could do to make it not quite so hard.

  9. My husband is currently battling an aggressive form of cancer, and I’ve been reading different authors to prepare my children and myself. You did an excellent job of covering many important facets of grief. I recommend Deanna Edwards’ book, Grieving: The Pain and the Promise. Thank you for sharing your experiences and insights so beautifully.

    • Careful Healer, I’m so sorry to hear about your husband. Thank you for sharing this book recommendation. Blessings to your family on this difficult journey.

  10. Thanks so much for this beautifully written post, Whoa-man. I think that many of your do’s are in one form another a version of granting permission to the person who has lost a loved one to grieve, either through an accepting touch or empathetic sharing of one’s own experience. I think that authenticating grief and granting permission to grieve is one of the most important “do’s” I’d list. I think that especially in a very religious community in which so many don’t adhere to your advice about how to share abstract religious sentiments about death and the afterlife or about limiting church rhetoric, those who lose loved ones feel some guilt about their grieving. One of the most important things we can do as we mourn with those who mourn is authenticate their grief, recognize it as real and make sure they know that it’s okay to grieve. Sometimes we can do this through actions. Sometimes it can be overtly stated. I know that when I have grieved losses, I always appreciated more the actions and words of those who told me implicitly or explicitly to let myself grieve, that it was okay to feel what I was feeling, than I did of those who tried to reassure me that in the big scheme of things everything was okay and for the better and that I needn’t mourn.

    • Perfect. Perfect addition. I agree completely.

  11. A few weeks ago, a co-worker who lost his wife about a year before mine passed called me and offered to talk (his wife died the Monday after Easter. Mine died the Tuesday after). It was somehow comforting and ironic at the same time that he talked more than I did. It helped me to listen to him, because the feelings he was sharing were so close to mine.

    It is funny how grief goes in cycles. I had about a week where I was doing okay, and for some reason I got to missing her a lot again a couple of weeks ago, and that black cloud is back over my head. Then I guess my grief is still fresh. But it bothers me that the time she’s been gone is no longer days, and is starting to go from weeks to months. In so many ways it still feels like yesterday.

  12. Such a beautiful and practical post Whoa-man. Thank you for sharing your experiences and for such a comprehensive list of ways in which we can collectively do better for those around us who are or may in the future be grieving. As someone who has always worried about saying the “wrong thing” but still really wanted people to know that I care, this has really helped me to look at what my natural tendencies are and how I can consciously improve what I am able to offer someone in need of comfort.

  13. Thank you for this. My husband’s aunt just passed away. I needed to hear this. Unfortunately we live out of state and at first thought we would be able to make it to the funeral, but then realized that trying to get our schedules etc. to line up would be very difficult. Do you have any advice for those who can’t make it to the funeral and are separated by distance from those who are mourning? I would like to send a card and do something, but I’m not sure what would be helpful or comforting at this point.

    • I completely agree with Deborah. During grief time really does stand still and the little things like a card, note, or letter make a huge difference and are appreciated long after all the flowers wilt and the friends stop calling.

  14. Marie, from my experience . . . The cards I got in the mail were deeply appreciated. In the days of e-mail and facebook, I realized that finding a card, writing a thoughtful note, finding my address and a stamp and mailing it were all acts of love. I saved every card. You could also send flowers through the funeral home. Again, it was touching to walk through the bouquets at the viewing and see the notes of love.

  15. Excellent article, Chels. Thanks. Have you ever read C.S. Lewis’ “A Grief Observed”?

  16. This was a great post. It’s really relevant to me right now, as my close friend is going through a year of losses, and other mutual friends have asked me several times what we can do to show her our support. I’ll just send them this post. Thanks, Whoa-man.

  17. Thanks for this post. I am usually at a loss when trying to help in these situations. Don’t want to say the wrong thing or do the wrong thing. Which is funny b/c I’ve been on the flip side. When my second daughter died as a newborn, my head was in such a fuzzy state, I don’t remember what people did or said. With a couple of exceptions. While zombie walking the house, I ran into my dad in the hallway. We were not and are not close. But he looked me in the eye and said “This sucks and I’m sorry.” I cried on his shoulder for a long time. The other thing can be viewed as sweet or creepy, take your pick. It was Easter time when my child died. My sister found a little plush lamb. Bought two of them. One was buried with my daughter. I have one tucked in a box of memories. It comforts me, even if it sounds a little weird.

  18. Thank you for this Whoa-man. This is a question that has weighed heavily on me for awhile. In fact, I asked a friend about it yesterday and we had a nice conversation. She said a couple of things that would add to this conversation here. First of which was to know the person who you attempting to comfort. When you are close to them and know them pretty well, you can have an idea of what they need in that situation. That would be a feature in Zion, right? We would know each other well enough and have personal relationships with those in our communities, wards and families that we know them enough to know how to comfort them.

    The other thing she said was that sometimes words are not going to be helpful and a hug is most needed at that time. I know for me, I just need hugs and it doesn’t even matter if I know the person or not. I know that not everyone feels comfortable with hugs and its certainly not the way to comfort my best friend so this area is one where its really important to know the person.

    You ask about grief suffered by readers. You probably know my conversion story but it was the bone-crushing, soul-wrenching grief at my father’s death that made finding religious truth imperative for me. His death was another blow to our family of 3 because I had just come to an awareness of how much was missing from my family since the stillbirth of my brother. It was unbearable to realize that half my family was dead. My mother and I felt so lonely.

    Then a year later, my favorite grandmother died. Then my other grandmother, then my grandfather, my great uncle and my aunt. In a 10 year period. I joke that I have a lot of practice with grief. I know the difference experiencing it before having the comfort view point of the gospel and then after. Even after joining the church, I got so caught up in family history and temple work that I realized my life was more about death than it was about enjoying life. I tried and found I couldn’t. I’m just now coming to a point where I have set my focus on death and the afterlife aside to focus on life here. My children have helped me with that. Currently, my mantra is essentially the 13th Article of Faith. I’m seeking and immersing after those things so I can be free from that specter of death that haunted me for so long.

    • Thank you for sharing all of these wonderful thoughts. I cannot tell you how my heart ached when I read your comment and I wish I could retroactively comfort you. I find so much hope and joy in the 13th Article of Faith and once said that it pretty much sums up my testimony. Thank you again for sharing such deep things so clearly so that we all might benefit from that knowledge. I know I have.

  19. Thank you so much for taking the time to write this. I have lost a few people in my life, but not yet someone I am very close to. I always fear of saying the wrong thing or doing the wrong thing to someone who is seriously grieving. I do NOT know how that feels and don’t pretend to. Although I look back with some regret about the way I have handled situations like these in the past I have found comfort in some of the small ways I have tried. I think that what you said about using your talents to help someone made such great sense to me. I am not a good empathizer/listener, but I am good with kids and not a shabby cook! I am now vowing to ALWAYS do something. Thank you w-man.

    • Tiffany, the woman who provided my little brother the birthday party we all forgot about and the many who brought some joy into the lives of the little kids who didn’t really understand what was going gave such great service, peace, and comfort. You are that person!

      • I will try to be :)

  20. What a wonderful article. Thank you so much for putting these thoughts together. As someone who experienced the death’s of her parents a year apart when I was a teenager and then death after death for many years after that I really appreciate the things you have written. At one time in my life if my family had gone more than a couple years without a death it seemed like I was just waiting for the next one to occur. It is not a happy place to be. Of course with time, I have been able to accept that death does not always have to be just around the corner and to stop expecting bad things to happen. Wonderful friends who understand and love unconditionally made all the difference.
    The only thing I might add is that grieving the loss of a loved one is not a a time thing. We do not go through the grief cycle just once but go through it again and again as our lives progress. Those who have lost loved ones will mourn them over and over again as certain events and anniversaries take place in their lives. I thought I was done grieving the loss of my mother until I got married and wished she was there, and the same thing happened again when I have had each of my children. Keeping this in mind I have often sent notes to friends and loved ones when I knew they might be struggling again with their loss, just to let them know I was thinking of them and praying for them.

    • Thank you for adding this comment. I completely agree and am shocked by even the random moments when that grief creeps back in. It is important to realize that it never fully goes away, perhaps the joy just slowly comes back? I also really appreciate you speaking of expecting death around the corner. I felt (and sometimes feel) much the same way and have had people critique me for that. It’s A) nice to know I’m not alone, and B) a good thing to add to our list.

  21. After the sudden and unexpected loss of my dad 8 months ago tomorrow, I never thought I could move on. My best friend had lost her dad 3 months before, and I had no idea how to comfort her, or what to do. Thinking back, I was a terrible friend! But when the tables turned, she was the best comforter I could have asked for at the time. She knew exactly what I needed everytime. I know most people have no idea what to say or do, but after the viewing (10,000 + people) I didn’t want anymore hugs. People were kind and did what they thought was best, and I just reminded myself and my family that they want to help. They just didn’t have a resource like this post. This is perfect! I wish this could be posted at each funeral. It would save a lot of uncomfortable moments for both sides of grieving. Thank you

  22. Beautiful writing and compelling ideas, as always. I have a bit of a different take on this article in that my greatest loss to date has been that of my 17-year marriage. I was divorced a year and a half ago, and two and a half years prior to that, I discovered that my husband had been having a long-term affair with a prostitute. What had begun as periodic financial transactions for sex had evolved into her becoming his kept woman, so to speak, with him footing the bill for a new condo, living expenses, and spending sprees. In nine months, he spent every penny of our substantial savings and, when that ran out, drove us deeply into debt. I opted to remain in the marriage for the sake of our three very young children–6, 4, and 2 at the time–and I worked on our relationship as hard as I could. Things seemed to slowly improve over the next couple of years until one day he came home from work at noon, unexpectedly, and handed me divorce papers. Several months later, I found out he had been having another affair for the last six months of our marriage.

    Needless to say, I was devastated. The only glimmer of hope I had lay in the fact that I had kept his affair a secret from everyone except my parents while we tried to save our marriage, and now that everything was out in the open, I could finally get the support I so desperately needed from friends and family members. Instead, it turned out to be the loneliest time in my life. For 10 years I had been fully active in a wonderful ward with warm, friendly people, a ward also attended by my parents and my aunt and uncle. Yet in the months following my divorce, only one woman offered a listening ear and expressed empathy for what I was going through. On top of that, I received wordless hugs from a few other women, and there was one man who periodically asked how I was doing and if he could help. Other than that, nothing. I have never felt so isolated and invisible.

    Compare that to a week after my husband filed for divorce, when my grandmother died. (Yeah, it was a bad week.) Or six months later, when my mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor. (What did I do to piss off God?!) In both cases, people came out of the woodwork to offer their condolences, which I sincerely appreciated, but the contrast was stark.

    We understand illness and death, I suppose, even if we despise it, as the vast majority of us have dealt with both on some level. And they generally have no moral cast. Divorce, however, is sticky for most members of the church, I’ve come to realize. They don’t know how to process it, so they just . . . don’t. Knowing the members of my ward as I do, I believe that many of them were concerned about me and wanted to say or do something, but they were paralyzed by indecision over how to approach the situation. I’m sure a lot of people handle death and other catalysts for grief in much the same way. I do understand that, so I’m not bitter, but it made my struggle much harder than it had to be.

    One valuable lesson I learned from this experience is to reach out, always. I will never again be the person who is too afraid to say or do the wrong thing and so doesn’t say or do anything at all. Of course, I will try to be thoughtful in my words and deeds, and I will do my best to apply the advice in this article. But above all else, I will act.

    • Oh, Kimberly. I’m so so sorry. I cannot imagine your pain and you are 100% correct that yours is a grief less understood and less supported. I for one, am part of that group of unsure onlookers who are too afraid of saying the wrong thing to actually say or do anything at all and that is not okay. Your bravery in this post will really help people (including myself) to take the steps to act. Be it death, adultery, divorce, or rebuilding a life NO ONE should have to do that alone when we can have each other.

      • Thank you, truly. Just reading those simple words– “I’m sorry”–heals my heart a little. Even though I’m in a much better place than I was this time last year, I cried and cried when I read your reply because it feels so good to receive that empathy, since precious little of it has come my way in the wake of my divorce. I’m still hungry for it, I suppose, which seems uncomfortably self-absorbed a year and a half on. But there it is. Self-absorbed or not, I appreciate your support more than you know.

    • Kimberly, thank you for saying this. I have not lost any one person close to me to death, but I have suffered loss in other abstract yet still severe ways. Amidst the original focus in the OP and comments I wasn’t sure how or if I should bring it up. So I am glad you brought divorce to light as a different, yet still severe, kind of loss. I think if others were to follow much of the advice in the OP in any instance of loss (divorce, dreams lost, failed engagement, loss of trust, falling out/no contact with family and dearest friends, loss of faith, etc.) it would be of great help to those who suffer. The loss of life seems to be difficult for others across the board, but because some losses aren’t difficult for some doesn’t mean they aren’t severe for others. And having to deal with that severity on your own, because it’s not recognized as a loss or the need for grieving and support is unseen, makes it that much harder.

      I must admit to previously being someone who found others’ divorces a sticky subject, but that was because my own parents’ divorce was so painful for me. In retrospect I see that this was because for me it was basically the death/loss of my “family” even if no individual family member had died or was lost. As a child I fell into a deep depression after that, which may have been avoided had I simply been told it’s okay to grieve, be angry, feel, etc. and been supported in that. So now understanding divorce as death/loss of family/marriage, seeing that you (and probably others) see it this way too, and having the wonderful suggestions in the OP, I hope in the future I can be of greater support to others in these situations.

      • Maureen, you and Kimberly make such a great point. A loss is a loss and they can’t be compared or diminished. I’m so sorry for your losses and I think you sharing in this post will make us all more aware of each others suffering and our ability to help one another. Thank you.

      • You’re welcome, Maureen, and thank you for adding your thoughts. I’m sorry for what you had to endure as your parents divorced. Going through a divorce with my kids has made me far more aware of that loss from a child’s point of view, and I can only hope I and my parents have been enough of a support system for them during this time. Like me, they have received little overt empathy from others, and although they seem to be faring much better than I expected, I worry about the possible repercussions for them down the road. I wish you had gotten the support you needed as well, and I’m so sorry that slipped through the cracks. Thanks again for your perspective.

  23. One more thing, to Whoa-man (who is actually my super talented and highly intelligent cousin): I’m so very sorry for the loss of your brother all those years ago. I’m sure I didn’t act enough at the time, not knowing then what I do now, and I apologize for that. I do miss him, and my heart breaks for how deeply you and your parents and your siblings must miss him still.

  24. Sometimes people use church rhetoric to try to comfort people, but be wary of trying to lessen the pain or shorten the stages of grief by doing so.

    One member I knew said that after his wife had died a lingering, painful death from cancer, that members were telling him “you can’t be tempted above what you can endure”. Attempts at sympathy? That was probably worse than not saying anything at all.

  25. Thanks to all who posted such tender thoughts and experiences. I have the privilege of volunteering at the Bradley Center for Grieving Families and Children and the sentiments posted here echo the experiences shared by those in our groups who have lost children, siblings or spouses. It’s been said that when one is dealing with a loss, one-third of the people in their lives will be helpful, one-third neutral and one-third hurtful. The posts above are a great help to making sure we are the ones in that top third. Perhaps, even, these types of conversations can increase awareness and change the entire equation. Great job, whoa-man!

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