When we go to a family that has just faced a tragic loss, we are trying to express solidarity with the survivors. It can often be difficult to meet people in grief. How should you behave and what to say? How can we offer our condolences in a good way? Here are some guidelines.
The old lady sat slumped on the floor. The body of her 30 year old son lay next to her. Accidental death the record stated. A stream of shocked visitors had started flocking to the door of her house. The visitors spoke among themselves in shocked whispers. Somewhere a child started to cry.
The old lady moved towards her son and stroked his face. She laid her head on his chest. Tears streamed from the eyes of the visitors. Suddenly one person spoke up, “They did a post mortem, tell her not to touch him below his head.” The shocked bystanders glared him into shutting up. The lady heard him as the weight of the words slowly dawned on her.
The funeral was completed and people started returning to their homes. A man came to the side of the old lady and wept openly. “Don’t feel bad,” he said, “you were cursed with the bad luck of outliving your son. What can you do?”
She stared at him blankly. A year after the death of her son, the old lady remembers these two people who spoke to her. She remembers and weeps because the statements compounded the pain of her loss. In an effort to express feelings or thoughts, it is possible to unwittingly cause more pain.
When we go to a family that has just faced a tragic loss, we are trying to express solidarity with the survivors. The surviving family may cry openly, say things incoherently and behave in a manner that seems abnormal. Often we are moved to saying something since we feel the grief too. At times like this, we may say words that will unwittingly cause pain.
Communities across the world have laid down rules for helping the grieving family overcome the loss and move on with life. The overriding purpose for these social rules is to ‘Be There’. Feel the grief, participate in ceremonies, lend a helping hand, listen to the feelings that are expressed are all a part of being there. It is not necessary to speak; in fact it is not advisable to do so.
Death of a loved one creates a deep sense of sadness that no words can provide a salve to. The void of grief can remain for many years, in some cases lifelong.
What to do?
Accept that you are unaware of what to say and remain silent.
If the death has occurred due to an accident or sickness that necessitates limited physical contact with the body, hold the grieving person to pre-empt excess contact. Be available to provide support to elder people from the immediate family.
Sudden death can lead to shock among the family members. Keep a family physician informed so that emergency aid can be provided.
Avoid any reference to the dead person as a body or make a reference to the suffering that the person has undergone. The family may talk openly about it, listen to them.
If you have undergone a similar experience, you may find yourself inundated with past memories of your own; let the tears flow. It is acceptable to stay in a corner and grieve. Control the need to express your feelings in this situation.
If the person who has passed away was ailing and elderly, the acceptance of death may or may not be easy. The elderly spouse or partner may be alive, be sensitive to the fact that a close bond has now snapped. Realize that though the family seems to accept the loss in a rational manner, there is unspoken pain. The appropriate attitude to adopt is that of a listener or of a helper.
When the rituals are completed
The return to outward normalcy may happen within a few days after the passing of a loved one. This does not mean that the person feels fine internally. It is appropriate to initiate contact and let the person or family know that you are available for them when loneliness or grief gets the better of them. If the survivor is an elderly person who is alone, a personal visit makes a difference and makes it possible to talk about the loss.
Friends should take turns to help a common friend especially through the first year after the passing away. This varies depending on the attitude of the survivor towards death. Some people accept death as a transition and are quickly able to return to a state of normalcy by setting new routines that keep them occupied and in good company. Others tend to brood about the loss and require support of a few friends who understand and accept the feelings. Sometimes, the person slumps into a state of being unable to accept the loss and return to the business of living. In such a case, professional advice is required and help must be provided in setting up new daily routines.