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A resource for family, friends, ministers, caregivers, and colleagues
The path to grief recovery. . .
This valuable resource guide provides practical information for people who are grieving and the people who support them. Material is presented in an easy-to-read format for quick reference and features:
"After twenty years of ministering to the bereaved and consulting other ministers, this is the first comprehensive book that I would recommend to those who grieve and minister. This truly is a text for life."
—Deacon Ray Deabel, president-elect, National Catholic Ministry to the Bereaved
"Reading this book adds to my insight into grief after forty years of medical practice. I strongly recommend it for grieving families and the professionals who assist them."
—Thomas S. Patricoski, M.D., family physician, former chief of staff, Little Company of Mary Hospital
"An essential reference, written in laymen’s language. This book is a great service to the grieving."
—Martha Burke Tressler, bereavement ministry coordinator, Family Ministries Office, Archdiocese of Chicago
1 When It Begins
A time for tears,
a time for laughter;
a time for mourning,
a time for dancing.
Death strikes. Your life is shattered. Tranquility and order are replaced by chaos and confusion. Yesterday’s gone, and it will not return. In its absence, you begin a new and a mysterious journey—a journey through grief.
Death brings a myriad of emotions, responsibilities, and questions to those left behind. Every person faces grief for a first time. Yet even at the dawn of the twenty-first century, nearly half of the adult population has not been involved in planning the funeral of a loved one. And of the 50 percent of people who have planned a funeral, only half of those have planned a funeral more than once. People who have been shielded from death’s pain and sorrow not only may be naive and inexperienced with regard to funeral arrangements and grief, but they also may be overwhelmed and tongue-tied. Even people who have had contact with death and grief throughout their lifetime often find that extending condolences to the bereaved can be awkward.
The Help You Need Right Now
Whether it’s taking care of a dying loved one, planning the funeral, or learning to cope with the absence of that loved one, grief is the leading emotion. Decisions that must be made in each of these instances—and often in extremely short time frames—may cause confusion and resentment. These are just the first of many byways that must be traveled along one’s journey through grief.
We hope this book will benefit the many people who are touched by death. There are those who are facing grief and those who are helping a loved one face grief; those who have never experienced the grieving process and those who have experienced it but are confused or bewildered by the feelings and sensitivities associated with grief. When today’s generation meets grief for the first time, the task of finding the right words and actions may seem impossible. In this book we provide suggestions for making this encounter bearable. Some of the information presented will be repeated in various sections, depending upon the particular situation the reader is facing. But each section is structured to offer encouragement to the bereaved and to reassure them that they will get past the overwhelming hurt.
We believe that people who are facing the grieving process need help right now. They don’t have the time or the energy to delve into books on the meaning, psychology, or theology of grief. They need a point of reference with which to begin, somewhere to find the help they need as they are thrust into this journey.
What This Book Provides
This book presents basic topics relating to grief. We have provided short descriptions of what to expect, of what you need, and of what others need from you. We have put a lot of information into simple list form, and we have organized all of this in a way that makes the information easy to find.
Sometimes, when a death has been violent or high profile in some way, a person is thrust into the role of being a “grief manager.” The grief manager may not actually be one of the bereaved yet is expected to know what to say and do and to give support to the bereaved. Sometimes a support person must leave his or her own grief in the background so that full attention can be given to immediate family members of the deceased. This book provides guidelines for getting through these situations.
We make no attempt to rationalize, analyze, sermonize, or philosophize death, grief, religion, or our own beliefs. We have not presented case studies and examples. These may be found in the works that further explore the many aspects of grief. We are merely presenting ideas and suggestions for coping that we have found beneficial through personal experience, traditional research, and interaction with people in varying stages of the grieving process.
We conclude this work with lists of books to read and organizations to contact for help with the grieving process. They are presented here merely as a catalog of available resources that we have found to be helpful. These lists are not comprehensive but offer a good start for readers who want more information.
It is our hope that this book provides direction for the bereaved, guiding them through the tears and confusion to a place of healing and understanding. At various points in the journey, certain milestones will mark the nearness of their destination: emotional pain will become less severe; physical maladies will start to subside; feelings of being held captive by the memories of the deceased will begin to dissipate. Whether it’s the reader’s own journey or that of a loved one, this book provides guidelines for dealing with the many emotions associated with grief.
We also hope that this book will give the reader a better understanding of the words, actions, and individual time frames that are required to complete the grieving process. Grief is work. It’s painful. You may think you can circumvent it or even ignore it. But if you pack grief away, it only resurfaces in some other aspect of your life. Face grief head-on. It won’t be an easy or quick task, but it will help lessen the pain and begin the healing.
Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow is a long way off. But today is here. The hurt is in the present. So today, the journey begins.
2 What to Do, What to Say
Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak Whispers [to] the o’er-fraught heart and bids it break.
William Shakespeare, Macbeth, IV.iii. 209–10
Once the ordeal of burying a loved one has been completed, those left behind face an entirely new and different life. Whether it’s the loss of a spouse, parent, child, or friend, a void now exists where once there was love, friendship, and comfort; a remarkable human being is now gone. Reacting to this void is difficult for the bereaved and for those family members, friends, and coworkers who want to help. Knowing what to do, where to turn, and what to say can be a challenge. Yet we must do our best to bring consolation to those in the depths of heartache and despair.
If you are grieving, don’t avoid the pain you feel but begin the healing process now by acknowledging and dealing with it. If you are supporting a person in grief, learn the ways in which you can offer the best help.
When You Are the One Who Is Grieving
Healing from the loss of a loved one takes time. Regardless of whether your family or friends help you with your transition, there are certain things you can do to help yourself progress through the grieving process.
Try to maintain a normal, or lighter than usual, daily schedule and routine.
Your body needs time to reenergize from the grueling task of saying goodbye and burying a loved one. New responsibilities or new environments may only delay your healing. You need some time to grieve. Only by fully experiencing the pain of your grief and working at resolving it can you begin to heal.
Live for now.
Don’t live in the past, with its regrets, resentments, and anger. Don’t live in the future, with its uncertainty, worries, and fears. Live for today. This is not to say that you should throw out memories of your loved one. Just don’t dwell on what was and what might have been. Concentrate on what you have to achieve today. Worrying about what lies ahead is destructive and drains your energy. As you start setting daily goals and achieving them, eventually you can begin developing long-term plans.
Be good to yourself.
Understand that it’s OK to feel depressed, to hurt, and to be angry with the deceased, the doctor, the hospital, and even God. It’s also OK to go out with friends and have a good time. Enjoy the people who are still in your life. There is no “right” way to grieve—only your way. And there is no set time frame that your grief should follow—only your time frame. There is no fixed period of mourning, no matter what other people may tell you. Be patient. And do not compare how you are grieving with how other people are grieving.
Understand that healing is a process that takes time.
Keep decisions—especially major ones such as selling your house or moving across the country—to an absolute minimum, particularly in the days just after the funeral. Try to allow yourself one year before making these types of decisions. You will be able to think much more clearly at the end of one year than in the days immediately after your loved one’s funeral. Keep believing that eventually you will recover from your loss, and you will. But in the meantime, make no snap decisions.
Let yourself cry.
Crying is a release mechanism; it’s therapeutic. It serves to help lessen the pain. Go ahead and cry; sob or scream if you need to. You will most likely feel better for doing so. Crying is not a sign of weakness; rather, it shows your love and concern. So, don’t prevent yourself from crying, but don’t force yourself to cry, either. And never apologize to others for your tears—they belong to you and serve as a release and an expression of your emotions at various stages of your mending process. Looking at pictures of your loved one or visiting the grave might bring tears. But each tear released further opens the heart for healing and allows your journey through grief to progress.
Keep a journal.
Writing down your thoughts and emotions can be very helpful during your sorrow. Use whatever is most comfortable—a paper journal or a computer. Either way, when you read your words later, you will see that your journey through grief is progressing. If you can’t keep a journal, at the very least express your feelings verbally. Hearing what you have kept inside will release some frustration and stress and begin the healing process. It will help you accept your feelings—feelings that you did not choose but must deal with nonetheless.
If someone offers to help you in some way, accept it.
Conversely, if family and friends are staying away, not calling or offering assistance, ask them for help. Others cannot read your mind. Most people will want to help but may not know what they can do for you. So they may seem passive when actually they are held back by feeling inadequate. Ironically, it will be up to you—the one who needs help—to somehow lead others and teach them how they can help and comfort you. For instance, you might say, “Keep calling and asking me to meet you for coffee and pie, so that we can talk. I probably won’t go, but I need you to keep calling and asking.” Eventually, one day, you may actually find that you want that coffee and pie, that you want to talk, and that you want to thank your friend for being persistent!
Attend to your physical needs.
Get enough rest by going to bed early and avoiding caffeine after dinner. Keep yourself healthy by limiting the amount of junk food you eat and by planning daily, well-balanced meals. Avoid alcohol, sleeping pills, and tranquilizers, which could actually be more harmful to you and delay the healing process. Such medication merely camouflages your emotions. Grief is work. It is painful. You need to keep busy. Exercise if possible. Physical activity relieves stress. Even a short walk around the neighborhood will help. And, while it is common to be depressed, guard against totally withdrawing and severing ties with family and friends. This could be a sign that you need professional assistance in dealing with your grief. If any other health problems arise—headaches, difficulty sleeping, loss of appetite—see your family physician for help and advice. Although these are normal reactions to grief, a doctor should be consulted.
Find someone to support you through your grief.
If friends or relatives are available, don’t be afraid to ask for their help. All they really need to do is listen and provide some comfort. It’s OK to need comforting, and it’s always advisable to have someone help you with your grief journey. At first, those closest to you will be your strengths. But, because they may not understand that grief work takes time, they might encourage you to “get on with your life.” That is when it might be advantageous to seek someone outside of your family or circle of close friends who is willing to help you with your grief process. If personal acquaintances are unavailable, clergy or support groups can help. At the very least, read books on grief. There are numerous books available that can help you understand what you are going through and that you are not alone in facing your loss. If you have access to the Internet, check out online grief support groups and Web sites.
Talk or pray to your deceased loved one—or don’t talk or pray to your deceased loved one.
Go to the cemetery or don’t go to the cemetery. Grieving is an individual process. For some, talking to the deceased and visiting them at the cemetery are valuable tools for accepting the finality of death. For others, these concepts do not fit well with the healing process. Whatever you choose to do, remember that it has to be right for you. Don’t worry about what other people say or do.
Prepare for holidays and anniversaries.
If certain dates or times of the year are particularly difficult to deal with (especially during the first year after the death of your loved one), you may want to plan ahead. Decide if you want to commemorate the event (such as putting up a Christmas tree), celebrate it but in a different manner than previously (going out to a restaurant for dinner rather than preparing a meal at home), or plan something entirely different (taking a trip, visiting with friends, reading a book, working at a homeless shelter). Rather than letting the day sneak up on you, be ready to meet it head-on. This will go a long way in easing your pain. But do not be surprised if emotions resurface even after the second- or third-year anniversary of your loved one’s death or the second or third year of celebrating certain holidays without your loved one. The grief process is long, and each curve of your journey holds an emotional change of direction. But you will be amazed at your growth. As you progress forward, each curve becomes easier to navigate, and the pain isn’t quite as severe as it was at the previous bend.
If you are to heal, the journey through grief has to be your journey. Do what is right for you, and you will find that your journey will become a little less stressful and a little less overwhelming as time goes on. Time does heal. Time will soften your pain as you try to work through your grief; but work through it you must. You cannot ignore grief. You cannot go over it, under it, or around it. Working through your grief is what will bring you comfort.
When You Are the One Providing Care
While many people will begin their journey through grief with the death of a loved one, an ever-increasing number of people actually begin months before. These people are the caregivers. The advent of hospice—as well as life-prolonging drugs, procedures, and machines—coupled with the increased cost of long-term care services, means that the seriously ill are choosing to spend their last months at home rather than in a hospital. Nursing-home care, which now averages $44,000 per year, is expected to more than quadruple by the year 2030 to over $190,600 annually. This cost will continue to be prohibitive for more and more people, who will be dependent upon their children to care for them. These children are known as the “sandwich generation” because they are forced to care for their parents as well as their own children.
For caregivers, grieving starts almost at the exact moment they begin serving in that capacity. They see the person they love beginning to slip away from them, and they experience some of the emotions associated with grief; this is known as “anticipatory grief.” Caregivers may become sad, depressed, or angry; they may even resent having been put into the position of caregiver.
For the terminally ill, it is a matter of dying with dignity. But the decision to die at home changes the family dynamic by forcing certain family members into the role of caregiver. And caregivers need to be aware of several things.
The dying process may actually be worse than the death itself.
Watching a loved one suffer is extremely heart wrenching. As the disease progresses, physical and mental changes become evident. Demeanor changes. There may be less recognition of people and surroundings. These developments are all difficult for caregivers to watch. Find out about the disease so that you will be better prepared to deal with it. As difficult as it may be, try to remember that being with a loved one when that person dies is an honor and an extremely private moment. As your loved one makes the transition from life to death, you will be providing comfort.
Serving as a caregiver may be rewarding, but it is a frustrating experience.
The stress may seem unbearable.
• You will be emotionally torn between the demands of your job and family and your devotion to your terminally ill loved one.
• You must be prepared to deal with the unexpected things you cannot control, including sudden changes in the patient’s condition.
• You will be physically exhausted from making medical arrangements, such as setting up a hospital bed for the home, running to the hospital or pharmacy or grocery store, keeping house, preparing meals, maintaining a schedule for medications, paying bills, and providing emotional support.
• You may be financially drained by your contribution to the medical care of the patient.
• You may have problems with other family members who do not want to assist you or who think you are trying to take over.
• You may find that worrying about so many people at one time is so stressful that you feel taken beyond the breaking point.
• You will be responsible for making the most demanding and serious decisions, including signing hospice documents, executing right to die documents, and—in all likelihood—planning the funeral.
Be aware of your own personality changes.
Because of the emotions and pressures faced by caregivers, they themselves will often go through dramatic changes in disposition. You may become difficult to deal with; you may even become nasty and mean. It is difficult to be nice all of the time—and all of your time is reserved for your dying patient. However, your relatives and true friends will understand the emotional weight you are carrying and will understand your behavior.
Know that there will be feelings of guilt.
No matter what you say or do, you will be tempted to second-guess yourself. If you take care of a parent at his or her house, you may feel guilty for not spending time with your own family. And when you are with your family, you may feel guilty for not spending time with your parent. It can be a no-win situation, but you must be aware that these feelings can occur. You need to get past those feelings. Allow for the guilt and move on.
If you are caring for a parent, you will have to face role reversal.
You may not want to take on the role of parent, but it is imperative that you do so. You will be thrust into being the overseer of your parent’s life. The balance of power and responsibility will change. Try not to dwell on the role reversal and focus on the love between you and your parent.
Be careful not to make hasty decisions.
Sometimes problems regarding money and/or living arrangements will compound an already difficult situation. If you absolutely must make some decisions—such as taking a reverse home mortgage for a terminally ill parent in order to pay for professional caregivers—try to take along someone who can help you think things through and keep track of all the particulars. You may think you will be able to recall all the details, but stress will likely cause your memory to be fuzzy or mistaken.
Try to take time for yourself.
Yes, your life will be out of balance for a while, and yes, you are carrying out one of the most important tasks of your life. Most of your attention will be given to your immediate, foremost concern—your dying loved one—at the expense of all those other important people in your life. But time will heal all. Eventually the other people will come to understand. However, it is imperative that every so often you take a few minutes to unwind. Although circumstances and schedules may be hectic, read a chapter in a book or watch a favorite television show or call a friend. Just a few minutes a day will help you maintain your composure in a difficult situation.
Include your children.
Don’t be afraid to give your kids the opportunity to help take care of their parent or grandparent. They may surprise you. If they are especially close to their grandparents, for instance, children may feel closer to them by helping out. In addition, the children will feel they are not only helping their grandparents but also assisting their parents. Jobs appropriate for children include getting the patient food or drink, fluffing pillows, unraveling a tangled oxygen hose, or getting a walker or wheelchair when it is needed. While children should not be forced to help, they should be given the opportunity. They will find it rewarding, and you will find it helpful.
Before medications or disease symptoms take control of the situation, you should take the opportunity to say good-bye. Even if it seems premature, telling your loved one what he or she meant to you will be a comfort to him or her and a relief to you. As your responsibilities as caregiver increase, it will become harder to find the right opportunity to express your feelings. Just tell your loved one how you have appreciated and loved him or her, how you are grateful for the time you have had together. Later, it will be consoling to know that you said what you had to say.
As a caregiver, it will be your responsibility to know when signs are pointing to the end of your loved one’s life.
While there will be doctors and nurses and hospice staff available to assist you, there are certain signs that indicate that your loved one has entered into the final stages of life.
Loss of appetite and thirst. Terminal patients may go days without eating or drinking. Do not force your loved one to eat; this could be a very tiresome, very painful experience. As difficult as it may be to imagine, the terminally ill will not starve by not eating. Conversely, forcing them to eat will not prolong their life. They may experience a very dry sensation in the mouth but refuse even ice chips. Keep lip balm available, since their lips may become parched and cracked.
Changes in urinary output and bowel elimination. While one would assume that the output of urine would decrease with the diminished intake of liquid, this is not always the case; it may actually increase. In either instance, the color will probably become darker. A catheter will eliminate the urine automatically from the patient. And even though food intake may be greatly decreased, the patient’s stools may increase. Both should be monitored carefully.
Confusion and diminished strength. Patients who are dying will become increasingly weaker, sleeping almost continuously twenty-four hours a day. And when they are awake, they become disoriented easily. Care should be taken to speak softly, slowly, and distinctly so as not to startle them. Your loved one may lose touch with reality, confusing conversations heard on a television or radio with those he or she thinks were with you. Keep all environmental noise to a minimum, avoiding programming such as talk shows or soaps operas, which may further confuse the patient. And always identify yourself when speaking to the terminally ill. This way they will know it is you and not have to guess who is speaking.
A sense of distance from others. It is not uncommon for the dying to start disassociating themselves from other people, even their loved ones. It will seem that he or she is ignoring you. In actuality, the patient is trying to ease into the transition from life to death, and this method is making it easier to do so. In fact, you may also notice that you yourself are establishing more distance.
Changes in breathing patterns. There will be periods during which your loved one does not breathe at all. This is known as apnea. While it is frightening to those around the patient, this is not painful to the patient and is common, even among healthy people. As your loved one gets closer to the end, the jaw muscles will relax more and more and the patient will be breathing almost exclusively through the mouth. Eventually, secretions may back up into the windpipe. As he or she continues to breathe, these secretions will make a gurgling sound—what is commonly referred to as the death rattle.
Restlessness. Near the very end, your loved one may become fidgety or extremely restless. He or she may have conversations with people who have died or who are not present in the room. Hearing someone talk like this may be very disconcerting. But it is a part of the dying process that many people experience.
The ability to hear what’s going on in the room. Almost right up to the end, the dying person will most likely be able to hear you and other people in the room. Take care what you say while in the room. You can comfort a dying person by praying softly, playing soft background music, holding the person’s hand, and simply having soothing conversation. These activities help the dying know that they are in the company of people who love them.
If you feel that your loved one is fighting against the end of life, whisper that it is OK to let go. That may be what the person has been waiting to hear. Finally, if you have not already said good-bye, these last moments may offer a chance for a private farewell. You know what thoughts are in your mind and what feelings are in your heart—force them out! You may fumble for the words or start to cry, but what matters most is that you say good-bye. You will always treasure your last words with your loved one. Not only will you have comforted your loved one during those final steps from life to death, but you will have taken one of the first steps toward recovery on your own journey through grief.
When You Are the One Who Must Break the News
Telling another person that someone has died is never an easy task. For some, it may be the most difficult job they have ever been given. However, some simple guidelines can make it a little easier.
Be as gentle as possible.
It makes no difference whether you are the person who was with the deceased when he or she died or the person who has to track down survivors and break the sad news. You were given the task, and you must follow through with it. Even if you feel uncomfortable making the phone call, the family has entrusted you with this task. Just remember to soften the blow as best you can. Be as calm and tearless as possible.
If you need to give instructions, do it before you break the bad news.
For instance: “You need to go to the ATM, withdraw $100, and take a cab to your mother’s. She asked me to get hold of you to tell you that your dad passed away this morning. You need to get there as soon as you can.” Be prepared to repeat the information several times and to offer as much assistance as you can. Perhaps you can offer to pick up people and drive them where they need to be.
Be as straightforward as you can when breaking bad news to children.
For instance: “I’ve got some bad news about Grandma. She got very sick during the night, and she couldn’t get better, and I’m afraid she died.” Be prepared to answer any questions, but don’t load children with too much information. Just make sure that they know they can come to you at any time with questions about the death of their loved one. And take care to reassure children that the death was in no way their fault. Sometimes children think that their own bad actions, words, or even secret thoughts are somehow connected to a death.
Be cordial and to the point when making calls to friends and relatives of the deceased.
Be as informative as possible: “Is this the McGuire residence? My name is Robert, and I’m calling on behalf of your cousin John. He asked me to call and tell you that his wife passed away last night. I have the information for you regarding the wake and funeral.” Be prepared to answer questions such as “How did it happen?” “How are John and the kids doing?” “Is there anything I can do?” “Was John with her when she died?” “Where exactly is the funeral home located?” While you may not know all the answers, give whatever information you believe the bereaved wants made known, particularly if there are any questions concerning the nature of the death.
Use the address book and/or Christmas card list of both the deceased and the family for whom you are making notification calls.
It is too easy to forget to call someone. Or you may not even be aware of certain friends of the deceased who should be told. If you make a call and can’t get through, write the name down and try again later. Don’t rely on remembering to call a person again later. And if you must leave a message on an answering machine, don’t blurt out everything on the machine. Say something like: “This is Betty Roberts. I have some very urgent news about Bill, which I must share with you. It is very important that you call me as soon as possible. I can be reached at . . .” If you know you will be away from the telephone for a period of time and will be unable to answer return calls, do leave as complete a message as you can. Just be as gentle as possible: “This is Tom Johnston. I am calling with some sad news about Jean. I’m afraid that she passed away last night at about 9:00.”
How to Help Immediately after Someone Has Died
At the time of the death:
• Visit the family.
• If appropriate, offer to help the family make funeral arrangements.
• Make phone calls to friends and relatives.
• Let out-of-town people stay at your home or offer to drive them to or from the airport, bus, or train station.
• Drive people to or from the funeral home.
• Take care of indoor plants; cut or water lawns.
• Help with the smaller children. Read them a story, help with homework, offer to take them on an outing or care for them during the funeral service.
• Prepare meals, do laundry, run errands, clean house, buy groceries, or house-sit during the wake and/or funeral.
• Assist with the planning of the funeral service and offer to participate.
• Help with the funeral luncheon.
• If the bereaved is on medications, find out which ones and when they should be taken. Remind the bereaved to take them during this stressful time.
• Offer to take care of pets or take them to the kennel for boarding.
• Take in newspapers and mail.
• Attend the wake or funeral and allow yourself to cry with the bereaved.
After the funeral:
• Help with acknowledgments, correspondence, and messages. Although this task helps the bereaved work through the reality of the death, you can offer to address or put stamps on envelopes. Do not take over this entire project! Grievers may not understand at the time, but they need to complete this job.
• Offer to help the mourners remove personal effects, when they are ready to do so. Don’t decide for them which items to give away, but help pack boxes, fold clothes, and so forth.
• Listen to the requests mourners make regarding the disposition of personal effects. For example, clothes may be sent to charities, and residual craft materials may be sent to senior citizen homes to be used by others.
• Invite the bereaved out for shopping, dinner, a movie, a drive, or a trip to the cemetery. Extend these invitations repeatedly, even if they have been refused in the past. It is important for them to hear your concern for them, and it reassures them that they have not been forgotten.
• Offer to help the grievers organize bills, balance checking accounts, or discuss insurance issues. Although funeral directors are now frequently assisting families in these matters, the bereaved may feel more comfortable having help from someone close to them.
• Bring over casseroles or other meals, go grocery shopping, mow the lawn, shovel snow, take out the garbage, or baby-sit.
• On the six-month and twelve-month anniversaries of the death, call, visit, or send a note or card to let the bereaved know that you are remembering them and the departed. Do the same on the deceased’s birthday and wedding anniversary. Be sure to mention the deceased by name.
• Remember the bereaved during all holidays that first year. These will be particularly difficult times. Offer assistance but understand that each person copes with events differently. Many will want to skip the holiday entirely. Take the lead from them.
How to Deal with Funeral Arrangements
Once a loved one has died—whether the death was unexpected or anticipated—you move painfully into what can be referred to as “impact grief.” It is overwhelming to realize that your loved one will be with you no longer and that the death will have life-altering effects on you and your family. You become aware of the immediate situation’s urgency, of the decisions that need to be made in the next few days. Panic may set in. You might feel as if you are on a collision course with no indication as to where or when you will crash. But this is just the beginning point in your journey through grief; you will not yet have begun to miss the deceased in quite the same way that you will in the coming weeks, months, and maybe even years, as the actual grieving process sets in.
One of the first tasks you will have to face while you are experiencing impact grief is deciding what will happen to the body of your loved one over the next several days.
Arrange to have the body taken to a funeral home or crematorium.
Many families have neighborhood undertakers or funeral homes that were used by other family members, friends, or neighbors. But if you do not have a funeral home already in mind, you will have to choose one. The Federal Trade Commission mandates that funeral homes keep a list of prices for their services, making comparison shopping possible. These prices may or may not include the price of the casket. If you choose, you may purchase a casket from a casket store. These stores are a relatively new concept and will usually provide caskets at a reasonably low price. Whichever you choose, you must know your budget. Usually the amount you spend is dictated by the amount of insurance held by the deceased. Should your budget be flexible, it is still advisable to stay within your means. There may be unanticipated expenses that you will have to deal with later. Extremely nice and comforting services are possible without extravagant costs.
Call the chosen funeral home or the appropriate authorities.
If the deceased died in a hospital, the staff will arrange with the funeral home for the body to be removed. If your loved one died at home, and it was an expected death—assisted by a hospice agency, for instance—a call to the funeral home is all that is needed to arrange for the removal of the body. If, however, the person who died lived alone and/or the death was unexpected—during sleep, for instance—the authorities will probably have to be notified. Depending upon the individual’s state of residence, there is a reasonable chance that the body will have to be taken to a hospital for the pronouncement of death. In this case, the death certificate will most likely list the hospital, not the home, as the place of death. If the death is mysterious or if there is a desire not to have the body taken to a hospital, a call will have to be made to the county coroner. The coroner might take the body to the coroner’s office for an autopsy.
Be prepared to make certain decisions before meeting with the funeral director to make final arrangements.
Make sure everyone has been notified—that is, every member of the immediate family and anyone who is to be included in making the funeral arrangements (see page 20, “When You Are the One Who Must Break the News”).
Decide whether you want an actual wake and funeral or whether you would rather just have a memorial service at a later date. Another option that’s becoming increasingly popular is to have a brief wake—one or two hours—followed immediately by a memorial service and then the cemetery service, all in one day. A third option is cremation, with no wake at all.
Choose the clothes in which to have your loved one buried. This can be extremely difficult, especially if you never discussed this or if the deceased has lost substantial weight. Your options include bringing clothes previously worn by the deceased (these can be made to fit), buying new clothes, or choosing clothes at the funeral home.
Regarding the services, make a list of the details that are most important to you. Which church, if any, will be used for the final services? If jewelry will be on the deceased during the wake, do you want it removed before the final closing? You can present this list to the funeral director. Do not rely on your memory. The emotions of the moment will diminish your ability to remember.
Decide which family members will participate in the services and in what capacity. If there is to be a photo collage for the wake, who will put it together? Can you have—and do you want—a video or slide presentation at the chapel? Who will serve as pallbearers? Will there be testimonials or eulogies at the Mass or memorial service? If so, who will deliver them? Will there be readers? If the service will be a Catholic mass, who will bring up the gifts? What about music? Are there certain songs you want played or sung?
If you have not already done so, you will have to choose a cemetery for the burial. You may have to decide if other family members will be buried in adjoining lots. While the funeral director can help you with this, and even take you to the cemetery to purchase lots, you may want to decide ahead of time which cemetery will be the final resting place for your loved one. If the remains of your loved one are to be cremated, you will have to decide what will happen to the ashes. Will you dispose of them by having the urn placed in a mausoleum or will you have the ashes scattered?
Consider having the music and eulogies recorded for playback at a later time. Although this is not a normal request, many times mourners are in shock and will not be able to recall the music or spoken words that were so comforting at the funeral. If the funeral director cannot accommodate you, ask a friend to make the recording for you. You might also ask the priest or minister for a typed copy of the eulogy. Not only will out-of-town relatives and friends who are unable to attend appreciate receiving this, it will also be a fond remembrance for you.
Consider making the funeral service available over the Internet. Though a relatively new concept and not yet available everywhere, funeral web-casting is seen as a viable alternative for people unable to attend a funeral in person. The services can be broadcast live or recorded and can be made password accessible only, if the family so requests. People around the world can view the funeral in real time. This option offers the additional means of preserving the services on CD for viewing at a later date.
Find out whether or not the funeral home has facilities for serving food and decide whether you want to avail yourself of this accommodation. Will your family be sharing common areas with other families for other wakes? Can the funeral home keep them separate? Do you bring in sandwiches and pastries or have a caterer bring in something more substantial? Do you run home for a bite to eat or stop at a restaurant? It is important to keep up strength, so eating is a must. Keep in mind that whenever you leave a wake, even for a short time, there’s the risk that you will miss seeing someone who comes by to offer condolences.
Decide whether you want a luncheon to follow the funeral services. This is an added cost that you may wish to avoid. But if you decide to have one, consideration must be made for family traditions. Does your family have sandwiches and sweets back at the house? Do family members, friends, and neighbors chip in for a “potluck” buffet? Maybe the local church will offer its facilities for a luncheon. Is there a family restaurant that is a particular favorite? If not, decide where the luncheon will be held and what you want served. Will there be one entree or a choice of meals? Will drinks be served? Will guests be invited by a general announcement by the funeral director at the conclusion of the services, or will guests be asked to attend by special invitation?
The funeral director will be your point of contact for the next several days.
All arrangements regarding the days, times, and place of services will be made through him or her. Some of the items the funeral director will be assisting you with include the following:
A burial vault for the cemetery. Be aware that at certain cemeteries you can purchase burial lots at a price that includes the vault and the headstone.
Special features to the service if the deceased was a veteran. The funeral director can help arrange for a flag for the casket, honor guard, military salute, and so forth.
Death notices or obituaries. The funeral director can prepare and place the death notice or obituary, neither of which has to be the standard “copy only” variety. Death notices are often listed alphabetically in your newspapers; they usually list the survivors and the particulars of the wake and funeral. Obituaries generally chronicle the life of the deceased and will list survivors but no wake details. Ordinarily there is a cost associated with each, although some smaller local papers may publish them for free. Pictures may now be included with death notices. Also, there are Web sites that will list the obituary and information about the funeral home, directions for getting there, and so forth. If you want to use a Web site, ask the funeral director to assist you.
Items for the wake and funeral. The funeral director will arrange for limousines, flowers, guest book, remembrance cards, and other details. If you are requesting roses for display at the wake and you want to have them saved for use after the funeral, tell the funeral director. You can have the flowers sent to a nursing home or have remembrances made out of them, such as pendants, tie tacs, and rosaries. And, while it has become increasingly popular to include the phrase “no flowers” in obituaries, consider allowing other mourners to send floral arrangements to the funeral home. It is a sign of respect to the deceased and a show of affection to the survivors. This was clearly demonstrated at the deaths of Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy, Jr, when thousands of people left or sent flowers as expressions of grief and sympathy. People need and want to express their feelings, and giving flowers does just that. Some may think it’s wasteful, but to others it’s a thoughtful gesture.
Luncheon arrangements. On the day of the funeral, the director will notify the restaurant or caterers the number of people who will be present for the luncheon.
Death certificate and other official matters. After the funeral, the funeral director will arrange for copies of the death certificate. This document serves as the official record that your loved one is deceased. It will be required for numerous transactions including processing your claims for insurance, IRA, and Social Security death benefits as well as changing the name on your home or car title, on your checking, savings, and trust accounts, and on your stocks and bonds. Be sure to estimate high the number of certificates you require. It will be easier, faster, and cheaper to request death certificates now than at a later time. The funeral director will also handle insurance and social security issues and the headstone placement.
At this stressful time, try to remember that your wishes are the top priority.
You have a definite say-so as to all arrangements. Do not be afraid to assert yourself. Your requests should be honored unless what you’re asking for is against the law or physically impossible. Do not let others—including funeral directors or clergy—intimidate you. If, for instance, a funeral director suggests that placing flower petals on the casket at the cemetery will ruin the casket and shouldn’t be done, don’t be discouraged. Try to compromise: perhaps the flowers could be placed on the casket at the end of the service but removed prior to the burial.
Be aware of people in the funeral industry who may try to take advantage of your situation.
You may want to take along a friend whose judgment is not clouded by grief. While most funeral directors will be considerate, honest, and sensitive to your needs, a rare few will try to talk you into unnecessary expenses. Here are some problems to watch out for:
Preparing the body. If you are cremating your loved one, you probably will not need to have the body embalmed, nor will you need a casket—you certainly won’t need an expensive one. If in doubt, check with other funeral directors in your area.
Buying a casket. Do not be coerced into purchasing a casket way above your means. Some undertakers may play upon your emotions by telling you how important it is to honor the memory of your loved one by purchasing an expensive casket. A less expensive casket will fulfill the same function as one costing thousands of dollars. In fact, caskets that are presented as “waterproof and airtight” may actually cause the body to decay at a faster pace, due to a buildup of gases.
Service charges. If you purchase your casket somewhere other than the funeral home, make sure the funeral home does not add a service charge. The Federal Trade Com-mission prohibits such a charge.
Signing the contract. Before you sign a contract, make sure the funeral director provides you with an itemized price list.
After the funeral, attend first to those responsibilities that actually pertain to the wake and funeral.
Send thank-you cards and letters; arrange for memorials in the name of the deceased; make notes about the sermon or eulogy or music while they are fresh in your memory. Provide the funeral director with any documents he or she might need to help arrange for payment by the insurance company. Remember to save all envelopes for cards, memorials, masses, etc. received at home until you have sent all the thank-you notes. Mistakes do happen, and sometimes the wrong name will be listed on a notification card. Keeping the envelope might help you find out who actually sent it.
What to Do to Support Those Who Are Grieving
Be there for them, even if their grief is prolonged (which may last years instead of weeks, as many mistakenly expect). Surround them with as much comfort, love, and understanding as possible, but remember to give them some private time as well. Be there for them, but remember to give them space.
Do validate their feelings.
Acknowledge and support them. Even if what they are expressing seems strange or is frustrating to you, it may be very real to them. Often they need to hear aloud what they are thinking in their heads. They will have to tell their story.
Do allow them to tell and retell the story.
They may need to repeat and recount—and repeat and recount again—stating every detail of how the loved one died. Be a good listener. Allow the bereaved the opportunity to tell the story again and again, and most important, do not try to “fix” their pain by relating stories of your own. To do so only diminishes their grief. It doesn’t take away their pain but actually prolongs it. They must be allowed to experience their own ups and downs. Reiteration of the details of the death is an important first step of the healing process.
Do remember important anniversaries and holidays.
Sending a card or note or making a call on the deceased’s birthday, date of death, or wedding anniversary is appropriate and appreciated even for years afterward. The grievers will be glad to know that the loved one is remembered by others.
Do mention the deceased by name.
Those in mourning notice when the deceased is no longer referred to by his or her name. To those who are grieving, this translates into, “He doesn’t matter to anyone, anymore. Everyone has forgotten him. No one cares.” In addition, grievers may believe that their own lives have no value and that they are no longer important.
Do be aware of, and prepared for, the emotions the grievers may be experiencing.
Anger, anguish, anxiety, confusion, denial, depression, despair, disbelief, emptiness, guilt, heartache, helplessness, loneliness, numbness, regret, resentment, shock, sorrow, and tearfulness are all possible responses to grief. The bereaved may become stressed, physically ill, worried about money, and unable to sleep (or sluggish and likely to sleep more than usual). They may feel left out, be unable to communicate with friends or relatives, or be unable to leave the house. At other times, they may talk incessantly or be unable to stay in the house one more minute. The passing of time may generate additional feelings of letting go, of needing to deal with unfinished business, or of losing one’s identity. Sound overwhelming? It is. That’s why grievers need support.
Do talk to grievers.
Be sure to use positive phrases, such as:
• “I’m so sorry about your loss.”
• “Please accept our deepest sympathies.”
• “This must be a very difficult time for you and your family. How are you coping?”
• “I don’t know what I can say, but I want you to know how very sorry I am and that I care.”
• “Do you feel like talking?”
• “I’ve been thinking about you and wanted to see how you’ve been doing.”
Or, as a ten year old proclaimed, “Just go up to them and say ‘I love you.’”
If you are uncomfortable talking with the bereaved at the wake or funeral, it is OK to just stand in silence with them. However, if you are feeling awkward, don’t just walk away.
Tell the grievers that you realize there are other people they must talk to and that you will be sitting in the back of the chapel, if they feel like talking later. Or tactfully switch to a thoughtful gesture, such as:
• “Let me get you a glass of water.”
• “Why don’t I get you a tissue?”
• “I’ll get you a sweater.”
People in grief need your support. But it is imperative to understand the importance of saying the right words. If ever you feel compelled to say something like “Stop your crying; pretty soon you’ll be getting on with your life” or any words to that effect, reread this section.
Do consider touching the griever.
A gentle pat, an extra firm handshake, a grasping of the hand or arm, or an embrace—all are messages of reassurance, caring, compassion, sorrow, and strength. You have no idea how far a hug or any extra kindness during the wake or funeral can go to comfort the bereaved. Long after the loved one is buried, the bereaved will remember who gave them a hug during the wake or funeral. Often, words are unnecessary. If, however, you know that a particular mourner does not like to be touched, comforting words from the heart will suffice.
Do remember that at the death of a child, the grandparents should be remembered as well as the parents and siblings.
The grandparents will be grieving not only for their lost grandchild but also for their own child. Parents hate to see their child going through such a terrible and sad experience and will actually be grieving twice. Be sure to offer your condolences to them as you would to other family members. Even if you are just acquaintances of the grandparents, they will cherish the fact that you went out of your way to pay your respects to them.
Do go up to a child and offer your condolences to him or her on the loss of a loved one.
A simple “I’m sorry your grandpa died” will make a lasting impression and will bring comfort to that child. Quite often children are totally forgotten at wakes and memorial services. If you are attending a wake where you know children will be present, make them a priority of yours. Bring along coloring books and crayons or perhaps a little puzzle to help keep them occupied. Have them show you the lounge, where they can assist you in getting something to eat or drink. Or make them feel important by giving them some little job to do, such as passing out the remembrance cards as people leave, counting the floral pieces, placing sympathy and Mass cards on the designated stand. The children will remember your kindness, and the parents will appreciate your thoughtfulness.
Do offer your help to those who are caring for a terminally ill person.
Dealing with an anticipated death is very stressful. Offer to sit with their loved one for a few hours to give them a break. Send a little note or “Thinking of You” card to the caregivers, offering them moral support and letting them know that you are thinking of them during a difficult time. Or, offer to do something that they are unable to do because of the situation: go over to their house and cut the grass; make some meals that can be frozen and prepared when-ever it is convenient for them; offer to go grocery shopping or do other chores to make things easier. Any act of kindness you perform will be remembered and treasured.
What Not To Do To Support Those Who Are Grieving
Don’t judge grievers.
It is impossible to understand fully what grievers are going through. To correct them constantly or to express your viewpoints on personal matters may give the impression that you know what is best for them. And that is not possible! Should you offer comments or suggestions, be sure that you avoid condescension.
Don’t inadvertently manipulate grievers.
Be available, but don’t try to take over for them. Griev-ers need and want to be involved with the activities and responsibilities that come with mourning—but at their own pace. Respect that. Don’t feel that you have to fix everything.
Don’t give the grievers any of your personal medications or remedies.
They may be on medication already. And, at this vulnerable time especially, any medications must be overseen by a physician. Sedatives and other drugs are more likely to hinder grief than help it.
Don’t say things that may be offensive to adult grievers.
These include the following:
• “I know just how you feel.”
• “Get a grip on yourself. I never thought you’d take it this hard.”
• “This isn’t the time to fall apart.”
• “You’ve got to be strong for the kids.”
• “Calm down, it’ll be all right.”
• “Now, now, no tears!”
• “Why do you keep going over and over everything? You’re only making it worse.”
• “Why didn’t you call me?”
• “It’s a blessing in disguise.”
• “I never did trust that particular hospital [or doctor, or whatever].”
• “You’re young. You’ll marry again.”
• “You must get on with your life.”
• “I know what you’re going through.”
• “You’re so lucky to have had her for so many years. My mom died at such a young age.”
• “You must be relieved that this whole ordeal is over. It’s been such a strain on you.”
After the death of an unborn or newly born child:
• “It’s better this way.”
• “At least you didn’t really know the child.”
• “Who knows, maybe the child was retarded or would have been sickly.”
Don’t say things that may be offensive to kids in grief.
• “God loved your daddy so much that he took him to heaven.”
• “Be strong. Now you must help run the family.”
Don’t talk to the griever just for the sake of talking.
Attempts to fill the gaps of silence often lead to inappropriate comments. Just be a good listener. The bereaved will know that your taking the time from your busy schedule is an indication of your concern and your affection and is a true act of kindness.
When You Are a “Grief Manager”
A grief manager is a close friend or relative who assists mourners by protecting them from the unnecessary details of a death, especially a “sensational” one. He or she is responsible for lessening the bewilderment of a murder, a suicide, or the unexpected but gruesome death of a loved one. In a death that attracts worldwide attention, someone handles the media by acting as a spokesperson. After the tragic death of John F. Kennedy, Jr, a Kennedy cousin answered questions and read statements to the media. To protect relatives and friends who are not used to handling the barrage of questions from reporters, someone is appointed to that task. In addition, he or she—perhaps a son-in-law or a neighbor—may even make funeral arrangements with the funeral home and/or church, sparing the bereaved from having to deal with the media face-to-face.
The grief manager’s tasks are varied.
He or she may act as the spokesperson when any media attention is brought upon the family in light of the death. The task of the grief manager may simply involve helping to make funeral arrangements for a person who has died a natural and expected death. In either instance, the grief manager has been given primary responsibility for handling arrangements and shielding mourners from aspects of the funeral with which they do not want to deal. For instance, a surviving spouse who struggles with a serious illness or handicap may appoint someone else to do what he or she would do if able.
Because the grief manager is so involved in managing the grief of others, he or she may not be able to manage his or her own grief.
Often the grief manager for a family is the husband and father, who is extremely close to the deceased. Since he also may be acting as a “buffer” between his family and the death situation, he may believe that he has to spare his family’s feelings or lessen the grief experience for them. He may cover up disturbing facts about the death, make all the funeral arrangements, screen phone calls, and coordinate visits from friends. His feelings may be buried under the weight of the responsibility he has shouldered.
The grief manager must not shield the mourners more than is expected or desired.
Holding back too much information from family members is not advisable. If, for instance, details of a death were particularly frightful and the grief manager does not tell the bereaved, there is a good chance they will find out anyway. Well-meaning people at the wake will almost surely make a statement referring to this issue and leave the family bewildered. It is always good to err on the side of caution; therefore, provide small details at first. Expand upon them as the family absorbs what you have already told them. Provide additional details only if the family desires them.
Table of Contents
About the Authors v
1 When It Begins 1
The Help You Need Right Now 2
What This Book Provides 3
2 What To Do, What To Say 5
When You Are the One Who Is Grieving 6
When You Are the One Providing Care 11
When You Are the One Who Must Break the News 20
How to Help Immediately after Someone Has Died 22
How to Deal with Funeral Arrangements 25
What to Do to Support Those Who Are Grieving 34
What Not to Do to Support Those Who Are Grieving 39
When You Are a “Grief Manager” 42
3 Understanding Different Kinds of Grief 45
When Your Spouse or Partner Has Died 46
When Your Parent Has Died 51
When Your Child Has Died 54
When Your Unborn or Newly Born Child Has Died 58
When You Are Dealing with a Loss through Abortion or Adoption 61
When You and Your Partner Grieve in DifferentWays 63
When Your Brother or Sister Has Died 66
When Your Close Friend Has Died 70
When Your Pet Has Died 72
When You Are Grieving but Have Gone Back to Work 74
When Your Coworker or Employee Is Grieving 76
When You Have No Love for the Deceased 78
4 Children and Grief 81
How to Talk to Children about Death 82
How to Help Children Deal with Death 85
How to Help Children Grieve the Death of a Parent 88
How to Help Children Grieve the Death of a Sibling 89
How to Help Children Grieve the Death of a Pet 90
5 Violent and Unexpected Deaths 95
When Your Loved One Has Committed Suicide 96
When Your Loved One Has Been Murdered 99
When Your Loved One Has Died in an Accident 102
When a Loved One Has Died as the Result of a National Disaster 105
6 Sample Letters to Send to
Those Who Are Grieving 109
To Someone Who Has Lost a Spouse 111
To an Adult Who Has Lost a Parent 112
To a Young Child Who Has Lost a Parent 113
To an Older Child Who Has Lost a Parent 114
To Someone Who Has Lost a Child 115
To Someone Who Has Lost an Unborn or Newly Born Child 116
To a Coworker Who Has Lost a Family Member 117
To Someone Who Has Lost a Loved One to Suicide 118
To Someone Who Has Lost a Loved One to Violent or Unexplained Death 119
To Someone Who Is Facing the Anniversary of a Loss 120
7 Support Groups 123
When You Need More Support than You’re Getting 123
How to Evaluate or Organize a Grief Support Group 128
8 Closing Thoughts 133
9 Other Resources 135
Posted June 20, 2007
After my mother past away, I was devastated. I didn't know where to turn or how to cope with my loss. A friend recommended this book to me. Reading it made me realize that I'm not alone and that others have had the same feelings as me. The book was a God-send. I now take one day at a time and everyday is just a little bit better than the last. Thank you for writing it.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 5, 2002