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Supporting Someone Who Is Dying: What To Do When You Don’t Know What To Do

The Morrissett family recently lost one of our own. She was brave and strong and kind and had successfully battled cancer for many years. Eventually her body became weary, and we all realized it was time to let her go. It was a sad time for all of us.

It is never easy to watch someone you care about struggle with illness. It is even more difficult when you know that they have begun the transition from this life to the next. Some people instinctively seem to have the ability to somehow say and do the right thing. I watched how my co-workers rallied around our friend by being physically present for her, circling her in prayer at her bedside, and supporting her needs. I was inspired by their love and compassion.

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I also came to realize I was struggling with the feeling that didn’t really know what to do. I found myself worried about somehow saying or doing the wrong thing. It occurred to me that others may feel the same way in similar situations, so I reached out for advice. This is a compilation of the responses I received, in which individuals who have been there share suggestions about how to support someone who is dying. This is by no means an exhaustive list, since the process is complicated and each situation is unique. As long as your actions are driven by love and concern it’s a place to start.

Be present. Sometimes all that is needed is the comfort of companionship, even in silence. “Don’t feel the need to fill the space with words. Your non-anxious presence will be enough.” No one wants to be alone, and being surrounded by those who care may be the best comfort as someone nears the end of their life.

Be yourself. “Talk to them like you would normally talk to them. I notice lots of people will completely change their mannerisms to a more solemn way of expression and I doubt people appreciate that.”

Be honest, and let them be honest. It’s okay to tell them that you don’t know what to do, and stress that it’s not because THEY make you uncomfortable but because you want to make sure you support them in the best way you can. “Tell them that you care for them and are a little uncertain about how to be what they need, but you love them so you will do your absolute best to listen and respect their lead. I find giving permission to people to let me know what they do or don’t want and promising that my feelings will not be hurt often let’s people feel more comfortable in being open about their needs. Sometimes just naming the feelings and being open to being uncomfortable is good.”

If they want to talk about something hard, let them. Allow them to feel what they need to feel and say what they need to say, even if their strong emotions make you uncomfortable. They may be angry, sad, confused, frightened, or simply empty. Their feelings are valid and need to be expressed and respected.

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At the Corner of Grief and Love

“At the Corner of Grief and Love”

Grief takes its toll on us. There are moments when all we want is to feel normal again. I have observed three common effects of grief. The first is physical exhaustion. When the reality of our loss sets in, we often respond with the unspeakable pain of tears. I was talking with a woman whose husband died of a heart attack. It had been only a month since his death, but she was exhausted. She told me that she was so tired of crying. She just wanted the tears to stop. Grieving can leave us with a kind of fatigue that sleep doesn’t help. We just want to make it through the day, go home and crash.

The second effect of grief is emotional emptiness. Sometimes the physical fatigue and emotional weariness overlap each other. “I don’t think I’ve got anything left in me. It’s not that I don’t care, I’m just empty inside.” We often feel the weight of the expectations of other people around us. In our quiet moments on the one hand we’re thinking, “I know they want me to get over it, but I’m just not ready yet.” On the other hand, we agonize “How long will this go on?” 

Then there is a kind of mental paralysis. It’s the despair of feeling like we just can’t think straight. Details are the last things we want to handle. Even deciding what to eat from day-to-day can wear on us. It’s interesting how grief impacts our eating. Some need to summon the will to eat food that pain has rendered tasteless. Others eat to ease the pain.

If you are traveling any of these grief roads, I urge you to connect with a grief support group. I like to describe this destination as the Corner of Grief and Love; a place where you can grieve with other people; where you don’t have to trudge through your grief all alone; where there is real hope.

Let me share with you the hope you can find at the Corner of Grief and Love:

Living with Rediscovered Meaning                  

The greatest tragedy in life is not death. It is to go through life without meaning and purpose. The death of a spouse can create feelings of uselessness. I have heard some say, “I have nothing to live for.” But there is hope when we embrace the challenge of the next chapter of life. What makes this such a challenge is that the pain of loss will never completely go away. But at the Corner of Grief and Love there are people who love us. Their presence is no mere coincidence. It can be a spiritual intersection of healing. Inviting someone into our pain and our grief is a sacred thing. We are giving them permission to look deeply into our hearts. That requires allowing someone to see our vulnerability. But it also provides the opportunity for us to experience a kind of resilience that even we may not understand.

Living Under Grace                             

What does that mean? When we are gracious to someone, it means that they don’t have to earn it. We just give it, perhaps because their situation hits close to home. I have discovered in my life that grace is simply receiving what I need instead of what I think I deserve. I have spoken with so many people who carry a deep level of guilt because of the circumstance of their loved one’s death. At the very least, we tend to wrestle with regret. Living under guilt and regret will chip away at the person we were meant to be and reduce us to thinking that we deserve to be sad and chronically unhappy. A widow once told me that she didn’t like going to social gatherings because she was afraid that she would be the “downer”. I tried to assure her that her friends would understand. I didn’t use the word grace, but there it is. Grace is the road to being free:

Free from guilt and regrets…Free from the fear of the future…Free from the expectations of other people…Free from worry!

To experience this freedom, we need to embrace the truth that grief is a pathway, not an end to unto itself. Grief is necessary for healing. And though there are similarities, each grief pathway will be unique to each person. I cannot travel your road of grief, nor can you travel mine. Yet, at the end of each grief tunnel, there is light, there is hope, there is meaning and grace. There is someone who cares…at the Corner of Grief and Love.

Greg Webber

Director, Community Care/Aftercare

Certified Celebrant

6500 Iron Bridge Rd.

N. Chesterfield, VA 23234

804-275-7828 (office)

804-873-0441 (cell)

greg@morrissett.com

 

It is Okay to Not Be Okay: Overcoming the Stigma of “Negative” Emotions

She seemed so brave at the funeral, she didn’t cry at all.”

“They died six months ago… don’t you think it’s time you moved on and didn’t talk about it so much?”

“Focus on the positive and be strong! The rest of your family needs you! At least you still have them!”

“Don’t bring that up when you see them… it might make them sad. I want to protect them so they don’t fall apart.”

“Smile! It will get better.”

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Many of us who have experienced loss or the death of a loved one have heard similar comments. When bereavement first occurs other people flock to our side with words of support. The phone rings more often than it normally does. Friends hold our hands while we weep. They patiently listen to us talk about our loved one.

As time passes, however, we may find that people are increasingly less patient and don’t want to listen to our stories anymore. They seem uncomfortable when we cry. The phone may ring even less than it did before that moment… when everything changed. That moment when it felt like the world stopped spinning, at least for us.

Eventually we realize the world has continued moving on, while it feels like we are standing still. We feel alone in our grief.

Why do people pull away from those who are going through a period of mourning? There could be any number of reasons. Maybe they don’t know what to say. Maybe they are busy and caught up in their own lives. It might be that the death of our loved one reminds them of the stark reality of death and loss. Or maybe our tears frighten them, because they don’t know how to fix it.

We live in an Instagram-ready world. Advertisements and the media are constantly inundating us with exhortations to look our best, be the best, focus on the positive. Anything to keep up the facade. Society also pushes us to “fast fixes” with promises of “Just one pill,” or “Success overnight!”

As a result there seems to be little acceptance for anything other than “perfect.” All those messy emotions? Stuff them down inside and keep your head up. Life goes on, right?

We are conditioned from an early age that “sad is bad.” We hear other people say things like “Cheer up!” “Don’t let them see you cry,” or, “It’s not that bad!” They claim it is because they want to help and protect us, and that may be true.

It is also true that seeing people upset makes others uncomfortable, and humans don’t like to feel uncomfortable. We want comfort. Perfection. Quick fixes. We don’t want painful or sad or messy.

When other people see us grieving they often begin to think of not only our discomfort, but also their own. Then they do whatever they think they can to make that discomfort stop. They want to “fix” it. This results in insensitive remarks that they think are said with the best of intentions. They think that it is their job to make it better. However, they often don’t realize that their desire to make it better may be because of their own uncomfortable feelings. It’s selfish, and they have no idea they’re doing it.

Here’s the reality: It is okay to NOT be okay.

Anger, sadness, bitterness, pain, grief~ these are not actually BAD emotions even though they may make us feel bad. They are an important part of the human experience with all its highs and lows.The full spectrum of life needs to be embraced in order to really live it. Birth and death. Love and loss. Joy and suffering. They are all a part of what makes our time on this earth so meaningful. To cut ourselves off from any one of these things means to deny ourselves the opportunity to experience the fullness of life and explore what it truly means to be human.

Why is it so often considered “brave” to put on a face of calm stoicism in the midst of our trials? Isn’t it equally brave to allow ourselves to weep and wail and gnash our teeth at the depth of our pain and at the unfairness of it all?

Grief comes in many forms. We may grieve the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship, the loss of a job, the loss of our health, or the reality that something we dreamed about will never come true. No matter what the source of that grief is, when something hurts we should allow ourselves, and others, the chance to experience and work through that grief. Hiding from it or burying it just causes more problems in the long run.

I recently watched a powerful video in which chaplain & storyteller Kate Braestrup shared thoughts on, “What a five-year-old taught me about grieving.” In the video she talks about the death of her husband and describes the way she was treated by people who wanted to “manage” her. They seemed to think that if she was allowed to do what she felt she needed to do to care for her husband she would fall apart. When they finally left her alone with her husband’s body and let her dress him in his uniform it was a sacred experience. Even though it was painful, it was also beautiful and healing.

She then went on to talk about 5-year-old Nina, whose 4-year-old best friend and cousin had died. Nina insisted that she wanted to see Andy, and her parents were concerned, saying, “We want to protect her.” Finally, after much worry, they decided to allow young Nina to spend time with her cousin’s body and pay her respects.

The scene that transpired was sacred and beautiful and healing. Nina got what she needed and she was able to say goodbye. I encourage you to watch the video for yourself to hear the whole story.

Then came a realization after Nina’s tender goodbye:

You can trust a human being with grief.

Nina knew what she needed. People know what they need. So ask them. Listen to them. Then give them the freedom to express themselves and heal and mourn in their own way and in their own time.

It is only natural to try and protect those we love. I think if we were honest with ourselves, however, we would realize that we also try to protect them from some things because it would actually be too hard for US.

Grief is messy. It’s raw. Unfiltered. Honest. And that makes us uncomfortable. But we don’t have to be afraid of it or of any other emotion. We allow ourselves to feel them and learn from them. We can grow stronger because of them.

We grieve because we love, and love is powerful. Or, as Kate Braestrup so eloquently stated at the end of her video:

“Walk fearlessly into the house of mourning; for grief is just Love squaring up to its oldest enemy. And after all these mortal human years, Love is up to the challenge.”

Love is up to the challenge.

 

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Jennifer Roberts Bittner

Certified Celebrant/ Life Tribute Specialist

Morrissett Funeral and Cremation Service
6500 Iron Bridge Rd.
N. Chesterfield, VA 23234
Serving the Richmond area since 1870

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