DISBELIEF IS the first thing you feel. The news does not make any sense. There is some mental scrambling around for an anchor. Is this real? How could this be? There is sadness and surprise and, perhaps hidden in the back of your mind, a sense of relief that it did not happen to you.
A friend, coworker, or extended family member has lost a loved one. Perhaps it was after a long illness, or maybe it was sudden and even violent: a crime, an accident, or suicide. The deceased may have been very old or an infant, perhaps not even yet born. Your friend's life has been irreparably changed, and you have an important role to play--even if you are "just" a coworker.
We live in a death-denying society. Most companies offer little time off for survivors, with many people using vacation days or even unpaid leave to accommodate vigils, funeral, and initial recovery. The physically and emotionally wounded survivors return to school or work within days, and often the expectation is that they will be "back to normal." The fact is, their "normal" has changed forever. Bereavement is a tipping away of part of one's heart. A hospice nurse told me the thing that strikes her most about bereavement counseling is that people always are taken by surprise at how powerful it is; the societal message of "getting over it" has infected most individuals.
Since we all will go through this--not once, but many times--it makes sense to figure out what to do to be helpful. Perhaps this will come back around to us, or perhaps we will just have the satisfaction of knowing that we tried to be supportive of a friend in need.
In Healing Grief at Work: 100 Practical Ideas After Your Workplace Is Touched by a Loss, clinician Alan Wolfelt reveals the experience of a client whose coworkers announced, one year after her child's death, that it was time to put away the picture on her desk and move on with her life. Knowing that this is shockingly inappropriate still does not provide guidance on how to behave. Of course, you would like to think you are more compassionate than that, but how can one act on that compassion? Some simple aspects to being appropriately supportive are: be physically present; do not assume the "expert's" position; be a friend.
If a coworker has lost a loved one, you might not think it appropriate to go to the vigil or the funeral. Go! The vigil, visitation, and funerals, as well as the meal afterwards, not only are for the deceased--they are for the mourners, who need affirmation of their loss, recognition of their status as mourners, and support in their time of pain. Make sure you sign the guest book, greet the family, and participate in the rites whenever appropriate. Religious rites exist to help honor the deceased person and to provide comfort to the bereaved; every faith has developed rites to be celebrated in community, not alone. As part of the community of survivors, your role is to offer support.
In the weeks after the loss, continue to provide a physical presence. You may be rebuffed; deal with it and keep trying. This is not a time to keep score over whose turn it is to call whom, or who is next to invite whom to lunch. Prepare meals; invite the mourners over for food or call and invite yourself (with a prepared meal) over to their house. Show up with cleaning supplies or with a box of tissues. It can mean a lot to someone if you are able to help with the tasks that the deceased used to do. The survivor may be too upset or physically incapable of taking over the deceased's chores. Asking for help is difficult for most people, so volunteer your services.
Losing someone we love creates a tremendous void inside. The mourner may feel completely without anchor. This individual cannot be expected to hold up his or her end of the relationship with you at present. Saying, "Call me if you want to talk," is not good enough; be the one who calls and says, "How are you?" or "What about going out for breakfast on Saturday? …