Mormons & Death Series: A Guide to Giving Comfort
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?