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Rated: E · Essay · Family · #757634
What TO say and NOT TO say when someone you know loses a loved one.
Originally published in the Romance/Love newsletter

December 2, 2002

Updated October 27, 2021

Dealing With The Loss Of a Loved One

         One of the toughest parts of life is dealing with the emotions, memories, and feelings that come on holidays following the death of a loved one. The closer the relationship, the stronger all of these are, and the harder they are to deal with. Often because family gatherings at those times have been a tradition for countless years, and everyone was there. Likewise, the holidays that are first encountered following the death of that family member are the toughest to deal with as well. The first Labor Day without them. The first Thanksgiving. The first Christmas.

         From my own experiences after losing my first wife, and high school sweetheart, Linda, now 41+ years ago (March 3, 1980), and from talking to others at that moment in their life, here are a few important things to remember at these times, holidays and otherwise, if someone you know has recently suffered a similar loss. Keep in mind these are only guidelines. Since every one of us is unique these won’t necessarily apply in every instance. But they’re a very good starting point.

1. You may have lost a relative too in the past, but right now, they may feel their loss is stronger and more painful than yours. If that is evident at some point, don’t be upset by it. It’s natural for them to be centered on their own situation.

2. Even if they say they’re trying not to think about it, they may not be able to get their mind off of it that easily. Don’t be surprised by that fact, and don’t get on them for not being able to do it. Try to remember your own situation - that will remind you that it’s not very easy to accomplish.

3. Don’t say things like, “Mom, you know dad wouldn’t want you to keep feeling like this. You know he’d want you to get on with your life.” Especially too soon after the funeral. Your intentions are good, but words like those can have the opposite effect. They could bring to mind even stronger memories of the relative, especially favorite things they used to say or do, even their mannerisms, and actually make it harder for that friend or relative to do what you suggested. They will get there in their own time. They need time to quietly remember, to keep feeling their love for that person for a while. And the stronger the love had been between them, the longer getting there may take. I wasn’t ready to start letting go until about six to eight months after Linda died. I knew that what well-meaning friends and family had said was true, she would want me to do that. I'd known that myself, simply from knowing her as well as I did. There was no doubt in my mind at any time that that is what she would want me to do. But I still could not bring myself to actually begin doing that for about six to eight months. During that time, I was unable to function normally if she was out of my sight for any even reasonably extended period of time. I took two favorite photos of us, had them blown up to 18" x 24" size, bought frames for them, and took them to work. I alternated between them, hanging each one in turn for a week or two, on my office wall. Looking at those each day, right over my desk, kept me focused, and relaxed enough that I could work. I had those and others I would look at at home when I felt the need, which was just as frequent at that point. Give your relative or friend the space to do this on their own. They’ll let you know later how very much they appreciated it.

4. It’s fine to say, “Just let me know if you need anything, or want to talk.” But once you say it, give them time without saying it. They don’t need to hear it in every conversation you have with them. That can even become annoying to them, and they’ll want to avoid you for a while if that happens. Give them the chance. They won’t forget the offer.

5. They may want more predictability in their life for a while. Let them have that predictability. When the time comes that they do come to you for help, listen carefully to their request, and do only as they ask you to do, and the way they ask you to do it.Don’t add your own ideas to it thinking you’re helping. You won’t be. You’ll make it worse, and they won’t come to you next time. They need to know exactly what to expect. Even if they have forgotten something, they’ll remember it in time. What they need now is predictability when they ask for help. Not surprises. They have enough on their mind without those. They’ll actually appreciate the fact that you did exactly as they’d asked of you. Here’s another example of the predictability they may want. When Linda died, my mother wanted me to stay with her, and my dad for a while. I quietly declined. I told her, “Mom, I need as little change as possible in the rest of my life right now. I need familiar things around me, and that means waking up at home every morning. If I woke up anywhere else, I'd immediately wonder why I was there, and it would take only a short, very painful second to remember why. And that would destroy me. Besides. Staying at home through this will make it easier to go back there after the funeral. When things will consciously be more final in my mind.” {That made sense to my dad. He wondered if others ever thought about that.) And the day of her funeral, when I did walk in that apartment door afterward, I was never more glad than to have stuck to that decision. Even then the silence I felt around me was excruciating. I didn’t even want to think about how it would have felt had I stayed elsewhere then walked in our apartment at that moment. Let them have the predictability they need. They’ll let you know when they’re ready for change, either by what they say, or initiating it themselves.

6. Privacy. One of the biggest things they may need is privacy. Time alone, or with only family members around. Pure and simple. Let them have that privacy. They need time to mourn in their own way, and learn to accept the loss in their own way. No one can help them with that. They’ll make it known when they’ve passed that point. In the weeks after Linda died, if I wanted undisturbed privacy, which I did for quite a while, I even unplugged my phone till I was ready to go to bed. I wanted no interruptions at all. When her daughter passed away, I told a close friend of mine simply, “I’m here for you, whenever you want to talk, or borrow a shoulder to cry on, or anything else you think I can help with. I’ll wait to hear from you.” And I’ve done that. I’ve given her the chance for privacy as best I can in case that’s what she wants. I haven’t contacted her except when she sends me a note first. And I’ll continue to do that until she says she’s ready for a normal exchange again. No matter the length of time. She’ll know when it’s time. Let those you care about have that privacy. Later on they’ll appreciate you even more for that consideration.

         These are only a start. But they are the truly important points that need to be made. Other than these, here’s a general guideline. And only a guideline. Basically, their life at this moment is a mix of pain, memories, love, anguish and confusion. It will show in what they say and do. Your job, if you really want to help them in ways they will appreciate, is to simply be there, almost silently, letting them know almost just by your very presence that you are waiting to be asked. Whether to be a shoulder they can cry on, a source of advice, an errand boy/girl (trips to the store will turn up - they won’t want to go out for a while), or something else. Just the fact that you are there, and waiting, be it in person or by your phone, and they know it, will in itself be a source of comfort to them that you will never be able to comprehend. Be a true friend or relative. Let them have the space they need right now, but be there for them when they call. If you do that, they will definitely call.

         An important update. This morning (11/24/2007), while returning from a trip to the post office, I encountered a situation that immediately made me aware of one scenario that I had not ithought of when writing this original piece.

         As I came up to an intersection where I needed to make a left turn, I spied a minivan parked sideways in the two "straight ahead" lanes to my right, blocking traffic in those two lanes. As I looked beyond the van, I saw the reason, and my heart sank within seconds as this new scenario immediately came to the forefront of my thoughts. I watched, unwavering, as a funeral procession coming from the opposite direction slowly made a left turn into the large and fairly old cemetery off to my right.

         Doing a quick calculation, I realized that the person that lay in that hearse likely died only a day or two before Thanksgiving. I immediately said a prayer for them, and for the family they left behind as I realized that dealing with a loss like this during a holiday, say, two or more months after the person's death is one thing. But to have to deal with that loss and the holiday memories within just days of each other, as this family had had to do over Thanksgiving, had to be something we wouldn't wish on our worst enemy. Continuing to pray for them as I made that left turn a few minutes later, I realized how thankful I was that I had not been in that position when Linda passed away.

         This scenario is yet another reason that I am glad He knows us so well and will always be there to bring all of us through our trials. That fact helped me relax about that family's situation as I finished the trip home.

         An additional update. This morning (10/23/2021), while simply reading through this piece to refresh my memory on details after reading a review of it by another WdC member, I realized that my life had indeed been deeply impacted by two more events similar in nature to the Thanksgiving tale I spoke of in the paragraphs above.

         First, a neighbor of Linda's family still lives on that same street. in May of 2014, she recognized me as she drove past my house (I now live in that same subdivision, one street behind where Linda's family had lived) as I was about to get into my car. She stopped, and told me that Linda's mother, Virginia, had quietly passed away a couple weeks earlier, and told me why. Then, that same wonderful lady stopped by on December 20, 2015, and gave me the news that hit me in the stomach. She told me that Linda's younger sister, Marcia, who had been Linda's best friend, companion and confidant through Linda's early years, up until Linda and I met in 1966, had passed away the year before, on Thanksgiving Day, 2014. I don't even want to think about what her husband and young daughter had to endure with losing her ON a holiday. That's definitely tougher than the Thanksgiving tale I mentioned above.

         And second, I realized once again, tonight as I read this piece, how truly numb my mind had been for about 8 months when Linda passed away. I'd had to deal with a special day related to her death, but my numb mind must have tempered my reaction when that day came.

         Linda passed away on Monday night, March 3, 1980. My mind became numb in how it was willing to deal with our relationship, her passing, and my interaction with other people, from the moment I found her body that night. Fifteen days later, March 18, 1980, would have been Linda's 31st birthday. Looking back, I know I was still numb on that day (and I would be for that next 8 months), because I literally did not have contact with anyone on that day, except her family, and it was by my own choice.

         Hopefully, my addition of this latest update will show all of you, in another way, how deeply any of us can be affected physically, and emotionally, by the loss of a loved one, and therefore why the observations I included in the original part of this piece are so important for us all to keep in mind.

© Copyright 2003 Incurable Romantic (jwilliamson at Writing.Com). All rights reserved.
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