Two related, but separate, topics come up when someone we know dies. The first topic is the person who has died: the circumstances around his death, what has become of him after death, and what he experiences now as someone departed. The second topic is our experience without that person in our lives: our grief as survivors.
Clearly, our faith as Orthodox Christians has much to say on the first topic. We proclaim the message of Pascha: Christ’s triumph over death on the cross as His promise to us of resurrection and eternal life. This message should inform our understanding of death, but it doesn’t directly address our grief. What is the best way for us to approach caring for someone who is experiencing grief as a survivor?
The death of a loved one leaves a void in our lives that is permanent. The experience we have had of giving love and receiving love from that person has ended. The loss of this relationship leaves a void and is the place of our grief.
A good example of this void and grieving is from my own experience of my mother’s death. Before her death, our relationship was sustained by phone calls to one another every couple of weeks. It was time that we would check in and catch up with each other. During the time between our calls, I would note things going on in my life that I wanted to share with her–what was happening in my work at church, things my wife and I had done together, how my boys (her grandsons!) were doing, plans for the future, etc.
For the first year after her death, I would continue to note things I wanted to share with her, then remember that I could no longer call her: she was gone and her phone was disconnected. I repeatedly had the experience of wanting to share with her, being confronted by the void of her absence, and experiencing grief at facing that void.
Often, we want to care for someone who is a survivor who is experiencing a similar grief over the loss of a loved one. Our motive typically is out of love for the survivor: we don’t want that person to suffer, and we want to provide comfort to him.
We may attempt to offer comfort through statements such as these:
• “He lived a long and full life.”
• “She has gone on to a better place.”
• “He is no longer suffering in his illness.”
• “She is in God’s hands now.”
There is a disconnect in these well-intentioned statements offered to comfort a grieving survivor. Any and all of these statements may be true of the departed, but they don’t acknowledge or address the grief of the survivor. We mistake conversations about the person who has died with the means of healing our grief.
What advice would I give to someone who wants to help those experiencing grief over the loss of a loved one? I have two general principles to offer.
Before I share them, I have a disclaimer. Any of us can provide a level of comfort and help to the bereaved, but we also need to keep in mind our own limitations. Different people respond differently to grief in their lives. In some instances, a person’s grief can require help that we are not equipped to offer. If a survivor is becoming debilitated in his grief, refer him to his priest or a professional grief counselor. These people have formal training and experience that can provide this higher level of support and care.
The first principle in providing care to a grieving survivor is to be aware of which topic is being discussed in your conversation with the survivor. The topic may weave back and forth from the departed loved one, but more often than not, the survivor’s grief is the overarching topic. Avoid the well-intentioned statements given above. Focus more on what the survivor is experiencing at the moment.
This relates to the second principle, which is to let the survivor direct the care. This may seem obvious, but we should meet the survivor in her need. Do not approach her with preconceived statements. Ask open-ended questions about what you can do to help her. Be receptive to what is going on with the survivor. Listen to her more than talk. Things may even end up with no conversation, but simply sitting with the survivor in her loss. Also be aware of time. Your presence should be to provide comfort, but part of what the survivor may need is time alone.
We cannot “fix” the loss that a grieving survivor experiences, but we can provide care and comfort for him. The key in doing this is to meet him in his grief and not mistake it for a conversation about the departed.
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