News

For Those Who Grieve

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | July 28, 2012

“You can clutch the past so tightly to your chest that it leaves your arms too full to embrace the present.”
Jan Glidewell

“I never know what to say at times like this,” my friend said to me as we stood in a receiving line waiting to visit with a grieving family who had recently lost a loved one.  Graciously he added, “I’m sure you do, though.”  Actually I don’t.

I think we all struggle at times like that.  And even with considerable training and experience (unfortunately), I am not an exception either.

Someone compiled a list of “Ten Ways You Can Help Me in My Grief.”  They helped me.  Perhaps they’ll help you.

  1. Be with me.  “If you are scared, don’t run away.  I need my friends to go through this with me.”  There is nothing like the power of presence.  After my father died, my mother attended many funerals just to be “there.”  She knew her presence mattered more than her words.  I can still see her taking a homemade pie to that grieving family.

  2. See the world as I see it.  “Don’t discount or negate my experiences by telling me not to worry or that everything is going to be all right, if that’s not true.”  False hope helps no one.  Our simplistic answers and meaningless clichés help no one.

  3. Help me around the house.  “Water my flowers, empty my trash, do my dishes.  Do what needs to be done.  Don’t ask me to think of ways you can help.  I’m busy enough just trying to get through.”  Often, doing something is better than saying something.

  4. Take me to one of my appointments to arrange things; or offer to do errands for me. 

  5. Life is very serious for me now; but I still like an offer to go to a park or out for lunch.  “Know my limitations, and help me to have some distractions when I need them.”

  6. Be affectionate with me and yet don’t be offended if I pull away.  “I am hurting and confused.”

  7. Tell me if I can call you in the middle of the night if I am scared or hurting.

  8. Help me with my family.  “Invite them out to do something fun, or come and cook dinner for us, or come and be with me so that they can take a break.”

  9. Talk to me.  “Don’t talk about me and exclude me from the biggest event that has ever happened in my life.  I still need to be part of conversations.”

  10. Be honest and open with me.  “Don’t avoid talking about what happened because you think it might upset me.”

I’m sure you could add a host of additional suggestions to this short list.  At our best we all can be a bit clumsy when we are trying to express in word or deed our deepest sympathy to those who have suffered profound loss.  One of my dearest friends still grieves over what was said to him at his daughter’s funeral after she was killed by a drunk driver leaving behind her husband and small children.

Comments like “Time heals all wounds” or “Think of all you still have to be thankful for” or “You are holding up so well” are not constructive.

Sympathy cards express our concern but nothing can take the place of our personal handwritten words.  When my mother died in 1989, one of my students copied this short poem in long hand inside a sympathy card, “Death is not extinguishing the light, it is turning out the lamp because the dawn has come.”  Since those words profoundly comforted me, I usually copy them by hand in almost every sympathy card I send.

We should all remember the words on the Irish headstone, “Death leaves a heartache no one can heal, love leaves a memory no one can steal.”

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of
Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA
Responses can be emailed to president@vfcc.edu
Official page:  Facebook.com/DrDonMeyer