003 Helpful in loss – Orienting and a project about losing friends.
Welcome! (Or welcome back)
You and I are here because we want to help people in times of loss. Sometimes those people are in our mirror. Sometimes they are across the table or next to us on the sofa.
And we want to be as helpful as we can.
Thanks for your desire to learn. I’m glad you are here.
We’ve got two sections this week.
First, in answering the question, “What’s one helpful thing I can give you for being helpful?” we’re talking about orientation.
Second, I’m really aware right now of people losing friends, and feeling adrift. To know how to be helpful in these moments, I’m opening a new survey. If you’ve lost friends to death, I’d love for you to choose one in particular and take the survey.
It’s only a beginning to this research for me, but it is a beginning. (Keep reading for more of the story.)
Being helpful in loss: Orientation
“What am I going to do?”
The woman was sobbing by the bed. The couple had been together for a few decades.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do now. She was my best friend.”
The man was whispering, holding his mother’s cooling hand.
“What am I going to do?” isn’t always a real question. In fact, sometimes it’s not a question at all. It’s an honest description of this moment.
And, as much as we want to lay out plans, offer directions, remind people of our presence and competence, “What am I going to do?” doesn’t need to be answered immediately.
The statement invites us to quietly honor these moments of realizing that everything just changed.
After the lament, however, there may be a real question. In my research and experience, people are grateful for what I’ve come to call orientation.
When I asked people what they wished someone had said or done, or were grateful someone had said, answers included:
“Insight into losing a child.”
“Guidance through the processes of the immediate 2-3 days”
“Reassurance that the pain would get better.”
“Some direction for getting my daughters help.”
“I cannot fully experience what you do, but I will be with you while you grieve.”
“To have sat with our whole family and talked about how to grieve.”
These answers resonate with my experience as a hospital chaplain. Every day we answer the question, “What do we do before we leave?” And we say, “At some point, you’ll need to tell me what funeral home you are using.” And we say, “You can stay as long or short as you need.” And we say, “Here’s a packet of some grief material. When you get home, throw it against the wall. But remember what wall you threw it against. It will be helpful sometime.” And we say, “In the packet is information about Erin’s House for Grieving Children. It will be helpful for the kids. And you.”
All of those are orienting statements. Offered in the course of conversation, they tell someone where they are and what the next steps – and feelings – may be.
Appropriate orientation to the processes and journey of grieving can be helpful. And, I believe, you can offer that help to the people you are walking and sitting with.
Here are 8 suggestions about how to provide orientation:
Listen to the uncertainty before trying to fix it or answer it. (And then don’t try to “fix it.”
Respond to the actual request, not what you think you would need if it was you.
Think through what next steps you can give when the person is ready. These are often about what you will be doing for them. (“I’ll be taking care of your yard.” “I’ll pick you up for that event.”)
Consider saying, “Try this” rather than “do this”. I wrote about it once: Saying “try this” may be more helpful that “do this”. – 300 words a day
Offer tiny steps, one or two at a time at most. In the first hours, “one breath at a time” is success.
Say the same thing with different communication media. In our conversations with families, we tell people about the process for letting us know about a funeral home. And we’ve prepared a next-steps handout for finding a funeral home and letting us know. And we sometimes write our phone number on the back of the grief packet we provide.
Give consistent plans. A side effect of grief is the inability to think in a linear fashion. So when one helpful person says, “We’ll do this” and another helpful person says, “No, that will be easier.” And a third helpful person says, “Here. Let’s just do this,” the person we’re trying to orient is completely disoriented.
Refrain from saying “only” or “just”. We have people sign what’s called a “release of body” form. It says that we have permission to release their loved one’s body to a particular funeral home. It takes a signature of the next of kin and the signature of a couple of witnesses. It’s tempting to say, “Just sign here.” Without thinking that there is no “just” when your signature is about the person you’ve spent the last 60 years with.
There are, of course, other ways to help orient people. But I’ve already given you eight. And that’s a list almost too long.
“My friend died. This is hard, too.” Time to fill a research gap.
Even the best designed research has gaps.
One major bereavement research project wanted to know who people turn to most for support. They prepared questionnaires and had research packets sent out by funeral homes to people who had lost loved ones six to twenty-four months previously.
The research results are rich in information about who helped. But the packets went to people who were the next of kin. Which tells us something about spouses and parents and children. It doesn’t tell us as much about what is helpful when we have lost a friend.
It’s true in my survey. Only 7.5% of respondents reported on losing a friend. Perhaps because the survey asked people to choose one loss that affected them, and if there was a spouse and a friend, most people will choose the loss of a spouse to talk about.
And yet, the loss of a friend is a real loss.
One of the respondents in my survey wrote, “While I was preparing for his death over those 3 weeks, the toughest part was the months after, as the many things we used to do as friends wasn't possible. So, it was loneliness that came in the grieving process that continues as you miss someone you used to spend time with every week.”
I’m really curious about being helpful in the loss of a friend.
So I’m opening a new survey.
A friend, for purposes of this project, is someone that you have interacted with regularly, though not necessarily in person. A friend is not someone who is defined by a social media category. It is someone where each of you would describe the other as a friend.
I am, however, including options for colleague and neighbor in the identification of who died.
I’d love for you to help. Take the survey yourself. Share this post with a friend. The results will help us all. And let me know what needs to be added or changed.
Thanks for reading and subscribing.
In the last three weeks, we’ve talked about making space for stories, validation, and orientation. If this is helpful, if you have stories of your own, please let me know.
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