On a recent Friday night a friend of mine called to tell me her husband had died suddenly. He didn’t suffer and she was with him, but he was young and they’d only been married for a little over a year. At first I thought I hadn’t heard correctly. I was expecting the news that she was pregnant, or that there was a new job on the horizon. Even when someone calls to say they have bad news, death is far from my mind.
“I’m so sorry” was all I could keep repeating. The next week I flew out to see her, brought chocolates and sat there as she told me the whole story. I told her again how sorry I was, and wished there was something more I could do.
While I hope this isn’t something that any of you have to deal with, I was so unprepared to be supportive to my friend that I did some research on bereavement within a Catholic context, especially for young adults. Here’s what I learned:
What to say
Words can’t express the pain you feel for them, or the pain they will suffer through. Just being a compassionate listener, saying how sorry you are and expressing your support, is enough.
“Listen to her pain. She will want to tell you her story over and over,” advises Ingrid Seunarine, president of the National Catholic Ministry to the Bereaved. “She will be very angry at God, the world, the doctors and even at her spouse for leaving her. She will rhetorically ask you questions for which of course you will have no answers. Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t have the answers, but I’m here for you.'”
“Tell them that you pray for their comfort and strength,” suggests Fr. Ed Fitzpatrick, director of the Newman Center at the University of Iowa. “The person’s spirit and gifts are within us and we can continue them.”
Can faith or religious teachings help? How?
This is a very tricky question, says Ms. Seunarine. “If someone is deeply rooted in religion or spirituality, the religious or spiritual aspect of the person’s life will kick in, however, often the bereaved individual is so upset and angry with God that you can’t “push’ religion at this time. The good thing is you can affirm the fact that God can handle her being angry at Him, and she needs to let Him know how angry she feels as well. It might be that she will not go back to church for a very long time, and she becomes estranged from her faith belief.”
Ms. Seunarine suggests reading the Footprints in the Sand prayer with them, or offering them a book of reflections. (See box for specific suggestions.)
In the first weeks and months after a spouse has died, what can you do to make life bearable?
Life will be unbearable for quite some time, admitted Ms. Seunarine, and the only way to get through this pain is to go through it one day at a time. “I tell bereaved individuals, You have to do the “grief work,’ which is experiencing the pain of the loss. You can’t hurry the grief either, because there is no timetable for grief. It will take as long as it takes. You will never “get over’ the loss [but] eventually, after doing the grief work and going through the grief process, you will learn to “cope’ with the loss.”
One way to think about it, she said, is that the person’s spirit is permanently attached to your heart now.
What are some practical things you can advise a grieving person to do?
First, if you are the type of person that likes to “solve” other people’s problems for them, now isn’t the time. You can’t fix this kind of pain with some platitudes, nor will a “buck up” attitude be appropriate. In the first few weeks and months, I’m not really sure you as a friend should be offering too much advice at all. But as your friend moves forward, Fr. Ed and Ms. Seunarine had a few suggestions:
- Journaling to work through the grief and talk to your loved one.
- Joining a support group or sharing your feelings with others going through the same pain.
- Reading books on grief and loss, or even watching videos on the subject to possibly give some context and validation for your feelings.
Have you lost a loved one at a young age? Have you supported a friend or sibling through the loss of a spouse? Share you experiences and advice below or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org