Wednesday, July 23, 2008

How to Treat a Friend Who Has Suffered a Loss -- Part 2

To all those who have done things for and communicated with me. THANK YOU. I know anything you have done or said was an expression of your love and concern for me.  I have not been offended by anything anyone has said to me and I appreciate everything people have done for me and given to me. I hope nothing I write will offend any of you or make you think I didn't appreciate something you said or did for me. 

Why am I writing this guide? I grew up surrounded by brothers. I often got my feelings hurt by them. My mother taught me early in my life, "Men are obtuse. If you want them to say something or do something, you have to tell them exactly what you want them to say or do." That helped immensely in my family life, dating life, and married life. The same principal applies now.  Fortunately, few have been in these terribly painful shoes. At the same time, few know what to do or say. 

Luckily, my bishop visited with us in the hospital and on the Sunday Camille died.  He took some time informing our church congregation of the news and relaying instructions on how I wanted people to treat me -- what not to say or do and how I would like people to treat me. For all the others out there who do not have this kind of preparation given, I write this guide.

So, someone you know has suffered a great loss. What should you do? What can you say?

I haven't suffered every kind of loss, but I think some of the things in the following guideline will apply to most kinds of loss and for most people. Those of you who have suffered similar loss, feel free to add your opinion in the comments. Those whose loved ones are suffering loss, if I do not address one of your questions of concerns, ask me in a comment and I will see what I can do about that.

1) Acknowledge the Loss. -- Don't let your fear of doing or saying the wrong thing keep you from doing or saying anything. It is important that your friend know you care. How you acknowledge the loss depends on your relationship with the person. 
For a stranger - a blog comment, or if you have their address a note telling them how their loss has made you or the world better in some way.  My sister in law was deeply affected by a tragedy last year in her neighborhood. A family in a minivan was hit from behind by a semi and their 3 children were all killed. Since this accident a year ago, every time my sister in law passes that exit on the freeway she tells her 3 kids that she loves them. That type of thing is great to relay to the grieving parents. 

For a friend or acquaintance - Send a card, an email, flowers, a text message, a voice message, a contribution to a charity. Let them know you are thinking of them and praying for them. If you want to send a gift -- see my notes on the best gifts below. 

When you see them for the first time after -- It is best to just give them a quick tight hug and tell them "I love you." Saying you are so sorry for their loss, crying, or talking in depth about the loss just brings up the feelings of pain we are trying so hard to work through. Also, be careful about the look in your eyes. Try to give a look of tender love and confidence.  I know it is hard to control things like crying and the look of pity because seeing us makes you think of the loss and it saddens you. But what we need is love, not pity. 

For a close friend - This is where things get tricky. We need different things at different times depending on the stage of grief we are in and how we are feeling that hour.  When in doubt, ask your friend "What do you need right now? Space, a shoulder, a distraction, a joke, cookies, chocolate, Wii time?" Give them what they need at the time and don't expect the answer will be the same the next day or even the next hour. 
My friend Kathryn sent me my favorite Sprinkles cupcakes mix!
The Red Velvet Chocotherapy was delicious! Thanks Kathryn!

Serve your friend. Most people will not tell you when they really need something. I highly recommend insisting on serving. Don't ask if they need help cleaning. Just show up with your gloves on a cleaner in your hand and ask to see their bathroom. 

After my first miscarriage, a friend of mine called to see if she could come clean my house. I was hesitant. I couldn't do it but my mom was coming and she could. My friend insisted. "I will clean your place so your mom can spend time tending you," she said. 

She came over and got on her hands and knees and scrubbed my gross bathroom and cleaned my whole apartment. I will admit, I was a little embarrassed at first, but that act of service forged a bond of love for this friend that is unbreakable. I love Daleen and 8 years later we still are great friends even though we have lived in different cities for the last 6 years. She will be in town visiting me next week. Yeah! 

I had so many old friends who came to the funeral. That is another thing a close friend should do if it is possible. Go to the funeral. If it is long distance, your friend will likely not expect you to come. But if you do make that extraordinary effort, your friend will appreciate it. 

Family - Come.  If it is at all possible, come as soon as you can to surround your family member in unconditional, nonjudgemental love and support. Then do anything you can to help them. Do all the things I wrote in the close friend section. But most importantly just be with them. Even if you don't talk.  Just be near them.

2) Want to send a gift?  For Children -- When there is a child involved, sending a fun surprise really can take their mind off of their sorrow for a while.  I think "doing types" of gifts are wonderful. My children loved the crafts people sent. My kids happen to really love stuffed animals, I know not all kids do, but mine do and they received several that they treasure. Happy mail from other kids is also a great treat for kids. 

For Men: My husband tells me guys don't want stuff. They want distraction -- escapism. They want a guy friend to call them up and invite them out for a guy movie or a game of baseball or whatever else they are into. I have said this before but I also think the Wii or those kinds of distractions are good.

For Women: Sentimental gifts probably top my list. Photos, songs, DVDs, poems, the locket I got, the scrapbook, the magic blanket, tulips. Every gift says "I love you" and so every gift is wonderful. 

Most people who experience a loss also receive a number of grief books. I am no exception. The only problem with grief books is that it is VERY difficult to read anything of any length when you are submerged in grief. Your brain just cannot focus on something other than that which is lost for more than a few moments. So reading ... well ...  I managed to skim one or two books on helping children through their grief because I felt it was necessary for me to know this as a mother. That was so hard to do though. I am an avid reader and I have only managed to read one light historical fiction book. It was a bit of escapism for me but even then I was not as into it as I would normally have been. It took weeks before I could even watch TV (well except for SYTYCD). Reading takes so much more concentration than that. I am getting to the point where I think I could read more now, but I am still not up for any book about sad things.

I am sure there is great information in the books that I have. I am not saying no one should send grief books. But I think it would be more helpful if you took the time to read the book before you sent it and pick a few quotes that you think will be the most helpful to the person. Then type those quotes up and insert them in the book with a card. Inspiring and comforting quotes can be uplifting and strengthening. A few salient quotes are about the amount your brain can focus on when drowning in grief. Then later when the brain is more stable, the person can read the book for themselves. 
3) Long term care:
Time is a strange thing. I see the date on my calendar is late July but to me it still seems like June. The last 6 weeks have been a blur. The world is moving on, moving forward, but for me, it is strange to think it isn't still June. If someone close to you has lost someone in their immediate family, you should assume that this will be a sorrow to them the rest of their mortal lives. They may not always talk about it. They may not always think about it. But it will never completely go away. I think it is great to "check up on" a friend a couple months after the loss again just to let them know you haven't forgotten their pain. I may write another post on this down the road when I have more experience with the long term end of it.

4) Remembering: You should not be afraid to mention those who have died. We who miss them most enjoy remembering them. We want others to remember them too. They are part of our family whether they are on earth or in heaven. But here I must add a caution. We want to remember our little one but we DO NOT want to remember the circumstances surrounding their death. For most of us, the day our child died or the day they were in the accident that would take their life was the WORST day of our lives. Personally, it is something I want to forever blot out of my memory. So, while it is natural to wonder about the details surrounding how a child died, DO NOT ask this of the grieving parent. If they want to tell you they will do it of their own accord. In the case of accidents, they have already had to relive the experience by telling it to the cops, CPS, and the coroner. Every time I have to tell someone about this day I am immediately taken right back there to all the horrid emotions and crippling questions that surround those events. "How" is just not that important. If you have to ask someone, ask a friend of the family, not the family itself.

5) How are you?: This is an unavoidable question in human society. We answer it everyday several times from loved ones and strangers. It becomes a dreaded question when you are dying inside and don't want to share that with the asker. For those of you grieving, I have found that "I am doing well right now" to be a good answer. If I am not doing well, I stay silent and nod my head. Or I say "good days and bad days." I am sure you have found your own strategies for answering this question as well. 

For the askers, if you are really close to the person, I think it is okay to ask. Personally, I am not bothered by this question, but I know many others are. But for most friends, it is better if you just skip that question and say, "Hi. It is great to see you/hear your voice ..." then go onto the business of your call or visit.

I hope this helps some of you know how to deal with those who have experienced loss. I may have another installment later if I think of more things or if there are enough questions that need answering. Till then I will answer one of your burning questions. "How am I?"

"Today I am doing very well."