Category

Grief/Loss

8 Simple Tips for Writing a Meaningful Condolence Letter

By Grief/Loss, Helping a Friend in Grief

Words often fail us. We don’t know what to say, how to say it, or when to say it, but we know something must be said. And so, we try our best. This is how you may feel about writing a condolence letter or sympathy card. You know you should say something, but you aren’t quite sure what to say. You worry about saying the wrong thing and making someone’s pain worse. But with a few pointers, you can reach out to others and offer heartfelt, sincere, and meaningful words of sympathy. Here are eight things to keep in mind when writing sympathy cards:

1. Don’t be silent.

It’s human nature to avoid situations that you deem difficult or uncomfortable. But just because something is uncomfortable does not mean it shouldn’t be done. Remaining silent does not help you or the other person. But, if you want someone to feel cared for during a time of loss, write them a card.

2. Social media isn’t always enough.

So many of us are guilty of only expressing abbreviated condolences on social media. “Praying for you.” “I’m so sorry for your loss.” Occasionally, a “Is there anything I can do for you?” But think how much more it would mean to someone, how truly cared for they would feel, if you took time out of your day to specifically and intentionally write to them. You travel to the store, you dawdle over which card to get (it’s got to be perfect!), you go home and sit down to write, and then express your condolences in your own unique way. That’s time you have given up to care for another human being. Condolences expressed on social media are not wrong, and in fact, they can be helpful. It’s an excellent way to express sympathy to someone you don’t know well. But for those you personally know and have a connection to, just think how much more care you will convey by taking the extra time needed to write a letter.

3. Handwrite it.

By handwriting the letter, you add an extra level of personalization. You took the time to sit down and not only gather your thoughts, but write them out. How many people actually do that these days? Far less than in previous years. It means so much more to receive a handwritten note in the mail than any message on social media.

4. Keep it short(ish).

You don’t have to write a tome for your sympathy letter. In fact, it’s better if you keep it somewhat short and succinct balanced with intentionality and compassion.

5. Make it personal.

If you are writing a sympathy card, it’s safe to assume that you either know a person who has lost someone or you knew the person who has died. With that in mind, make your words as personal as possible. If you knew the person who has died, share a positive story that you remember about them or a way they impacted you.

On the other hand, if you didn’t know them personally, mention that you know how much they meant to the family. Or share a story that you heard from your friend about their lost loved one. No matter how you say it, express your sorrow for their loss.

6. No comparisons.

A majority of us know what it is to lose someone we love. It’s hard, painful, and exhausting. But even though we can relate to someone’s grief, we should never compare our grief to theirs. Everyone grieves differently and uniquely. No two grief journeys are the same and shouldn’t be treated as such. Instead, offer words of comfort about your own grief journey, without comparisons. Share a valuable lesson you’ve learned in your own grief journey while still acknowledging, “I know your loss is so different from mine.”

7. Be real.

Don’t be afraid to use words like “death,” “died,” or “die.” According to Dr. Alan Wolfelt, a respected grief expert and counselor, acknowledging the reality of the death of a loved one is necessary to move forward in your grief journey. By being unafraid to use these terms, you participate in acknowledging the reality of the loss.

8. Add a thoughtful action.

These days, no matter where you live, you can take thoughtful action toward someone in grief. If you live nearby, take a casserole over to the family. If you live further away, order flowers online. With the internet, there’s so much we can do even separated by distance. But remember, don’t offer anything you can’t deliver.

Now that we’ve discussed some things to do, we should also touch on some things we should NOT do. In many cases, it’s just as important what you don’t say as what you do say. There are some things that we should never say to a grieving person. A few pitfalls to avoid:

  • Sometimes the grieving person needs to tell their story, but leave it up to them if they want to share anything regarding the circumstances of their loved one’s death. They shouldn’t be expected to tell the story again and again if they don’t wish to do so, and they definitely don’t need other people treating it like juicy gossip.
  • Refrain from saying anything negative about the person who has died. If you knew them, you may not have personally liked them, but for the purposes of a condolence letter, your opinions need to be kept to yourself.
  • Avoid saying insensitive things like “you’re better off without them” or “cheer up!” Every person needs to be allowed to grieve in their own way, not feel like they’re doing it wrong somehow.
  • Don’t mention the will or the estate. If you are in line to inherit something, you will be contacted at the proper time. The condolence letter is not the right time.
  • Try to avoid clichés. For example, “It was just their time to go” or “They’re in a better place” are cliché phrases that don’t help a person in grief. Don’t rely on old tropes. Put your heart into the letter and be real and sincere.

The Love Languages of Grief: Identifying and Asking for the Most Effective Grief Support for You

By Grief/Loss

When it comes to mourning and how others can best help us, there’s no one right way. Every person and every loss is unique. The people we grieve the loss of – as well as the circumstances of the loss – are also one-of-a-kind. After a significant loss, what we think and feel inside, in what ways we’re able to express those thoughts and feelings, and how we feel supported by others vary from person to person and loss to loss.

Yet, in his landmark 1995 book The Five Love Languages, author Dr. Gary Chapman introduced us to the idea that human beings feel cared for by others in five primary ways:

  1. Receiving gifts
  2. Spending quality time together
  3. Hearing words of affirmation
  4. Being the beneficiary of acts of service
  5. Experiencing physical touch

According to Dr. Chapman, each of us “speaks” one of the five love languages. In other words, we feel most loved when we experience the language best suited to our unique personalities and ways of being in the world. We might also respond  to a second or third love language, but we always prefer our primary love language.

In reviewing Dr. Chapman’s love languages recently, I realized that grouping the various helping techniques in this way could help mourners understand and recognize which forms of support and communication might be most effective for them.

I invite you to consider the following five ways of being supported in your grief. Which love language helps you the most?

1. Receiving gifts

In Dr. Chapman’s body of work, gifts of love are actual gifts – tangible, visible objects that we give to someone we care about as a means of expressing our affection and devotion. People whose primary love lan­guage is receiving gifts see presents as physical symbols of others’ love and thoughtfulness.

Do you enjoy getting presents? Are you someone who displays gift items in your home and feels a burst of love and support each time you see them? If so, receiving gifts might be your love language.

If you are someone who values the love language of gifts, consider letting your friends and family know that you really feel supported by tokens of empathy. You might appreciate flowers, for example. You might welcome gifts of food, in­spirational books, photo frames, music, candles and ornaments.

With this love language, it can be tricky to ask for what you need. “Please give me gifts!” would be considered impolite by many. Still, consider sharing what you’ve learned about your love language with a good friend or empathetic family member who is also an excellent com­municator. Perhaps she/he can take on the role of explaining to others the lasting meaning and ongoing support you find in physical objects.

And when you do receive a gift, be sure to write a heartfelt note of thanks or make a thank-you phone call.

2. Spending quality time together

For many people, there is no present more precious than the gift of presence.

Do you love spending time with the people who care about you? Do you enjoy their company, even when you’re not doing anything special together? Do you prefer company to solitude? If so, quality time might be your love language.

Let friends and family know the best way they can help you during your time of grief is simply to be there for you – literally. You crave and need their physical presence. Maybe you don’t want to be alone. Maybe you like lots of people around. If so, tell them.

Think about how you like to spend time with others. Playing cards? Watching TV? Going out and about? Hanging out in the same house but doing separate activities? Whatever you prefer, let friends and family know because they may feel unsure about what to do.

Consider, too, if you feel supported when you have the opportunity to talk to others about your grief. In general, sharing your story of love and loss is a good idea. It helps you work through your thoughts and feelings. Bottling those thoughts and feelings up inside can seem safer, but it’s actually more dangerous because it puts you at risk of becoming stuck in your grief journey.

Of course, your friends and family members aren’t the only ones who can help you with this love language. Be proactive about getting involved in your community. Volunteering, participating in activities at a place of worship or community group, socializing with neigh­bors – these are all effective ways to build in more quality time with other people.

And don’t forget that grief never completely ends. If this is your love language, you will need the healing presence of friends and family not just in the first month or  two after the death but far into the future. Reaching out to plan ongoing get-togethers will help you receive the support you need.

3. Hearing words of affirmation

This griever feels most supported by words that are kind and encouraging. “Words of affirmation” might be your love language if you have a deep appreciation for hearing others tell you:

  • I love you.
  • I care about you.
  • I’m here for you for.
  • You are so loved/strong/genuine because _______________.
  • I have seen how you _______________.
  • You make a difference in the world by ______________.
  • Many people ______________ you.

If this describes you, let your friends and family know how meaningful you find it when they share these kinds of verbal mes­sages with you. Tell them that their words of encouragement and support lift you up and help you through the darkest times.

Written words may be affirming to you as well. While they’re no replacement for in-person or phone conversations, handwritten notes, emails, and even texts may also be helpful and encouraging to you. If you’re a verbal griever, be sure to encourage all forms of spoken and written communications.

4. Being the beneficiary of acts of service

For some grievers, actions speak more loudly than words or mere presence. Do you appreciate help with tasks? Do you feel cared for when others go out of their way to help you with things that need doing? If so, this might be your love language.

Since the death of your loved one, have others said to you, “Let me know if I can do any­thing?” It’s a natural impulse for friends and family members to want to do some­thing to show their support. Usually what happens, though, is that grievers don’t ask for assistance, so no assistance takes place.

So please, ask for assistance! People often do genuinely want to help, but they don’t know how. Suggest tasks and to-dos that suit their strengths. Ask your gardener friends to help with yard work, for example. Ask your book­keeper family member to help with home accounting, bill paying, or tax preparation.

If one of your friends or family members is a good administrator, you might sit down with this person and go over all of the tasks that you need help with right now. This person can then assign the tasks out to others in your circle of support.

Finally, if this is your love language and you’ve asked your inner circle for help with tasks but aren’t receiving it, don’t be reticent to reach out beyond your inner circle. Others are waiting in the wings. Places of worship, volunteer organizations, neighborhood committees – these and other service­-oriented groups often have programs and maintain lists of volunteers to assist with needs such as yours. It is likely that helping grieving families is something they would be glad to do. All you have to do is ask.

5. Experiencing physical touch

The griever who thrives on physical touch needs closeness. Are you someone who enjoys hugging, sitting close to others, maintaining eye contact, holding hands, and/or walking arm-in-arm? If so, this might be your love language.

If you’re someone who’s always valued physical touch, your friends and family members will know to expect it from you. Don’t stop now! You may, however, want to emphasize to them how extra-necessary you find their hugs and physical closeness during your time of grief.

If this is your love language, you might also be more prone to physical symptoms of grief. It’s common for people in mourning to experience stomachaches, heart palpi­tations, headaches, lack of sleep, and other physical symptoms. If bodily problems are making it hard for you to function and focus on healing, it’s a good idea to schedule a physical exam. Your primary caregiver may be able to help you with insomnia or other symptoms and put fears of illness to rest as well.

Those who crave touch will be soothed by regular contact. In addition to physical closeness with family and friends, physical activity may help you right now. Or consider inviting someone to take a walk with you each day. Physical proximity combined with exercise and supportive conversation may be just what you need to feel loved and supported right now.

I believe Dr. Chapman’s love languages offer a helpful framework for recognizing and understanding your own primary love language so that you know how to ask for and receive the most effective support in your grief. If you are interested in learning more about the love languages, you may want to read one of Dr. Chapman’s books on the topic. He has written versions focused on partners, parenting children, men and other types of relationships. The original and flagship title in the series was reissued in 2015 by Northfield Publishing under the title The Five Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts.

About the Author:

Dr. Alan Wolfelt is a noted author, educator, and grief counselor. Dr. Wolfelt believes that meaningful funeral experiences help families and friends support one another, embrace their feelings, and embark on the journey to healing and transcendence. Recipient of the Association of Death Education and Counseling’s Death Educator Award, Dr. Wolfelt presents workshops across the world to grieving families, funeral home staffs, and other caregivers. He also teaches training courses for bereavement caregivers at the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colorado, where he serves as Director. Dr. Wolfelt is on the faculty of the University of Colorado Medical School’s Department of Family Medicine. He is also the author of many bestselling books, including Understanding Your Grief, The Mourner’s Book of Hope, Creating Meaningful Funeral Ceremonies, and The Paradoxes of Grief: Healing Your Grief With Three Forgotten Truths. For more information, visit www.centerforloss.com

Printed by permission of Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt, all rights reserved.

The Healing Power of Ritual

By Grief/Loss, Meaningful Funerals

Throughout our lives, we participate in rituals. In some cases, we may not even know that we are taking part in a ritual. At weddings, we toss the bouquet. And there’s the old adage for brides: something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue. We all have our holiday traditions (rituals) that we look forward to year after year. Graduation ceremonies are another wonderful example of a ritual that marks a milestone in life. And birthdays – most of us celebrate them yearly with either great or modest, and sometimes reluctant, fanfare. And, for those who are spiritual, holy days throughout the year are full of ritual, tradition, and significance.

But what does the term “ritual” really mean? The word has Indo-European roots and means to “fit together.” It is related to words like “order,” “weaving,” and “arithmetic.” All of these words involve fitting things together to create order. Rituals fit, or put, things back together. This is especially important for a meaningful and healing funeral experience.

When a loved one dies, it makes sense to turn to rituals to help us put our lives back together again. Grief is chaotic and disorienting. It rips our world apart. In fact, the word “bereaved” comes from the root “reave,” which means to be robbed by force. “Grieve” stems from French root “grever,” meaning to burden, afflict, or oppress. The elements of a healing funeral are rituals that work together to restore order to our lives after everything is torn apart by the chaos and pain created by the death of someone loved.

The Comforting Nature of Rituals

Even with a clearer definition, the question still remains, what is it about rituals that is so comforting?

They encourage us to remember

To begin with, rituals connect us to the past and provide stability for the future. As we remember what has gone before, we are comforted by those memories. At Christmas, we often find joy in remembrance of Christmases past. At funerals, we seek to remember, to value, and to honor the life of a uniquely special person.

They bring us together

Rituals also bring us together as families and communities. Whether it is gathering for Good Friday services or joining in the town’s Fourth of July parade every year, we come together, we support each other, and we find unity.

They offer us peace

In many ways, by taking part in rituals, we actively seek peace within ourselves. For example, it gives us a measure of internal peace to pray when someone is sick or injured. Or, after someone we love has died, we receive comfort when we visit their final resting place or do something special and significant on the day of their birth or death. By taking part in ritual, an intentional habit to recall and reminisce, we find comfort and a release for our pain.

They give us focus

By participating in powerful rituals, we gain a sense of focus. We take our eyes off ourselves and see beyond our own difficulties. If you decide to volunteer at a local soup kitchen in tribute to a lost loved one, you are not focused on your own needs but on the needs of another.

They help us in our search for meaning

And finally, rituals play a significant role in our search for meaning. Religious rituals are part of an inner search for meaning and purpose. A search for meaning is found in natural, normal rituals: visiting the graves of lost loved ones, reciting vows at a wedding, and celebrating a significant day. We are all constantly searching for significance and purpose, and rituals are a powerful tool in the search.

The Funeral Ritual

In much the same way, the funeral is a ritual that humankind has participated in since the beginning of time. Noted author, counselor, and grief expert, Dr. Alan Wolfelt, puts it this way:

The funeral ritual, too, is a public, traditional and symbolic means of expressing our beliefs, thoughts and feelings about the death of someone loved.  Rich in history and rife with symbolism, the funeral ceremony helps us acknowledge the reality of the death, gives testimony to the life of the deceased, encourages the expression of grief in a way consistent with the culture’s values, provides support to mourners, allows for the embracing of faith and beliefs about life and death, and offers continuity and hope for the living.

By taking part in the elements of a meaningful and healing funeral service, we participate in the long-held and necessary tradition of the funeral. By taking time to mourn, we learn to reconcile with grief and move forward to find continued meaning in life.

Funerals encourage us to remember those we have lost. They bring us together as families, friends, and communities. They offer us peace as we are faced with the reality of our grief and begin to reconcile ourselves to it. Symbols – lighting candles, wearing dark clothing, attending services – give us focus and intentionality. And perhaps most of all, they help us in our search for meaning, our search to understand where we come from and who we are.

The Capacity to Love: The Reason We Grieve

By Grief/Loss

Every time we make the decision to love someone, we open ourselves to great suffering, because those we most love cause us not only great joy, but also great pain. The greatest pain comes from leaving…the pain of the leaving can tear us apart. Still, if we want to avoid the suffering of leaving, we will never experience the joy of loving. And love is stronger than fear, life stronger than death, hope stronger than despair. We have to trust that the risk of loving is always worth taking.”   – Henri Nouwen

“All you need is love,” famously sang the Beatles. I couldn’t agree more. We come into the world yearning to give and receive love. Authentic love is God’s greatest gift to us as human beings. Love is the one human experience that invites us to feel beautifully connected and forces us to acknowledge that meaning and purpose are anchored not in isolation and aloneness, but in union and togetherness.

What higher purpose is there in life but to give and receive love? Love is the essence of a life of abundance and joy. No matter what life brings our way, love is our highest goal, our passionate quest. Yes, we have a tremendous need for love – love that captures our hearts and nourishes our spirits.

In fact, our capacity to give and receive love is what ultimately defines us. Nothing we have “accomplished” in our lifetime matters as much as the way we have loved one another.

Yet love inevitably leads to grief. You see, love and grief are two sides of the same precious coin. One does not – and cannot – exist without the other. People sometimes say that grief is the price we pay for the joy of having loved. This also means that grief is not a universal experience. Grief is predicated on our capacity to give and receive love. Some people choose not to love, and so, never grieve. If we allow ourselves the grace that comes with love, however, we must allow ourselves the grace that is required to mourn.

The experience of grief is only felt when someone of great value, purpose, and meaning has been a part of your life. To mourn your loss is required if you are to befriend the love you have been granted. To honor your grief is not self-destructive or harmful, it is life-sustaining and life-giving, and it ultimately leads you back to love again. In this way, love is both the cause and the antidote. Just as our greatest gift from God is our capacity to give and receive love, it is a great gift that we can openly mourn our life losses.

It is important to understand that grief and mourning are not the same thing, however. Grief is the constellation of thoughts and feelings we have when someone we love dies. We can think of it as the container. It holds our thoughts, feelings, and image of our experience when someone we love dies. In other words, grief is the internal meaning given to the experience of loss. Mourning is taking the grief we have on the inside and expressing it outside of ourselves.

Making the choice not just to grieve, but to authentically mourn, provides us the courage to live through the pain of loss and be transformed by it. How ironic that to ultimately go on to live well and love well we must allow ourselves to mourn well. You have loved from the outside in, and now you must learn to mourn from the inside out.

About the Author:

Dr. Alan Wolfelt is a noted author, educator, grief counselor. Dr. Wolfelt believes that meaningful funeral experiences help families and friends support one another, embrace their feelings, and embark on the journey to healing and transcendence. Recipient of the Association of Death Education and Counseling’s Death Educator Award, Dr. Wolfelt presents workshops across the world to grieving families, funeral home staffs, and other caregivers. He also teaches training courses for bereavement caregivers at the Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colorado, where he serves as Director. Dr. Wolfelt is on the faculty of the University of Colorado Medical School’s Department of Family Medicine. He is also the author of many bestselling books, including Understanding Your Grief, The Mourner’s Book of Hope, Creating Meaningful Funeral Ceremonies, and The Paradoxes of Grief: Healing Your Grief With Three Forgotten Truths, upon which this series is based. For more information, visit www.centerforloss.com

Printed by permission of Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt, all rights reserved.

Love and Grief: Living as You Were Meant to Live

By Grief/Loss

We are all mirrors unto one another. Look into me and you will find something or yourself as I will of you.”  – Walter Rinder

Love is a sacred partnership of communion with another human being. You take each other in, and even when you are apart, you are together. Wherever you go, you carry the person inside you. Communion means the sharing or exchanging of intimate thoughts and feelings, especially on a spiritual level. When two people love one another, they are connected. They are entwined.

Communion of Lives

The word “communion” comes from the Old French comuner, which means “to hold in common.” Note that this is different than “to have in common.” You may have very little in common with another person, yet love them wholeheartedly. Instead, you hold things in common – that is, you consciously choose to share one another’s lives, hopes, and dreams. You hold her heart, and she holds yours.

This experience of taking another person inside your heart is beyond definition and defies analysis. It is part of the mystery of love. Love has its own way with us. It knocks on our hearts and invites itself in. It cannot be seen, but we realize it has hap­pened. It cannot be touched, yet we feel it.

Communion of Grief

When someone we love dies, then, we feel a gaping hole inside us. I have compan­ioned hundreds of mourners who have said to me, “When she died, I felt like part of me died, too.” In what can feel like a very physical sense, something that was inside us now seems missing. We don’t mourn those who die from the outside in; we mourn them from the inside out.

The absence of the person you love wounds your spirit, creates downward movement in your psyche, and transforms your heart. Yet even though you feel there is now a hole inside you, you will also come to know (if you haven’t already) that those you love continue to live on in your heart. You remain in communion with those you love forever and are inextricably connected to them for eternity.

Yes, you will grieve the person’s absence and need to express your feelings of grief. You must mourn. You must commune with your grief and take it into your heart, embracing your many thoughts and feel­ings. When you allow yourself to fully mourn, over time and with the support of others who care about you, you will come to find that the person you lost does indeed still live inside you.

Love abides in communion – during life and after death. And mourning is com­munion with your grief. With communion comes understanding, meaning, and a life of richness.

Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts

Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart.”  – Marcus Aurelius

When you love another person, it can feel like one plus one equals three.

I’m sure you’ve heard the saying, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Love is like that. Two people can come together and form a partnership that enables each person to be “more” in so many ways.

Here’s another way to think about this idea: Love is like an orchestra. You may be a clarinet – a strong, fine wind instrument all by yourself. But when you surround yourself with other instruments, each of which does the work of carrying its own part and practicing its own music, to­gether as a group you can blow the doors off the place.

I much prefer this expansive concept of love over the long-held reductionist belief that two become one. If two become one, both participants in the relationship are diminished. Conversely, what truly feeds the soul of a loving relationship is expansion, mutual-nurturance, and growth.

Without doubt, being part of a synergistic, two-makes-three relationship requires a conscious commitment. Did your rela­tionship with the person who died feel enhancing or diminishing? In synergistic relationships, there has to be space and encouragement to be real and authentic. Were you empowered to be your true self or disempowered to be something you were not? Did your two make three, or did your two make you less than one? If your two made less than one, perhaps you are now faced with mourning what you never had but wished you did. How human is that?

If, on the other hand, your relationship with the person who died made you greater than the sum of your parts, what happens now that one of you is gone? You may feel diminished. You may feel empty. You may feel less than whole. Your self-identity may even seem to shrink as you struggle with your changing roles. If you are no longer a wife (or a mother or a sister or a daughter), what are you? If you are no longer a husband (or a father or a brother or a son), what are you?

The experience of mourning can feel piecemeal – a cry here, a burst of anger there; a deep sadness today, a crush of guilt tomorrow. You might feel a sense of disorientation from the scattered and ever-changing nature of your grief.

But when you trust in the process of grief and you surrender to the mystery, you will find that mourning, like love, is also greater than the sum of its parts. Leaning into your grief and always erring on the side of expressing rather than inhibiting or ignoring your thoughts and feelings – ­no matter how random and disjointed they might seem some days – will bring you to a place of transformation. You will not just be different from the person you were before the death. You will be greater. Your experience of love and grief will create a changed you, a you who has not only survived but who has learned to thrive again in a new form and in a new way.

And just as love connects you to others, so should grief. You need the listening ears and open hearts of others as you express your thoughts and feelings about the death. You need the support of others as you mourn.

Yes, love and grief are both greater than the sum of their parts. The lesson I take from this is that whenever you engage fully and openly in life, experiencing both the joys and the sorrows head-on, you are living the life you were meant to live.

About the Author:

Dr. Alan Wolfelt is a respected author and educator on the topic of healing in grief. He serves as Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition and is on the faculty at the University of Colorado Medical School’s Department of Family Medicine. Dr. Wolfelt has written many compassionate, bestselling books designed to help people mourn well so they can continue to love and live well, including Loving from the Outside In, Mourning from the Inside Out, from which this article is excerpted. Visit www.centerforloss.com to learn more about the natural and necessary process of grief and mourning and to order Dr. Wolfelt’s books.

Printed by permission of Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt, all rights reserved.

Funerals and Family Discord: What Can You Do?

By Grief/Loss, Planning Tools

Funerals are always difficult. Emotions are closer to the surface. Add to that the struggles and intricacies associated with relationships. Dealing with either family discord or difficult people at an already difficult time is incredibly taxing. If you’ve lost someone you love, you are already feeling a wide ranges of emotions: shock, denial, fear, confusion, guilt, regret, sadness. You may not feel that you have energy left to deal with difficult people or situations.

Family discord or interactions with difficult people can happen at any stage of the funeral process. It may be that you and a sibling disagree on the best way to honor your parent’s life. It could be that someone you have intentionally avoided will be coming to the funeral service. No matter the details of your particular situation, you feel your stress levels rising when you think about the funeral. If this resonates with you, take a moment to review some thoughts on how to navigate these tricky moments.

1. Be aware of your emotions.

Our emotions are a gift, but they are also our responsibility. They tell us how we feel, but they do not always reflect the truth about a situation. We need to examine whether our feelings are based on faulty assumptions or based on real facts.

As we deal with family discord or difficult people, we need to be mindful of our emotions and what they are telling us. But more importantly, we need to ask, are my emotions a reflection of reality or a result of my potentially faulty conclusions? In other words, am I thinking clearly or through an emotionally-blurred lens? It’s important to answer these questions before taking the offensive against family members during a very emotional time. Remember – you control your emotions; they do not control you.

2. Find ways to compromise.

It’s important to find a way to compromise. In some cases, family members may disagree about funeral arrangements for a lost loved one. Some may prefer cremation and others burial. And if cremation is chosen, what happens to the ashes? Who decides? This is one reason why it’s so important to plan ahead for funeral arrangements, so that family members left behind don’t have to stress over what to do. They can have confidence in what their lost loved one wanted. But in the absence of a plan, find ways to compromise so that everyone gets a little of what they want.

And if you’re attending a funeral where you will see a certain family member you’ve been avoiding, remember what the service is all about. Don’t let a past wound keep you from getting what you need from the funeral service. Whether or not there is a possibility to repair the relationship, try to forgive the person for your own peace of mind.

3. Choose your words thoughtfully.

We should weigh our words in every situation, especially during a time of loss. Those who speak out of anger or pain are usually reacting to people or situations, and may say something hurtful that they later regret. Often, if you feel the tension rising with family members, words spoken in anger will only make things worse. It’s important to stand up for yourself and express your opinion without attacking the position of others. Try to really listen to what others are saying and see things from their perspective before responding. Start your statements with “I feel” or “I think” rather than “You always do this” or “You make me so mad!” Using “I” instead of “You” statements will help you take responsibility for your emotions without accusing others and putting them on the defensive, which could escalate an already tense situation.

4. Discover what helps you cope with stress.

Know yourself and what you need in order to cope with stress. We should always be students of ourselves and of other people, seeking to understand why we and others act or react in certain ways. What calms you down? What is your outlet or release? For some, it’s painting or writing, working out, being alone for a while, or spending time with specific people who bring life and comfort.

As you approach a situation that may be difficult, do what you need to do beforehand to bring your stress levels down. Think about appropriate ways to express your grief. Don’t bottle up your grief, but channel it appropriately. If you do feel the need to express your grief vocally, go to a room by yourself (or with a safe person) and scream or cry if you need to.

5. Try to take the higher road.

When dealing with a difficult person, the last thing we often want to be is “nice.” If you and a sibling are arguing over a parent’s final wishes for the funeral service, you are likely more irritated than kindhearted at the moment. But that’s why it’s so important to look for a way to be kind.

As you look for a way to be gracious to the ones in the situation who are difficult, rude, discourteous, or any other vast array of possible adjectives, by looking for a way to be kind, you may even change the direction of the conversation. Even if others don’t respond back to you in kindness, you can look back at the funeral for your loved one and say, “I did my best in a difficult situation.”

In life, conflict is unavoidable. How we deal with it is what truly matters. If you are looking for a way to avoid family discord or an uncomfortable situation at a funeral, one option is to talk with your elderly, living relatives about making advance funeral arrangements. Or at the very least, encourage them to write down what they would like to be included in a celebration of their life. This will be a valuable opportunity for families to get on the same page regarding future events and prevent as much disagreement as possible.

Grieving the “Firsts” After a Loss

By AfterCare, Grief/Loss

The first year without your loved one can be very difficult, especially as milestones approach. First Valentine’s Day. First birthday. Christmas. The anniversary of your loved one’s passing. Each of these days will be difficult in their own ways.

Dr. Alan Wolfelt, a noted grief counselor, author, and educator, affirms that our grief journeys are as unique as we are. “In life, everyone grieves. But their grief journeys are never the same. Despite what you may hear, you will do the work of mourning in your own special way. Be careful about comparing your experience with that of other people. Also, do not adopt assumptions about how long your grief should last. Just consider taking a ‘one-day-at-a-time’ approach. Doing so allows you to mourn at your own pace.”

Here are a few ideas for navigating your “firsts”:

1. Plan ahead if you can.

As a special day or milestone approaches, consider what you will need to get through the day. Plan ahead and decide if you need to take the day off to rest and reflect. You may also wish to do something special or meaningful to honor your loved one’s memory. Or, you may want to go to a special place or gather with certain people on that day. A little planning ahead of time can make for a more peaceful and contemplative day.

2. Find a way to celebrate and remember your lost loved one.

The hardest part about a day that is special to you is if no one else seems to remember. No matter what the particular day may be, if it’s significant to you and your lost loved one, do something to remember, to celebrate, to commemorate, to honor. Take flowers to the gravesite, look through old photos and videos, light a candle, or write a letter. At Thanksgiving or Christmas, you can serve their favorite dish and start calling it by their name – Nana’s mashed potatoes, Joe’s green bean casserole, etc. You can also sing your loved one’s favorite Christmas carols or put a remembrance ornament on your tree. All of these are simple ways to express your grief outwardly. The outward expression of grief will help bring peace and healing on a difficult day.

3. Reinvent the day and bring hope to a day of sadness.

Another option is to reinvent the days that bring you pain. For example, on the anniversary of your loved one’s death, do something that would have delighted them. If they loved to fish, maybe you and your family could honor their birthday by spending a day at the lake and taking time to remember and cherish. On your first Valentine’s Day without your loved one, you might treat yourself to a dinner out or eat a meal with others who have lost a significant other.

This same principle can be applied to any special day. Even at Thanksgiving or Christmas, you can look for ways to reinvent the day and make it something new, something meaningful and healing, something intentional and beautiful. For example, your family might decide to celebrate away from home if a Christmas at home is too difficult to face. Changing routines and focusing on what brings you joy and peace, even temporarily, can help you get through a difficult day or season.

4. Give back to meaningful causes.

As birthdays or the anniversary of the loss come around, some people choose to run a fundraiser via social media supporting a cause that helped their loved one, such as the Alzheimer’s Association, the American Cancer Society, nonprofit hospitals, or other significant causes.

If your loved one loved animals, you may decide to give a donation in their name to a local rescue. Another idea would be to volunteer your time to a local nonprofit that cares for animals. If they greatly valued children, find a way of giving back to local or international programs that help children. You may even sign up for a race or a walk that raises funds for a special cause.

Some people become so passionate about a cause after losing a loved one that they establish their own nonprofit organizations in memory of the person who died. Whatever you decide to do, giving back is one way you can pay it forward to others and carry on your loved one’s legacy.  Though your loved one is gone, their legacy lives on through you.

The possibilities for honoring a loved one on a special day are virtually endless. It all depends on what speaks to you. What makes you feel close to the one you have lost? What were their favorite things? Once you discover what comforts your heart, do it year after year, until it’s either a beloved tradition or you feel that you can stop. As Dr. Wolfelt assures us, each grief journey is different. No two are the same. Do what works for you and brings you peace. In time, the significance of the day will change slightly. Yes, it will still mark the loss of your loved one, but it will also come to have new meaning and new life.

In truth, we never really get over our grief; we become reconciled to it. We find a new way to live because the old way is gone forever.  As Dr. Wolfelt puts it, “You will find that as you achieve reconciliation, the sharp, ever-present pain of grief will give rise to a renewed sense of meaning and purpose. Your feelings of loss will not completely disappear, yet they will soften, and the intense pangs of grief will become less frequent. Hope for a continued life will emerge as you are able to make commitments to the future, realizing that the person you have given love to and received love from will never be forgotten. The unfolding of this journey is not intended to create a return to an ‘old normal’ but the discovery of a ‘new normal.’”

In time, you will find your “new normal.” But for now, grieve. Cry. Remember. And eventually, if you allow it, reconciliation will come. In the meantime, look for ways to celebrate or commemorate your lost loved one on those days special to you both or find a way to take the painful days and mark them for good deeds. May you find the peace and reconciliation you need.

6 Things You Should Never Say to a Grieving Person

By Grief/Loss, Helping a Friend in Grief

Words are powerful. They have the power to hurt or heal.

But sometimes we say things that we think offer comfort, when in reality, they actually hurt the people we love. We have a responsibility to guard our words, especially when someone is emotionally vulnerable, like after the death of a loved one.

Consider avoiding these phrases when speaking to a friend or loved one who has lost someone close to them (regardless of whether the loss was recent or further in the past).

“I know how you feel.”

It’s true that you may have suffered a similar loss, but you have not suffered this particular loss. The temptation here is to engage in “troubles talk” to find common ground with the person and, in a way, share the burden of the loss. But this comment assumes that you know the complex emotions of the bereaved and that you have felt each one exactly as they do. This is impossible. Rather than hearing your desire to show how much you understand, the bereaved person hears: “I don’t want to understand your specific situation” or “I want to talk about myself.” Every loss is one that has never been experienced before. Every person feels, processes, and heals in a different way. Instead, you might say, “I know every loss is different in its own way, but something that helped me when I lost my mom was (insert helpful suggestion here),” or just simply and sincerely ask, “How are you doing?

“You’re so strong.”

You may intend this to be received as a compliment, but what you’re communicating is, “I expect you to be strong enough to keep your emotions in check through all of this.” This may or may not be your intention, but the result is that the grieving person feels like they can’t share what they truly feel because you expect them to “stay strong.” No matter how “put together” a person looks on the outside, on the inside, they may be experiencing incredible pain. A comment about how strong they are takes away their option to express any vulnerability or genuine emotions to you. You essentially become an unsafe person to talk to. It may invite a more honest response, and you should be ready with your emotional support, but instead, consider saying, “It’s okay to cry.”

“Sometimes we just don’t understand the will of God.” Or, “God must have needed another angel in heaven.”

These phrases and many similar ones are often used in Christian religious circles, and whether by intention or not, they essentially blame God for the death of a loved one. While it is true that we may not fully understand the will of God, these platitudes are not helpful because they contradict the Christian belief in a loving God whose original creation did not include death. In the story of Adam and Eve, death only entered the world after the fall of man and was not in God’s original design. Death is now a natural part of life. It is appropriate to pray for others and seek comfort from God after loss, but not blame him for the loss. Instead, consider saying “I’ve been thinking about you so much” or “You’ve been in my thoughts and prayers.”

“She’s/he’s in a better place.”

When you are grieving the loss of a loved one, you don’t want them to be in a “better place.” You want them to be here, now, with you. In time, it may be a comfort to think of a loved one in heaven. But in the midst of the deep sorrow of NOW, it’s difficult to find comfort or healing in the phrase. Simply be there, and consider asking them questions about the loved one they’ve lost.

“If there’s anything I can do for you, just call me.”

Take note: the grieving person is not going to call you. They aren’t going to want to inconvenience you, even though your offer may be entirely sincere. Instead, take the initiative, and do something intentional. Tell them you are going to pick them up for lunch the following week. Ask them what day you can swing by to drop off dinners for the week. Or, call them every week or so just to check in. As you are intentional, they will feel your love and support.

“It’s been a while since she/he died. Isn’t it time to move on?”

Grief has no expiration date. Allow your loved one the time they need to grieve and put no expectations on them. You can lovingly suggest a grief counselor, ask about the person they lost, but don’t push them. Don’t try to fix their pain. Loving them through their grief will help them along the path to healing much more smoothly than your impatience.

Grief at Work: Helping an Employee or Coworker After a Loss

By Grief/Loss, Helping a Friend in Grief

When we think of grief, we often think in terms of how it will affect us, our family members, or our closest friends. But grief hits everyone, and it undoubtedly spills over into our professional lives as well. If you hold any job for a significant period of time, you will likely see an employee or coworker struggling with grief. If this happens, consider applying the following tips to best express your support.

Be Patient: If you are an employer, this simple instruction is particularly important. On average, Americans receive four days of paid leave in the aftermath of a loss. After this short time, employees are expected to return to work and fully engage in their assigned tasks, which often seem overwhelming when combined with the stress that is occurring in their personal life. In a study on grief’s effects on job performance, 75% of participants claimed that they experienced concentration difficulties that extended beyond the period of paid leave.

If you are managing a grieving employee, you may want to consider providing more paid leave. If this isn’t an option, and the employee must return to work after a short period, it is important that he or she feels safe and comfortable in the work environment. Be patient with the employee, communicate your sympathy, and consider temporarily reassigning any tasks or projects that require a high level of creativity or energy. Grief tends to cloud thoughts and reduce energy levels. However, some people throw themselves into their work after losing a loved one. Everyone handles grief in different ways, so be prepared to be flexible with a grieving coworker.

Say Something: One of the most discouraging things about the grief journey is that people tend to shy away from the mourner. This is problematic, because more often than not, those who have lost loved ones need some sort of expression from others to let them know that they are supported. If you don’t know what to say to a coworker or employee, be honest about your uncertainty, and consider communicating something like this: “I don’t know what to say. I’m so sorry for your loss. If you need anything or if I can help with…(fill in the blank).” Often, people give a general statement offering help in any way. Be specific. If you know you can help with a project or take some stress off of your coworker, even if it’s only for a while, be sure to offer. Of course, you can always help by providing a meal, donating to a special cause on their behalf, or leaving a card or a small, simple sympathy gift on their desk. Any small gesture could make a world of difference in allowing your colleague to feel understood and supported at work.

Keep the focus on the mourner: While you certainly shouldn’t ignore a grieving coworker, and should communicate your sympathy as clearly as possible, it is also important that you don’t use this conversation as an opportunity to seize the spotlight. When talking with a coworker, the emphasis of the conversation should always be on the needs of the mourner. While well-intended, stories of your lost loved ones are generally not appropriate at this time. To the mourner, these attempts at grief identification indicate that you are assuming that you know how they feel, which can be construed as presumptuous and offensive.

For many people, the challenge is to avoid giving too much advice or easy answers.  There’s nothing wrong with offering support or a word of encouragement, but be careful to avoid telling the person what to do or how to feel. Platitudes or cliches tend to minimize the other person’s pain and send the wrong message. If you are tempted to “make it better” by telling them that their loved one is in a better place or they are at least no longer in pain, don’t. Let them tell you how they feel, and simply express your sympathy and support: I’m so sorry for your loss. If you need anything please let me know.  No advice that you give is going to fix a person’s situation, and when you realize this simple fact, you are better able to offer genuine help.

Check in occasionally: For the first few weeks after loss, mourners typically receive an abundance of support and help. As time goes by, the shock and numbness wear off, but that’s when the reality sets in. Their loved one is not coming back. If the loss is an immediate family member, be sure to check in every few months and genuinely ask “How are you holding up?” Don’t assume they are “strong” because they are doing well at work. Allow them to tell you how they are coping and mention their loved one by name. The sweetest sound to a mourner’s ears is usually the name of their loved one being remembered by others.

Regardless of the specifics of the situation, losing a loved one is hard. But the pain of loss can be compounded by the stressful demands of the workplace. Those who are obligated to return to work soon after a loss are particularly vulnerable to stress and work frustration. As a coworker or an employer, it’s important to take steps to make a grieving worker feel as comfortable and supported as possible.

 

Top 10 Poems for a Funeral Ceremony

By Funeral Poems, Grief/Loss, Meaningful Funerals

Readings are a great way to enrich a funeral ceremony. As Dr. Wolfelt tells us, readings are an important element of the service because they speak to “word people,” help us search for meaning in the loss, and activate support.

Poems are a particularly powerful type of reading that contribute to what Wolfelt refers to as the “sweet spot” of a meaningful funeral experience. For this reason, we have included ten great poems that can enhance a funeral ceremony. If you are thinking of including a poetry reading in memory of a loved one, you may want to consider using one of these profound poems.

10. “Dear Lovely Death
         by Langston Hughes

Famed Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes was a master of economy, and his “less is more” approach is perfectly realized in “Dear Lovely Death.” Hughes packs an extraordinary amount of insight into a mere 10 lines, and the result is a powerful and hopeful piece that speaks to funeral audiences. Hughes suggest that death does not destroy or eradicate, but merely changes the nature of those that it touches. The idea of death as change strikes an important balance for a funeral setting. Hopeful but not naïve, it allows us to see the situation in a more comforting light while never denying the reality of death.

9. “A Clear Midnight
       by Walt Whitman

This short piece by Whitman turns conventional poetic imagery on its head. While most poems use midnight to evoke negative, frightening emotions, Whitman sees the night as a time of calm and peace. When applied to a funeral setting, the flight of the soul “into the wordless” can be viewed as a metaphor for death, and this image touches mourners by depicting death as a place of rest.

8. “Death is a Door
       by Nancy Byrd Turner

Like “Dear Lovely Death,” Turner’s poem views death as a time of transition and change, and like “A Clear Midnight,” it emphasizes the calming nature of death. Through the use of nature imagery such as “garden” and “green leaves,” Turner evokes a sense of rejuvenation, and implies that death gives birth to new life, though we can’t yet see what this new life looks like. Turner’s assertion that the threshold of death is eagerly crossed by “willing and weary feet” implies that whatever lies on the other side of the doorway of death is more encouraging than frightening.

7. “Requiem
       by Robert Louis Stevenson

Few people know that Robert Louis Stevenson, author of the famous novels Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, also penned one of the greatest poems about death. The short and simple “Requiem” is written from the perspective of the deceased, who is clearly satisfied with the life that he lived. “Glad did I live and gladly die,” he proudly claims, and his contentment regarding the journey from life to death is comforting and encouraging. Families who feel that their loved one lived a full and wonderful life may consider using this poem at the service to remind themselves that their loved one is at peace.

6. “The Road Not Taken”
       by Robert Frost

One of the most famous poems of all time, Robert Frost’s masterpiece is not in a strict sense a “funeral poem.” It isn’t specifically about death, and it doesn’t attempt to encourage mourners or to ponder the transience of life. But it’s a wonderful tribute to a life well lived. The closing lines, “I took the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference,” are a testament to a person that broke the mold and embraced life to the fullest. If you are looking for a piece that celebrates the unique life of your loved one, consider reading this ode to originality.

5. Success
       by Bessie Anderson Stanley *

Another poem that deals less with death than with the celebration of a life, this famous essay-turned-poem by Bessie Anderson Stanley analyzes the true meaning of success. Success is not embodied in a person who chased after shallow achievements such as popularity or material wealth, but rather by a person who “laughed often, and loved much,” and “left the world better than he found it.” A fitting tribute to the life of a loved one who understood the true value of life and spent his or her time engaged in honorable pursuits, this classic poem will bring encouragement to funeral audiences and allow them to reflect on the meaningful life of the deceased.

4. “When Great Trees Fall
       by Maya Angelou

This extraordinary work by the late Maya Angelou emphasizes the ripple effect that is created by the death of a great person. Angelou suggests that the deep hurt that we feel when losing a loved one is a testament to the brilliance of that individual’s life. While grief may hurt, it is an important indicator that the loved one made a difference and positively impacted the lives of others. The poem suggests that the time of grief is extremely difficult, but that “after a period peace blooms.” As we move through the grief journey, we come to accept the reality of the death and are able to recall the memories of the deceased to motivate us as we continue to find meaning in our lives.

3. “Death, Be Not Proud
       by John Donne

Perhaps the most famous poem to address mortality, John Donne’s 17th century classic is a tightly structured and perfectly realized refutation of the permanence of death. In a mere 14 lines, Donne sets out to bruise Death’s ego, and his skill matches his ambition. He challenges death by comparing it to rest and sleep, “which but thy pictures be.” While death marks a stronger transition than sleep, Donne views both states as temporary. The final line, “Death, thou shalt die,” indicates Donne’s strong belief in an afterlife. For this reason, “Death, Be Not Proud” is a great choice for religious ceremonies. It is important to realize that Donne’s poem shouldn’t keep us from acknowledging the reality of death in this world; death separates us from our loved ones, and it is okay to grieve. Rather, it should encourage those who are religious by reminding them that the soul of their loved one is at peace.

2.”If I Can Stop One Heart from Breaking
by Emily Dickinson

In this compact, seven-line poem, Dickinson doesn’t waste time on flowery language or indulgent imagery. Her approach to the material is clear, concise, and direct. The primary theme of the poem is the importance of love, which trumps all other human virtues. The speaker claims that if she can help another living being, then she “shall not live in vain.” The size of the act is less important than the intention behind the act. A person need not have his or her good deeds recognized as grand accomplishments to live a great life. Rather, living a full and meaningful life is accomplished by spreading love wherever and however one can. Dickinson’s heartfelt poem is a great choice for the funeral of a loved one who dedicated their life to helping others.

1. Psalm 23
    A Psalm of David, The Book of Psalms (KJV)

The most famous and revered of all the psalms speaks directly to our desire for peace, both for ourselves and for our loved ones. Psalm 23 is perfect for a funeral ceremony because it applies as well to the mourners as it does to the deceased. When David claims, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me,” he’s expressing a sentiment that not only encourages us when thinking about a dearly departed loved one, but also gives us the strength to continue on our grief journey. The “valley of the shadow of death” can refer to those who are making the transition from life to death and to those who are trying to face life after losing a loved one. For religious ceremonies, this is a wonderful choice, a beautiful testament to God’s ability to bring comfort and peace to his children in dark times. A cry of faith amidst the storms of life, Psalm 23 is the perfect funeral reading.

 

 

*”Success” is often incorrectly attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, usually with the inclusion of the famous line: “To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”

 

 

 

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