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The Journal Gazette

  • Tracie Martin

Sunday, February 10, 2019 1:00 am

Helping cope with the pain of loss

Prepare to be the supportive shoulder a person in grief needs

Tracie Martin

To learn more

Reach out to Erin's House or to the Peggy Murphy Grief Center about how to specifically help someone in grief or to make a referral. Contact Kerith Brook to learn about the amazing retreats they offer for grieving adults. Utilize Lisa's Legacy, an organization that offers grief comfort bags.

“My son went to heaven two months ago.”

The words fill all space – both dark and light. Strangers. Tourists. Two women on a bus in Memphis, Tennessee. An open seat. A brief exchange of pleasantries. A recognition of kindness. Motherhood. For her – profound grief. Unending love. For her son. For her soul. For all that will not be.

“Your son went to heaven two months ago.”

I repeat. Listen. Affirm. There are no right words. Only hers. Let her tell her story. Share her emotions. She wants to talk about her son. Because he is real. Death does not diminish him. He is missed. His loss mourned. Engage with her. Her son's memory brings her joy. He had a sense of humor. Apprehension must not curtail compassion.

One of the greatest lessons learned in 30 years of volunteering in the grief world is that emotions associated with the death of a loved one often emerge unpredictably – on a bus, at a grocery store, at school, at work, at a party – and even, sometimes, with complete strangers. Grief that surfaces at the “wrong” time or triggers at the “odd” provocation is completely normal.

Grief's unpredictability is actually a foreseeable reaction to a loved one's death. Grief is as natural as happiness. Grief is a process, not a course of action. I wonder, if we were all better equipped to listen and to encourage more effectively and empathetically those grieving a death or simply struggling, what marvelous effects would result.

Learning skills that refine the delivery of compassion and consolation to those who grieve has undeniably been a gift to me. At Erin's House, I have the pleasure and responsibility of serving as a facilitator to kids who have experienced the death of  someone important to them, perhaps a sibling, a father, a mother, a stepparent, a grandparent.

Death often changes practical circumstances – from custody issues, to new homes and schools, to financial strain. These are daily life alterations kids experience without their loved one and often without input or choice.

Death also comes in many forms – always tragic, sometimes self-inflicted or violent. Death often creates uncertainty and guilt. Despite this, I have found that kids are unbelievably resilient and insightful. I love their frankness – the openness with which they share – even during difficulty. My 10- to 13-year-olds at Erin's House have taught me:

• Listening, caring and acceptance supports healing.

• Listen, listen, listen (it's worth repeating).

• Everyone grieves differently. Assuming no self-harm nor harm to others occurs, it is healthy.

• People love sharing memories – ask about loved ones!

• Fear not to “intrude.” Failing to reach out is worse than reaching out at the “wrong time.”

• Mark your calendar. Grieving people are grateful for regular calls or invitations from you.

• Sometimes a grieving person wants to talk about their loved one. Sometimes they want to have fun. Both are good. Let them lead the conversation.

• Remember to acknowledge birthdays and death dates.

Sometimes this hectic world diminishes our energy to demonstrate human kindness.

Nevertheless, we must try. Support beyond the first few months is important. It takes time for the grieving person to acclimate to their new “normal” and changed circumstances – and to grieve! Make a commitment to be there for the long term.

Resist allowing emotional discomfort to dissuade or to create an obstacle to warmly supporting a grieving person. Care and compassion can be refined with training and information. 

We all have or will experience grief just as we will have the opportunity to support someone who is grieving, whether it be a friend or a stranger on a bus. Be the person who listens, who warmly seeks to engage not lead, who offers tender acceptance – and who remembers the small but important things.

Be prepared to support someone else's grief journey – for the gift of empathy is truly shared and richly blesses.

Tracie Martin is a founder of Erin's House for Grieving Children and the Community Counts program coordinator for WANE-TV.