Category Archives: other family

What Do You Say to Someone Who is Grieving?

This is one of the most frequent questions I get.   mountainsWhether someone has lost a parent, a child, or a friend, we want to console and bring comfort but its hard to know what to say.  I think every situation is different and what works for one person may not work for another but here are my suggestions:

1) Just be there.   Its not necessarily what you say (or don’t say).   A person grieving just wants to know that people care.  Its one of the main reasons we have funerals.   Besides letting family and friends say goodbye and come to terms that the person is in fact dead, its also a time to come together and console one another.  Don’t worry too much about what you are going to say.  Just show up and be there.  The simple phrase, “I care and I am here” is good enough.  Too often people distance themselves from grieving people because they are afraid they will say the wrong thing.   Don’t be afraid of saying the wrong thing – not being there is much worse.

2) Listen.   Being nervous about saying the wrong thing means that sometimes people start running their mouth and don’t let the grieving person get a word in edgewise.    Let us talk about whatever we want.  It might be about how sad we are or the funeral arrangements or even something unrelated like the weather.  We may laugh or we may cry or just sit there quietly but whatever we do, its okay.

3) You don’t need to fix the situation.  In fact you can’t. We have to walk through the fire of grief to get to the other side and if we don’t deal with it today, we will deal with it later.   Don’t try to defuse the grief by changing the subject away from the person who died.  If we start talking about the person who died, that’s okay.  Its also okay if we are crying.  Its not your job nor can you stop us from crying or feeling sad.   Just be there and listen.

4) Don’t pretend it didn’t happen or the person who died never existed.  Because people are afraid of making us cry, they stop talking about the person who died.   We WANT to talk about our loved one and hear how they made a difference in your life.  We want to hear your memories and we want to talk about our memories.  Yes.. we might cry… but that is okay.

5) Its all normal.   Each person is different and whatever works for them is what is normal.    Some people want to sit at home and cry.  Some people may want to actually go out to a party and try to forget for a bit about their grief.   Whatever the response it is normal and fine.

6) Offer specific help.   Grieving people frequently hear, “Let me know what we can do to help.”   It is good intentioned and I’m sure the person offering really means it.  The problem is that the grieving person doesn’t know what they need or if they do, they don’t want to ask for it.   Instead offer something specific — “My family would like to come clean your house before the funeral.  Is Monday good?”  Or “I make a great manicotti.  Can I bring some tonight for your family?”  With that said, the word OFFER specific help is important.  Give us the option of saying no as well.  We may be sick of eating our fourth pan of manicotti in as many days or the fear of someone seeing my bathroom that has been sorely neglected while caring for my dying loved one is not worth having it cleaned.

6) There is no timeline.   For me, the first few months weren’t too bad.  I was busy planning a funeral and cleaning up a life that had been neglected in the month’s leading up to my mother’s death.  Plus it just didn’t seem real.  There was no possible way she was REALLY dead.  It felt like she was just at her house waiting for me to show up.  It wasn’t until three months or so after her death that it suddenly felt real and crushing grief set in.  By then, I’m sure my friends thought I was handling it well and had moved on to my new reality.  So don’t be surprised if three months or even three years later something sets us off and the grief suddenly become fresh again.

And truly…. just the fact that you are reading this post wondering what you can do to help your friend means that you will do just fine.   You care.  And that is enough.

Advertisements

Interview with Casey: Guilt, Grief and Caregiving of an Independent Dying Parent

This guide is not just about my journey.  I want to share other peoples stories.  It is remarkable how many commonalities there are in our experiences.  However,  each person has a different perspective and something they can teach the rest of us.  This story is from an interview I did with Casey (I have changed all names for interviews mainly to protect anyone that were involved in their story).

Do you have any tips for working with medical staff?

I found that if you act intelligent you get better care.   What I mean is that if you show them that you have good records and understand their lingo then they treat you differently and you get more direct answers.   I felt better and more prepared too when I had good records with me.    I’d also recommend that you work with the nurses rather than the doctor when you can.    Oh, and don’t be afraid to get a second opinion and go to the best doctor you can.

How about your family? 

I was the rock for my mother but my brother was the rock for me.   Every time I asked for help he stepped up.  We had a constant communication line and talked everyday to compare notes and what needed to be done.

What about your immediate family?

I think I had unreasonable expectations for them.   I got irritated with them at times because the house wasn’t clean or the laundry wasn’t done to my expectations.   But their expectations were different – they didn’t care that the house wasn’t immaculate.  They didn’t expect me to clean it but I felt guilty that it wasn’t done and snapped at them about it.  I appreciate though that they never resented the time I spent with Mom even though it took time away from them.

How did you deal with talking to your Mom about her funeral and plans for burial?

I didn’t really.   I knew it had to be done but my Mom is not a touchy feely kind of person.  But I knew what she would want so I wrote up the will and came to her and told her that I had written it up and that we needed to go have it notarized.   She just said “ok” and we went.

Eventually I asked her about how she wanted to be buried.  I told her, “Mom, you need to tell me what you want done.  I would like to be cremated.  Would you want that?”   In her typical ‘don’t bother me with the details’ fashion, she said just replied, “Whatever you want is fine.”

A couple of days later though she came to me and said, “that seems kind of rough to me… what if I am not totally dead.”  So I knew she had been thinking of our conversation.  We didn’t talk much more about it then but after a few more days she told me that if she was cremated she would want her ashes spread in the river.   So I wasn’t really sure what she wanted when she actually died.  That made it tough.

I remember sitting around with my siblings, husband and kids the day after she died and they were all looking to me to make a decision on how she should be buried.  I wanted to do what SHE wanted but I just wasn’t sure what that was.    Finally I settled on the cremation.   It was what I would want and it was the least expensive option.   But I still wasn’t sure so I said out loud, “Mom, give me a sign that you want the cremation.”  Just then something fell loudly in the kitchen.  I took it as a sign that I had made the right decision.

What triggered the tears after her death?

I was numb for the first three months.  I think I was afraid of feeling the pain and for so long I had been the rock.. not allowing feelings to enter … I had to be strong for my mother.  At the time of her death I didn’t feel as sad as I thought I would because I was happy for her that she was no longer in pain.   It took about three months to believe it was real and then it really hurt.  By then it was too late.  Friends thought I should have been over it by now but I was just starting to really feel the pain.

It started with a phone call.  My cell phone rang one day and I looked down to see my Mom’s face and number on the screen.  Shocked, I didn’t know what to think.  I turns out my brother, who had loaned the phone to my Mom, hadn’t changed the contact numbers after her death.  But that started the tears.

Other things were triggers too.  Buying flowers in the spring was tough.  It was something we had always done together and I wasn’t sure how to do it without her.  I bought all the flowers she would have liked and planted them the way that she wanted.  I’m not sure if that was a tribute to her or just because I could hear her in my head telling me what to do.  Shopping is the same way.  My mother and I always shopped together.  Its been over seven months and I haven’t been shopping for clothes since she died.  I’m saving a lot of money!

If you could go back and change anything about the time when you were caring for her what it would be?

Not much.   I guess the one thing would be to spend more time sitting and talking with my Mom.   Instead of talking to her I spent time cleaning her house and taking care of things.   Part of it was I was afraid of talking about the hard things but also I felt like I was accomplishing something.   If I could give anyone going through this some advice it would be to be tender and caring and loving because you can’t get those moments back.  And forgiving because they can be difficult at the end.

Another would be to “Listen and listen well.”   Listen to the things they really care about and then do them even if it is against what you would want.  When it became difficult for Mom to care for herself, I asked her to come live with me.  She refused and it hurt my feelings.  Why wouldn’t she want to come live with my family?  The people who really cared about her?

Eventually, she wasn’t able to be alone and her neighbor and good friend was coming to check in on her.  Hospice was involved at that point and I called Hospice and told them I was coming to get her.  I was putting my foot down and she was coming to live with me.   I arrived at her house to get her and started to gather the things that she would need.  After a bit, her friend asked to speak to me outside.

I know it was difficult for her but I appreciate what she reminded me of that day.   “Casey, this is not about you.   I know you want her with you but she wants this control and independence.  She wants to be able to change the thermostat to what she wants, walk at night without bothering you, eat what she wants and when she wants.   She loves you dearly and appreciates what you do but she needs this independence.   When she told Hospice that you were coming to get her to take her to your house, she cried.”

It hurt me to do it, but I left her at home that day.  It wasn’t about me.  My Mom may have been ill, but her mind was not and she needed this last bit of control over her life.

I also wish I had asked Mom about her past, her childhood and things I didn’t know.  I assumed I would be able to ask her brother after her death and avoid asking her about her past as she was dying but turns out her brother doesn’t remember.   Now it’s lost heritage that I can’t get back.