Thursday, July 2, 2009

from the archives: dying, grieving and helping those who grieve

I wrote this post soon after the death of my father-in-law David in May last year. It's about how to grieve and support those who grieve: always a timely topic.

I know that losing a father-in-law, even one as dearly loved as David, is small on the Richter scale of grief compared to losing a spouse or child. I am vastly inexperienced in grief. “I write for the unlearned on things about which I am unlearned myself."*

That being said, I've learnt lots about grief during the last few weeks. I know how inept I've always felt in the face of other people's grief. So I thought I'd share the little I've learned with you.

For the dying or those supporting someone who is dying

  • I am incredibly grateful that David, in his wisdom, talked openly and honestly about his coming death, and his hope of heaven, with each member of his family. He encouraged his grandchildren not to be afraid of death, but to put their trust in Christ, who brings hope beyond death. If God grants you the time before you die, follow his example!
  • There are some things I wish I'd said the week before David died, but didn't because I assumed I'd see him again, or because I didn't want to presume too much. Don't put off saying what should be said until it's too late.
  • Here are some things you might want to talk about: fear of dying, the dying person's state before God, how they are feeling, preferences for the funeral, long-term arrangements, family disharmonies which need to be smoothed over, your love for each other.
  • Be ready with the comforting promises of God's Word: some of the encouragement people gave David was so beautiful! One woman compared death to birth, with Jesus as the midwife. We fear the unknown, but death is like coming out from a small world into a larger, brighter one.
  • Realise that the dying may say things which come from a place of fear, grief and doubt. Sit with them, value their honesty, and listen. But don't forget afterwards that these may be words for the wind said in a time of darkness. It's still hard for me to grasp, but what David is experiencing now in heaven is far more glorious and joyous than what he left behind.
Dealing with death

  • Don't be afraid to see the body if appropriate. I refused this with my grandmothers, but was so glad I saw David's body. (And what a service is given by those who lay someone out peacefully!) It was much less traumatic than I expected. It gave us all closure. It was a wonderful chance to say goodbye, helped me realise David is no longer with us, and brought home the fact that he's now with God in heaven.
  • Allow children to see the body, if it's appropriate and they're willing. They need to understand that while the body is left behind, the person has gone; to accept the reality of death, and to say goodbye. They may be upset, but it will give you a chance to comfort them, and talk about their fears. Our children have been privileged to see both birth and death: I hope this will help them to understand the wonder and gravity of life, and to comfort others in the years ahead.

For those who grieve

  • Expect complete and utter exhaustion. The week after David died was as draining as the week after a baby has been born, a week with the flu, or a week with morning sickness. No doubt a spouse's or child's death, or an unexpected loss, would be unimaginably more debilitating.
  • Accept every offer of help. If no-one offers, ask! Don't be proud, or assume it will be easy. Even if you feel ok one day, you may not the next. You can't do this alone.
  • Remember everyone grieves differently. You may want to talk, or sit quietly; to be alone, or with others. You may feel nothing, or intense sorrow, and that's ok.
  • Give those close to you time and space to grieve, and allow them to grieve in their own way. I asked my mother to look after our children for a weekend, to give Steve a chance to recover.
  • Be wise and take some time off. A very sensible member of our family took a week's break from work to reflect and recover. (Others may cope better if they keep on with normal life.)
  • Don't forget the comfort of God's Word. I felt completely numb towards God for a few days, until 1 Peter 1:3-9 popped into my head, and God's truth found its comforting way into my heart again. You might be too discouraged to speak words of encouragement to yourself: allow God's Word to speak them to you.
For those supporting someone who is grieving

  • Do you see someone at church or work who's just lost someone? Approach them, don't be a coward! It's important to have the person who died acknowledged. Even if it's hard to talk about, silence is harder to bear. Say something simple, like "I'm sorry to hear of your loss." If you know them better, move on to "How are you?" and let them be the guide to how much they tell you. Don't be embarrassed by tears: chances are they aren't. (And please acknowledge lost babies to grieving parents as the years go on: it must be so hard when the life of a child seems to have been forgotten!)
  • Give practical help. Be gently insistent about helping, even if it's not accepted (within reason)! If they're like me, they might not realise how much they will need it. Babysit their kids the first couple of days after someone dies, to give them quiet space to cry and reflect. Take meals around, help with the washing, clean the house: it's incredibly hard to get daily jobs done when you're tired and sad.
  • Cards, letters, SMS, message, email - it's beautiful to hear from people after someone has died. It's probably better than a phone call: they're getting far too many difficult phone calls right now. When you write, say you're sorry, tell them you're praying, describe something you appreciated about the person who died, remind them you're there if they need to talk.
  • If you know what it's like to grieve, tell them what you found hard. One of the most comforting emails I received was from a friend who told me, "The hardest thing is not being able to continue a human relationship with the person who's died." Yes! She put words to what I was feeling.
  • Go to the funeral. It meant an immense amount having people from our church and my own dear friends there!
  • Pray and read the Bible with the person who's grieving, or write them a message with a Bible passage, hymn or poem. Give them God's comfort, which they might be struggling to find for themselves.

Please add your own suggestions to the comments!

Other helpful links: What has the loss of your father taught you about ministering to the dying? and How can I magnify God with my death?.

* C.S.Lewis Reflections on the Psalms.



Vanessa said...

Thanks for posting on this again Jean. Your insight is very helpful. You describe complete and utter exhaustion for the grieving family: "The week after David died was as draining as the week after a baby has been born, a week with the flu or a week with morning sickness..." and you allude to the death of a spouse or child being much harder.
My experience was that of losing a baby at birth, so you can imagine that THAT week for me WAS the week after a baby has been born as well as died. There was exhaustion from the birth on top of grief. In fact, I have found over time that I still have plenty of weeks like that. I am currently 30 weeks pregnant with the next baby, and only 9 months out from losing the last. Life is exhausting and my continued deep grief contributes to that I'm sure. In some ways the first week, or month was the easiest. People do tend to stop helping, stop talking about your baby and stop grieving with you after such a (relatively) short time. For me as a mother, right now it feels like the sadness and the exhaustion will never stop.

Jean said...

Dear Vanessa,

I am so sorry. I have prayed for you.

You're right, people forget after some time has passed - although the pain doesn't go away, especially when it's as intense as yours! Thank you for the reminder to keep praying for and supporting people who grieve.

Another woman who has experienced something similar to you and written about it is Karsten Piper (John Piper's daughter-in-law) - see here. You might find what she writes encouraging and helpful.

May God be near you in your grief.