I have been an RN for over 40 years and have been honored to spend time with many grieving families. I also experienced insurmountable grief from the loss of my 54-year-old husband Jeff, whom I had been married to for 32 years. I have learned from my professional and personal experiences about genuine, comforting approaches versus insensitive ones. Allow me to share with you some ways to facilitate peace in the wake of loss.
"They say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time." Banksy
I have found this quote to ring true when an elderly patient has outlived their family and friends. I have witnessed them sadly die alone with nobody to mourn them, nevertheless to remember them.
The lesson here is simply to allow the grieving person to talk as much as he or she desires about a deceased loved one. I remember sharing and listening to countless stories with my husband's old high school and college friends for weeks after he died. Although the stories were not new, they were better than ever because they helped to fill a void and temporarily relieve some pain.
While working for years as a home health nurse, I always made a return visit to grieving family members a few weeks after the death of a loved one. This is a dark and gloomy period when family and friends have departed, and they find themselves very alone. I recognized this rare opportunity to be a captive audience for folks as they endearingly spoke about their loved ones.
I remember feeling resentment towards others following Jeff's death because they could resume their everyday lives as if nothing had changed (by no fault of their own). On the other hand, I realized without question that the lives of my family would forever be changed by the magnitude of our loss. Hence, it was especially comforting when I received a kind gesture or phone call several weeks or even months after the loss; a time when I needed human compassion more than ever.
Shy away from the hollow "I'm here for you" or "You can lean on me". Perhaps the worst is "Let me know if you need anything," unless you really are planning to make yourself available for any request. Empty remarks tend to be a blur whereas honest comments that you have no words to express your sympathy are more memorable.
When reaching out try to avoid careless comments like, "I can't imagine what you are going through," or even worse, "I don't know how you are able to move on?" My unspoken response was "Geez like I have some kind of say in the matter?" Instead, think deeply about what you want to say and write your thoughts in a card that you can give to your grieving family member in person. A thoughtful card can open the door to a meaningful hug or bonding conversation.
Never avoid a grieving person simply because you aren't sure how to act around them. On the contrary, be around to help them with chores like organizing closets, gardening, enjoying walks, sharing a meal, or going to the movies together. I recall certain friends that were MIA after Jeff passed away and it was really hurtful. I didn't understand their aloof behavior at the time but in hindsight I suspect it was a matter of their own discomfort, which is regrettable for all.
I preferred solitude when grieving for my husband while others prefer to not be alone. I often would stand in the shower alternating between crying and screaming for long periods and then exit quietly. Respect other's wishes by simply asking their preference because we all grieve differently.
A friend hosted a "Celebration of Life" party for Jeff. It was a thoughtfully planned outdoor cookout that buzzed with Jeff stories all day long.
A friend called often to express her grief about Jeff but repeatedly commented that she wished her own miserable husband had died.
A counselor advised me to picture my life sitting in the front of a movie theatre and to move those who were not comforting to the back row.
A friend repeatedly asked "How could they miss this" when referring to Jeff's doctors delayed diagnosis and subsequent death.
A life coach gave me a journal and told me to write something daily about how I was feeling. I now cherish these raw unfiltered journal entries about Jeff.
A family member who feels guilty for helping little and not visiting Jeff when he was still alive - only to later ask for understanding.
My son sponsored a "Movember" Prostate fundraiser and recruited a big team to participate. I was grateful and hoped it gave him comfort to help others suffering from the same disease that caused his father's death.
My Daughter accompanied me to the Florida Keys to spend some downtime together far away from usual routines. It became our escape from reality if not a sanctuary for us both during a surreal time of mourning.
Lastly, I find it somewhat amusing when my wise mother comments on occasion that we tend to embellish the perfection of those who have passed away despite their truthfulness. I typically reply that no harm is done by allowing those grieving to be made to feel a little better. I lightheartedly elaborate that if I should outlive her, I intend to reminisce about all of my perfect Mom's truly admirable qualities.