Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Expressing Condolences

I wrote the following today for my Productivity @ Home blog (a secular resource) and would love to hear your thoughts on this topic from a Catholic perspective. How do you comfort those in pain due to the loss of a loved one? How do you speak with your children about the topic of death and dying?

Within the past ten days, we have lost two friends to untimely deaths. The first was a 52 year old wife and mother of two and first grade teacher at my sons' elementary school. She lost a quite rapid battle with cancer - she has actually started the school year and didn't leave her classroom until mid-September, when her pain and treatments became too difficult to enable her to continue teaching the first graders who loved her so dearly. Our second loss was the father of one of my son's peers - a forty year old whose family discovered him dead of an apparent heart attack with no warning. He leaves behind a loving wife and three awesome kids.

Death, whether it comes swiftly or after a long battle, is always a shock. As parents, we struggle to try to explain to our children (and to ourselves) how some people's lives seem to end so quickly. Platitudes fail to heal the suffering that lingers when we lose a loved one. We want, so desperately, to find a way to reach out to those left behind to deal with the loss. We also may find it impossible to explain death to our children, who fear their own parents may suddenly meet with the same fate. At times like this, I fall back on my spiritual frame of reference as a great comfort.

A friend recently shared these three tips for helping a family who has experienced the death of a loved one:

Hug - Physical comfort, when appropriate, is a tremendous support to the family of one who has died. When words escape us, hugs can bring healing. Do not avoid the widow or widower out of discomfort because you don't know what to say. A simple hug and an honest expression of grief are appropriate in many cases.

Hush - So many people make the mistake of saying something trite like "It was God's will" in these times of pain. Do not feel as though you have to say something explanatory to those grieving - saying nothing is much better than saying something that will only multiply their sorrow.

Hang Around - Offers of help may be graciously declined, but after the initial rush of condolence cards and casseroles, your grieving friend will need your support. One of my friends who lost her husband to an untimely death still speaks of the neighbor who comes over every year to hang her Christmas lights. It's a simple gesture, but one that speaks volumes about how much this person cares for her and her family. Honor your friend's need for privacy, but take the initiative to do simple gestures of compassion like offering to go grocery shopping, mow the lawn, or even drive her children to school.

When our friends or family are suffering as a result of death, it's the perfect time to practice love and compassion by quietly serving them. Our children will watch and learn the important lesson that "actions speak louder than words".


Barb, sfo said...

What you say is very true.

I also learned that it's important to be there for the children....when my 11-year-old daughter's best friend lost her grandmother, her parents said the best thing we ever did was bring our daughter to the funeral.

We have a family friend who is a widow. Over the years we've built up a tradition where I make her an apple pie but don't bake it, every Thanksgiving. I bring her the frozen pie, and she can bake it whenever she wants. She loves having the smell of the baking pie, and it makes her happy that we always think of her each Thanksgiving.

Lisa M. Hendey said...

Thank you so much for your comment - that is such a beautiful tradition! Adam was actually chosen to be an altar server at his teacher's funeral, and we discussed what a loving tribute that was to her life. I agree with you that involving children is very important. Now I just need to learn how to bake an apple pie!

Elena said...

As somebody who has been on both sides of the grief thing I agree with everything you wrote. After, "I'm sorry" it's better to just be a good listener!

Good job!

Donna-Marie Cooper O'Boyle said...

What a beautifully written post, Lisa. I love the three "H's"--hugs, hush, and hang around. So true. There are so many ways that we can "hang around" to offer a hand and bring some love to those who are grieving and lonely.

Thanks for writing this. I'm sorry about your two recent losses.

God bless you,

A Catholic Mother said...

My sisiter-in-law and her husband recently lost a child to Mermaid Syndrome. They suffered tremendously after their loss. My husband and I were at loss at how to explin this to our 2 year old who was so excited to have a baby cousin. We later explained that "Bannana" (the nickname she gave to the child) went with God. We are sure that the more complicated questions will soon surface as she becomes older.

My husband and I didn't know how to comfort my sister-in-law and her husband without reminding them of their loss. We just gave them huge hugs and we all took our little one to the zoo as a family. My husband put his sister on the prayer line at church. She calls from time to time and we talk about the experience. As the holidays and anniversaries come closer, we hope that they will find comfort in knowing that we are there for them.

Maria from New York

Lisa M. Hendey said...

Donna, Elena and Maria, thanks for chiming in. Maria, it's so sad to go through the loss of a little one. Your sister-in-law is blessed to have your support.