I don’t know what to say; Is there a way I can help?

I have several friends I often speak with, and I must preface that they have been highly supportive since my wife died over two years ago.  I appreciate the meals, the invitations to parties, and the opportunities to socialize with them, but there is this feeling of discomfort every time we get together.  There is this fear that if they ask me how I am doing, I will break down and cry, making them feel extremely uncomfortable.  There is also this idea that to speak about my late wife for some reason is not socially acceptable. 

Yes, it’s strange and weird and, unfortunately, too familiar in our society.  We live in a society that refrains from speaking about death.  It’s a taboo topic: don’t speak about death because it’s too uncomfortable to talk about.

One of the ways I try to ease the tension and fear among my friends and people I socialize with is to speak about my late wife.  I tell stories of the fun things we did and how she would reprimand me for some stupid things that I did more than a few times.  It seems to break the tension.  I ask them to share stories about my wife as well.  I often say, “Don’t be afraid to criticize her unless you think she will come back and haunt you?”  The way to keep her alive is by recalling memories of her.  There are lessons to be learned from those experiences we shared.  It’s an opportunity to evolve and grow.

Helping others understand grief is sometimes referred to as a “teachable moment.”  It’s a time to help someone understand a concept that scares most people and prevents them from facing it.  I tell them I cannot control grief, but I learn how to live with it.  I share the mantra that Eva Ibbotson, the late British children’s novelist, wrote many years ago after her husband died.  I use it as my mantra.

“I cannot prevent the birds of sorrow from flying over my head, but I can prevent them from nesting in my hair.”

I think of those words quite often and reflect on their meaning.  Sometimes I feel great and am enjoying the day or evening and in pops grief.  It’s unannounced and is there to upset me.  I now have a choice: let it control me, accept it as momentary, although it may feel like a long time, and realize it will pass.  I will not allow it to grip my good day or night.  I prefer to focus on the gratitude and joy I shared with my spouse.  I commit to turning sorrow into joy.  I want to live my life as my wife would like me to live it.  Yes, there will be those times that I feel the sadness is interminable and causes tears and sorrow, but they will pass.  They cannot control you or me.

Several friends have also asked me to help their neighbors and relatives who have lost loved ones.  They often say I don’t know what to say.  I tell them it’s easy to be a helper by simply saying: “I feel your pain and am here to listen.”  I tell them don’t say, “Your loved one is in a better place.”  Don’t say God needed another angel.”  Those trite expressions don’t help anyone, especially a person grieving.

Be a good listener, and ask the person to share if comfortable about their loved one.  Offer to run errands and help in other ways.

Brothers, we are the educators that can help others learn how to confront death and be a source of support and strength.  We do it when we help those not affected by grief learn the art of dealing with grief.

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