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The Soft Touch of Sorrow
Last week, I attended the funeral service of a beautiful, 30-year-old girl who died suddenly in her sleep. As I sat in the church watching her friends, family and neighbors silently filter through the doors, I looked into their sad faces and was overwhelmed by the strong sense of unity in the crowd. Although hundreds of glumly dressed people poured into the pews, not a word was spoken. People looked at each other and smiled softly, touching each other on the arm or on the back, and they slid into their seats as they waited patiently. No one showed impatience to wait. No one complained. No one raised an eyebrow or raised a voice. Grief had brought them together and each was kind to strangers.
Mothers and fathers held the hands of their daughters and sons tightly as they looked at them lovingly. You can almost hear them thinking, “It could have been you.” The couple sat together, and the old people hugged. There is nothing like tragedy to bring out the best in people and I felt my heart warm as the tenderness flowed through the church, embracing everyone with its tender touch.
Reminded me of many times when I may have felt this way. September 11 – when the world came together to embrace this country and express love and grief over the tragedy. Hurricane Katrina, where people flocked to give whatever they could to strangers who had lost everything. And, for me, my own personal tragedies, when I lost my sister 17 years ago and my husband almost ten years ago, and I, too, felt a gentle touch of shared grief. When bad things happen, everyone wants to help. Everyone offers what they can. But people are often uncomfortable with death and confused about doing the right thing. While the intentions are good and caring, there are ways that people react that don’t work and only serve to make the situation more difficult.
Based on my own experiences, my primary advice is to proceed slowly and thoughtfully. Do not give advice or suggestions on what to do. The worst advice I’ve ever heard is to “keep busy” or “keep your mind occupied”. When you lose a loved one, it’s constantly on your mind — from the time you wake up until the time you go to sleep at night — and everyone has their own way of dealing with the pain. My therapy involves immersing myself in my grief – writing, reading, walking, driving, crying, remembering. Feelings are always there and, even if you are “busy”, they come out later. For me, it was much better to deal with my feelings in the moment than to avoid the inevitable. Plus, I felt like I was honoring my loved one by thinking of them and grieving them at that time.
After my sister’s death, my mother told me how she would meet people on the street who wouldn’t even admit it for fear they would “remind her of her.” As she told me, she couldn’t forget for a moment, and it was impossible to “remind” her of something that was so much a part of her being. It’s better to express sadness or say, “I don’t know what to say,” than to ignore it completely, she advises. A moment that will always live in my heart was when I went to a friend’s house after hearing the news of my sister’s death. Val opened her arms, held me close, and cried with me. There were no words. And her gesture meant more to me than anything she could have said.
And, after my husband’s death, “It’s so unfair” and “How can this be?” The world means more than those who say “God works in mysterious ways” or “He’s in a good place.” I also had a minister at a church repeatedly say “what roller coaster ride have you been on” which I found extremely inappropriate and I never returned to his church.
Having experienced death many times as well as being with people who have lost loved ones, I would like to share some of my advice on how to deal with what has happened around you.
• Talk about the person who died. When someone dies, families usually prefer to talk about their loved one rather than rub it under the table. Ask about their daughter/mother/husband. If you have stories about them, share them. Refer to them in conversation.
• Don’t make small talk unless they do so first. When my husband died, all I wanted to talk about was the big things – the afterlife, the service system, memories of his life… when a friend and his wife came into town and insisted on taking me out for dinner and a walk. Shops, I remember being numb and amazed at their insensitivity to not wanting to do any activity.
• Do small things to help. If they’re flying in for a service, offer to pick up the family at the airport, go to their house and plant sympathy flowers, put gas in their car, arrange flowers, leave a meal, give guests your spare bedroom, lend a shoulder. when it is necessary.
• Do not tell them about your situation or the situation of others around you. Comments like “I remember when my aunt died” or “I know how you feel” are not comforting. Make them comfortable talking and crying.
• Be gentle and considerate. At a young girl’s recent funeral, a family friend remarked, “At least they still have other children.” Not a fair comment and certainly not designed to comfort.
• To keep in touch. Call, send a card, give flowers. Every little thing counts and is remembered forever.
• Never start a sentence with “at least…”….”at least she lived long”…”at least he went quickly”…”at least they are at peace now”. None of this matters. All you want is your loved one back, no matter the circumstances.
• Do not give religious advice. Even a devout person can turn against religion when they lose a loved one and are not comforted by being told they are in a “better place.” Follow their lead. By the same token, don’t ignore what they may be feeling or seeing during this time. Reading books about life after death gave me great relief and started writing a book and interviewing leaders of various religions to hear their thoughts on life after death.
• Do not treat them as if they are going to crumble. Friends of ours who lost their daughters said they constantly felt like people were looking at them as if something visible were about to happen before their eyes, instead of seeing them as the same people they always were.
• Include them in your invitations. Reach out to them and they will respond when they are ready. Often, when a tragedy or death occurs, people feel it is best to “leave them alone” and neglect to invite them as they may have done in the past. Life goes on and it is better to keep reaching out and rejecting them than to forget them and leave them alone.
And, most importantly, remember that there is no time-frame for grief. It can take a month, a year, or a lifetime to heal, and it’s important to keep reaching out and being there.
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