Busted Halo

Most dating and relationships books, columns and shows won’t go near issues of faith. Author, professor and speaker Dr. Christine B. Whelan assumes faith has some role, and tackles even the toughest questions.

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September 14th, 2009

Faced with Bereavement

How to support a friend or loved one who's grieving



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 puresex@bustedhalo.com

The Author : Christine B. Whelan
Dr. Christine B. Whelan is an author, professor and speaker. She and her husband, Peter, and their dictator cats, Chairman Meow and Evita Purron, live in Pittsburgh. Her book "Why Smart Men Marry Smart Women" is available in stores or at the Halo Store.
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  • V

    Grief is an individual jourey for everyone who walks it. I have to agree about the footprints poem, it wouldn’t have worked for me.
    At least when I was in grief for the death of my father, I wanted to burn things down, not be carried.

    I think I was crazy for five years straight. It took everything I knew about myself apart, because there were so many things I refused to acknowledge about my relationship with my family. I walked away from my them, my then boyfriend, and changed everything. But it still didn’t help.

    It wasn’t until I realized that I needed
    to be in connection with my family, and people who reminded me of my father, not running away from them, that I finally got out of my self-destructive cycle.

    I could not admit I was angry at my father and by extention, GOD for him being dead.

    There is a painful truth that the people you love in some way represent God to you.
    This truth is comforting until they die.
    And so, you get angry at them and at God, because for you, they represented God’s love, and when they are gone you think God’s love is, too. The idea that loved ones were representatives of God’s love didn’t really crystalize for me until I took a long hard look at my reactions to that whole situation.

    Another hard truth is that you never really get over it. Yes, it gets easier to deal with eventually, but even 10 years later you still get periods of the old pain.

    The irony is, I have been there, but I still don’t know how to help those who have been through it. I can’t think of a single thing that any of my friends or loved ones could have done to help me. I had to get there on my own… to slay my own demons. Because you can’t really accept the love of God until you get out of God’s way. So you have to get out of your own way, first, and then surrender to let God heal. And fighting is natural, and sometimes it’s important, to retain who you are in the face of all that pain.

    But it’s ugly, and it’s messy, and it takes a long time. And running away from it does more harm than good.

  • frjimt

    p.s. Our Advent Prayer of Hope is held this sunday, dec. 6th,09 at St Mary’s Church, Hamburg, Pa. at 2pm if you can attend

  • frjimt

    Exactly for the reason why, in my diocese, Allentown, Pa.we have a ministry called: We Are Remembered.
    Primarily do we focus on those who have lost a child to death or a loved one in tragic circumstances, but since many of the people who helped the ministry in it’s inception (it began in the diocese of Pittsburgh) who are joining the ranks of those who have passed through the thin veil to the other side of life.

    People who attend our services: 1)Advent Sunday, to give them a gift to encourage them to put a tree/ornament.
    2)Wed. after Easter (Gospel of the Road to Emmaus) where we celebrate Eucharist.

    It helps folks to gather with others where no words are necessary, there is no such thing as as awkward feeling, hope is shared by those enveloped by grief.

    What a gift!
    And what is great about it: no books to buy, no program to follow. Just welcome people in the name of the Lord Jesus and embrace them in love!

  • Peter

    I’m glad I found this thread on BustedHalo. My father was killed in a plane crash 2 years ago, and I think for the first year after his death, I “ran myself into the ground” trying not to deal with his death. I got married, started a new job, and did enough to keep myself distracted. What surprised me is how, in the past year, I seemed to have completely “lost it”–both mentally and physically. My body just basically shut down and made me pay attention to the grief. I thought many times I was losing my mind and fixing to be committed to some mental institution. I have never felt such sadness, grief, anger, confusion, and the like ever before in my life.

    A friend of mine put my experience in a biblical context. He asked me why Adam & Eve were “kicked out” of the garden of Eden. I said they ate from the tree of knowledge. He asked me what kind of knowledge. I was at a loss. When he said “the knowledge of good and evil”–that clicked. The day my father died, I stopped being a boy and started being a man–and my anxieties have come from the fact that now I realize how precious life is, and how fleeting our time here is on Earth. I still have rough days, and my spouse has had a difficult time living through this as much as I did–but I’m still here, still working, and trying to make sense of life. I always thought “acceptance” of death was a destination, but now I’m learning it’s a process that will come and go for the rest of my life.

    Jan P: What was the title of that book by Gale Massey?

    I have a newfound appreciation for each day that God gives me, and I am trying to build a stronger relationship with God, despite my anger and sadness. I pray for so many today, and I only hope He/She hears my prayers.

  • Michele

    I saw the need for something at my parish after we experienced several deaths of younger people in a short amount of time. Mostly all we did was a funeral and luncheon and that was it for bereavement. I thought we needed to offer more for those who wanted something more. I found a wonderful series called Seasons Of Hope by Donna McLeod. I just started to offer this a few weeks ago at my parish and it has been a good process for those who are seeking to find comfort through the Scriptures and Catholic Tradition. It’s not just a ‘stages of grief’ group- it’s really comforting to look at Scriptures to deal with grief and bereavement.

  • Sara P

    When my boyfriend of five years died suddenly at the age of twenty-two my friends were at a complete loss of what to do for/with me. They (and I obviously) were dealing with something way beyond our maturity level. I found the most helpful thing that my good friends did was to simply sit in the silence with me. “There are no words” simply means that. ‘advice’ made me angry. God made me angry. I didn’t go to church for a year until one Sunday when i felt ready I went alone. They knew i would get there, prayed that i would but didn’t push me. I recall a homily given a couple Sundays ago when our parish priest compared the olive harvest to inviting people to come back to the church. You can only gently shake the tree. The olives that are ripe will fall and the others will need more time. Patience and Silence are the best ways to support your friends.

  • CB

    My mother is dying of cancer right now, and I know I’m already grieving her. As for how my friends support me now… It is the people who know how to balance grief/mom talk with normal life talk that make me feel the best. It’s annoying if all a person can speak about is my moms sickness, but it sometimes hurts and is difficult if a friend doesn’t acknowledge it at all.

  • Jan P

    When my husband died I found, quite by accident, a wonderful little book by Gale Massey, M.S. The book fit in my pocket and I could use it whenever I needed to remind myself that I wasn’t having a heart attack or going crazy…I was grieving. It was something I even shared with some of my closest friends during my grief and then purchased to give to others in theirs. I have one of her other little books called “Grief…Nurturing the Process” and she tells us, “Your world has changed with this loss, and it will never be quite the same.” She gives little thoughts on what to do when you are depressed or overcome with loneliness…no preaching, just a simple “see if a long walk” can help. I needed that. I needed someone to tell me what to do so that I could get myself to a new place in my grief. It’s been 11 years. I still get sad sometimes. I have remarried, and both of us grieve our first spouses, but we’ve managed to get past the deep grief that paralyzed us for a while. God is good and I believe that faith has helped us both immensely. But so have wonderful family members, good friends and time.

  • Meg Austen

    I think it is extremely unrealistic for this article to be written by someone who never lost a family member or a friend. Death is not something to be analyzed from a sociological perspective. Grieving is a personal process. I agree with Marissa. I think if someone simply read me a footprints poem, it would show how they don’t just grasp that this will suddenly “make things better”. I think the best thing is going to someone who knows the pain of loss. When my mother died, I turned to friends, but the ones who understood the most had lost their mothers too. A friend of mine who is very wise described it as “just let the person be where they are”. So if someone wants to cry or talk or yell or be upset or angry, you are simply there for them. A friend of mine who had lost her father came to my grandmother’s wake and all she had to do was hug me and I knew she understood. When my father died, she also was the one who called me right away. We went out to dinner and just talked. I talked mainly about my mother. What often can happen when you lose someone, is the pain of your other family member who died comes back all over again. When my father and grandmother died, I felt like I had lost my mother all over again. I hated it when people walked up to me at the wake and said that stupid line, “How are you holding up?” I saw this television show that had John Ritter as the main actor and when he died, the show that handled the death of his character of the Dad was handled so well. I remember one of the actresses who was portraying the daughter on the show hated the “casserole people.” She said they would come to the door and give you the casserole and tilt their head in a certain way and look at you with pity. This really does happen with people in real life. It happened to me only without the casserole. When my grandmother died we cried at the wake. But we also laughed. She lived to be 90 and we had so many hilarious stories to share about my gragarious fiesty Grandma. I remember people getting up and sharing stories about her life. One woman came and she knew my grandmother as a little girl at Fresh Air Fund camp. It touched my heart with the story she told and how she described my Grandma as the “little girl everyone loved”. And she came to be there for my family after only knowing her as a little girl. Those stories I learn about my Mom and Grandma mean the world to me when I meet people who knew them at some time in their lives. All of that and more made a difference.

  • Jo Shafer, OPB

    Regarding your statement, “It might be that she will not go back to church for a very long time, and she becomes estranged from her faith belief‚Äù ~ Now I finally understand why my friend has “left” her church and seemingly has “lost” her faith. She simply ignores God because He “has better things to do.” When her husband died, I was her main support because we’d been best friends for decades. I accepted late night telephone calls and listened to hours of repeated stories, knowing this was therapy for her. Indeed, it was a terrible time for both of us, but I occasionally reminded her that she had to do the grief work herself, bit by bit. She’s since reentered society but not Church. In time, I’m sure.

  • Marissa L

    I think if I was angry at God because of bereavement, having someone read that footprints poem would just further anger me.

  • Sheila Joyce Gibbs

    It is truly the most difficult journey in this life of ours…
    Let me know if I may share my story for this dear Sister…
    (As here in the love of Christ I stand..)

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