Sudden loss is no stranger to me. I lost both parents in separate accidents and my college roommate was killed in a car accident at the end of my junior year. Each time, I struggled with grief. There are days I still struggle. None of us ever completely recovers from losing someone.
We all need to express our grief in times like that. And we all want to reach out to the families hurt have been affected the most.
The most common question I’ve been asked I by people is, “What can I say to people who are grieving? What can I do to help them?”
I’m not a grief counselor or expert, but I’ve been around a lot of grieving people and done my fair share of funerals. I’d like to share a few things to maybe help answer that question.
First, realize that there are no magic words you can share that will take away their pain. We want to, I think, remove their hurt. When it’s our turn in the visitation line, we want to offer some sort of word that will comfort and maybe bring them solace. But it probably won’t happen. If you’ve been in that situation, you know how true that statement is.
When you’re standing next to the casket of your loved one, you are an exhausted, empty shell of yourself. Distant, emotional and fragile. The barrage of people is comforting at times and at others, it is emotionally charged.
The first thing I would encourage someone to do is share a special memory. Most people who attend a visitation or funeral have a unique story about the departed. A story that the person’s family hasn’t heard. It’s usually a story about how that person touched your life.
I would encourage you, if visitation time allows, to share that story with the family. If it doesn’t, take the time to write it down in a card or a letter. Even if you share it with them, write it down anyway. Most funeral homes collect cards to give to the family later. It’s hard for family members to process everything during the day of visitation and the day of a funeral. Imagine how precious it is when they open up a card that has a handwritten note from someone that shares with them a new memory about their loved one.
Did the person who passed on ever give you anything special? Maybe you have a special photograph that the family doesn’t have. Maybe they made you a bookmark, gave you a card once that encouraged you. You don’t have to give it away, but have it professionally copied and share it with the family and let them know how much it meant to you. If you have a photo of them on your phone or photo album, have it printed, stick it in a card and leave it for them. These keepsakes often mean more than any words we can share.
I remember after my college roommate died, a friend of ours came to see me a week later. She handed me a picture. My roommate and I had taken her camera as a joke and taken a picture of ourselves two weeks before he died. I had forgotten all about it. She had a copy made for me. It meant more to me than anything else I had.
When you do get to talk to the family during visitation and you don’t have much time, just share your heart. If you don’t know them, tell them who you are and how you knew their loved one and how much they meant to you.
If you know the family and know them well, I want you to encourage you to do something. If you are close to them and they will listen to you and visitation has been a long,weary process, encourage them to take a break for a few minutes. Take them to the funeral directors office for a Coke. Tell them that the visitation line will really be okay without them. That if someone really wants to see them, they will find them soon enough. A five or ten minute break can do a family member wonders. And another family member can fill in while they are away for a few minutes.
Finally, don’t forget that the week after the death is a whirlwind. But the family’s toughest time is often the weeks after. They have personal belongings to go through, an estate to think about, and worst of all, a huge empty hole. The food stops coming, the calls stop coming, and it suddenly gets quiet.
Don’t let it get too quiet. Let them have space if that’s what they want. But invite them to lunch. Send a card or an encouraging email. Love on them.
For more information and help (outside links):
Ray Carroll is the author of “Fallen Pastor: Finding Restoration in a Broken World,” which answers many of the questions I get asked on a weekly basis.
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