After the 9/11 attacks on American soil that took so many lives, a writer reflected as to why certain horrific life events are so much harder to endure and subsequently so much harder to understand. He discussed the concept of tragedy vs. atrocity. He said that in a tragedy, there is usually something we can learn from it. There is typically some wisdom or life lesson that can help balance out the suffering it has caused. But with an atrocity, there is no knowledge to be gained, no wisdom to balance out the suffering. It is simply unbearable and unspeakably senseless.
Recently, in the wake of the recent shootings in Aurora, Colo., many people all over the country are grieving and asking similar questions as to why and how this could have happened. The senseless killings indeed feel more like an atrocity than a tragedy because there is little or no help to equalize the pain. The cowardly act carried out by the alleged assailant can never be comprehended or even remotely tempered by any kind of human reason. Hence, it is a deeper and more horrific event than a tragedy, which for many makes it difficult to even begin to heal.
However, there are many important things we can do to assist in helping people not only answer those very same questions, but to help and support them through the rigors of bereavement.
The Need to Grieve
Grieving is a natural and healthy response to a loss that should never be understated or taken for granted. Whether it's grieving after a loved one dies, divorce, severe injury, illness, loss of job or property, etc., allowing ourselves to grieve and traverse through this painful process helps the mind and heart mend more appropriately and over time may give us some peace.
Let's examine a few "myths about grieving" that need to be clarified:
"If I express emotions like crying, it's a sign of weakness."
False. Crying is a natural way to release very intense feelings that need to be expressed in order to heal. There is no shame in revealing that to others. Crying and laughing are two sides of the same coin. Both are natural, and both are vital to living life fully.
"Children should be spared the grief and sheltered from the pain."
Untrue. Children need to grieve also. Age-appropriate children need to gently be told about the loss in an honest and delicate way. Keeping it from them may lead them to believe they are incapable of handling the pain. They may learn to fear their sadness and not trust in their abilities to overcome adversity. Plus, not telling them will only prolong their own sorrow and they may build resentment against you for withholding it from them.
"Don't try to discuss the loss with a grieving person."
Incorrect. People who are grieving are usually grateful when someone expresses concern and care about how they are feeling. They need to debrief about the loss on a regular basis. They need to share memories and talk about how much pain they are in. The more they talk about it, the better they feel.
"If I stop grieving about the loss and move on, it means I have forgotten about my loved one."
Wrong. Getting better and healing only means we are taking care of ourselves and being responsible to others that need us right now. We are still accountable to the living, especially if we have children to raise or we are caring for the elderly.
In addition, we never really "move on," because the memory of the loss will always be with us. But as time goes by, it changes from a painful memory to fond memories filled with happier times and warm remembrances. Healing does not mean forgetting about our loved one or abandoning their memory.
Tips to help people in their time of grief:
The key is to be available but not intrusive -- to be discreet but not indifferent. Let the griever dictate what they need. Don't put them in a position where they feel obligated to say "yes" to your offers of help because they don't want to offend you. Do not pressure them.
Be available and present:
Just being near them or close by can be a big help. Let them know you are there for them if there is anything they need, or if they need a hug or to simply hold your hand. You can't make their pain go away, but you can help them get through it better by offering your loving presence.
Be a good listener:
If they begin to open up to you, allow the griever to process their pain verbally without interrupting them. This is not the time to philosophize or offer cheap advice or quick solutions to the pain. It is also not a good time to try and reframe the loss into something it is not. Listening means just listening attentively, compassionately and most of all, uncritically.
Another good way to help is, as mentioned above, if the occasion arises and they begin to talk about their grief, wait until there is a pause in their sharing and ask them permission to see photos of their loved one. Ask them to explain why these photos and the times the photos represent are so important to them.
Offer to help around the house:
Help reduce some of the overwhelm they might be feeling. Offer to run errands for them like grocery shopping, picking up the kids at school, cooking, taking care of housework and chores, etc. Offer to screen phone calls and take messages. You may even offer to help write thank you notes and other correspondence.
Extend an offer to join in an activity:
It may take a while before the grieving party is ready, but offering to take them out to dinner or for a walk or to a light social function might be very helpful. People who grieve tend to isolate a lot, so gently encouraging them to get out of the house with someone they feel comfortable with is a good idea and might promote healing.
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