Greetings, Friends ~
This week has been painful – a harsh reminder that in one moment of time, everything can change. A few days ago, someone very close passed away. Julie was a young woman – too young. Her passing was not expected. It was shocking and cruel and sudden. Her close family members are heavy in grief right now, and for that, my heart breaks. I grieve this loss with them.
We do not go to bed thinking that a phone call could come the next morning telling us that we just lost someone we love. It would be too much pain to even process the reality that in a second of time, the connection that binds you to a person you love can be immediately cut, and you are forced to feel emotions that are too severe to describe to someone who has never been through a very significant, close loss.
I am deeply saddened that any of the surviving family members are feeling that level of pain. I am even more heavy at heart for Julie’s mother. I do not know what she is going through inside because this is her loss, and it is very personal and close to her heart. However, as a mother who has lost one of my children to sudden death, I absolutely know a daily baseline for her is sheer agony – a level of pain that most people cannot possibly fathom.
There is something about a mother’s fierce love for her kids. Losing a child has the power to force a surviving parent (moms and dads) to the edge of what humans should be expected to effectively handle emotionally. Imagine trying to get through your days after such a loss.
I am reminded of some very important lessons I learned when in this state of heavy grief. There are all types of books and pamphlets telling us what to say and what not to say to someone who has recently lost someone very close to them. There is no time to do research once a sudden death has occurred. Even so, these survivors are in a heavy grief period, and we want to be mindful of what we say to them about their loss.
When approaching someone who has just experienced a very significant loss, here are some things I learned after the passing of my son. I would not purport to speak for everyone who is heavy in grief. But there are also similarities whenenever one of us loses someone close. I hope you find it helpful:
* Do not compare your losses to theirs or say things like, “I know how you feel. When my grandmother died, I felt exactly like you do.” They are dealing with heavy emotions and the focus needs to remain on helping them recover, not pulling attention away from what they are feeling. Right now, their feelings matter and they need your support, not comparisons of losses.
* If they start talking about the deceased, just LISTEN to them. Do not shy away from them or make them feel as though they cannot remember their loved one. People become uncomfortable, and that is natural. But they need to process this death and all they have left now are their memories. If they feel they cannot share them with you, they will stop trying.
* If you struggle for something to say or are afraid to say the wrong thing (which is very easy at times like these), just say something along the lines of… “I am sorry for your loss. I cannot imagine what you must be going through…” If you are scared you might say something wrong, stay neutral. It is so much better to just say something reassuring if you are unsure what would help and what might hurt.
* Do not tell them that their loved one is better off in heaven, even if you know they are believers in the afterlife. Most people heavy in grief are focused on controlling an overwhelming amount of emotional pain associated with their loss. It can be extremely hurtful, even though well-intended. Of course they would prefer their loved one remained here and that this situation is not better than the way things were.
* Give them space if they need space. Most people heavy in grief tend to withdraw from everyone except immediate family members. This is a natural response to very significant losses and it is what they need. They will let you know if they want you close early on.
* Don’t give them “help” advice early on unless they ask or voice wanting that kind of referral (counseling, grief books, etc). Give them some time. They are not broken or clinically flawed. They are heartbroken, and rightly so.
* Be careful with joking if you are the type that tends to want to “lighten” the situation when bad things happen to people. If they are joking with you, great. But if they are talking about very serious and difficult things associated with the death of their loved one, do not insert jokes. It is not funny to someone heavy in grief and is easily misread. It’s just not the time or place.
* If they do not respond when you reach out to them, do not take it personally. If they say unwarranted unkind words to you or about you, do not take it personally. Back away if this occurs and give them space. Most people will apologize later if they inadvertently do damage or say unkind things during a period of heavy grieving. Those heavy in grief are not in their natural behavior process. Everything is out-of-place for them, especially early on. They may not respond to you in the manner they usually would. Don’t analyze their actions or behavior. Just accept that things are out of order for them and they are trying their best to find their way through a very painful period of time.
* Do not ask a person in heavy grief to do anything supportive for you. Their minds are busy 24 hours a day trying to put the pieces of their life puzzle back in place. Those pieces do not fit together anymore because someone is now missing. It takes all of their energy to just get through the day now. If someone has just experienced a significant loss, it is not the time to lean on them for any reason. They WILL remember the people that try to get something from them during a time when their hearts are so broken.
* People in heavy grief may withdraw from social events and not be present as they used to be. Again, do not take it personally. Significant losses affect everything. Those losses change everyone in some way.
* People want to help. Unexpected, sudden deaths are brutal emotionally. But they can also be financially devastating. Imagine going along in life and living on your financial budget – walking a tight rope with monthly expenses and your income. Within 3 days from now, a funeral director tells you to put $10,000 or $20, $25K on the table to pay for final expenses of a loved one because of an unexpected, untimely death. Surviving family members must meet this financial obligation within days of a loved one’s passing. Thank you to everyone who has donated to Julie’s fund so far. If you have not and are willing and able, here is the link to donate to help Julie’s family:
There are many things to say and not to say. Things that help and things that hurt. I would encourage everyone, regardless how near or far you are from an unexpected and significant loss, to consider always what the surviving family members are going through. Most people have a good idea of what to say and what not to say. But surprisingly, my experience with this great a loss is that we say things wrong anyway because we are all caught off guard and not sure how to approach the surviving family and close friends.
Unexpected losses, such as Julie, are deeply painful for the family members. The recovery is long and difficult. If you do not know what the “wrong things” are to say, just tell them you are sad for them. Let them know you are sorry about what happened. That will be enough.
Please join me in saying goodbye to Julie Lerma (Clem). If I could have said goodbye, these would have been my words to her:
Thank you for being such a beautiful soul and a light in the world around you. Thank you for the beautiful children you brought onto this planet. Thank you for being an amazing surrogate sister to my daughter, and always treating her and I with love and respect. Thank you for including her and I in your family occasions and special times and not only saying my daughter was family, but behaving as such. We will love you forever and cherish all the memories, photos, moments we had you in our lives. Your children will be deeply loved in your absence because you are part of one of the most loving, caring and special families I have ever known. You are a beautiful soul and will be greatly missed.