During my days as a reporter, I was fortunate enough to interview Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, who wrote many books on death and dying. Because I have had two weeks of seemingly an endless number of passings of people close to me, her works were especially helpful to me.
At the same time, my daughter-in-law, Christina Topinka, is visiting with me, taking time from her duties as a bereavement counselor at the Madigan Army Medical Center at Ft. Lewis, Wash. It all kind of came together, and to that end, Christina is sharing with all of us some thoughts on how to deal with death and its aftermath and how we can all pull together to make things better.
“People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is alight from within.”
During these past few weeks our family has had to say good-bye to friends who have died; some were anticipated, others were not. Each person touched our lives in one way or another and will forever hold a special place in our hearts. While e-mailing back and forth about these friends with my mother-in-law, Judy, we decided to try and help others out who may be experiencing similar losses and who are unsure of what to do next. We were especially touched by the passing of our adopted grandmother, Ann Henrici, Marco Salvino and Don Snyder. I would encourage the Landmark readership to consider the following:
Respond to the death as soon as possible whether in person or by phone. It’s important for the bereaved to know others care and that they are not alone in this time of confusion. When visiting with them, ask if they need assistance with anything.
Try to notice if they need help with funeral arrangements, transportation or even snow removal and offer your services if you are capable. Remember that shock may carry the bereaved through those first days, and that shock is common even, when the death is expected and/or considered a relief. Shock frequently has a numbing effect on people, and they will say and do things that lead you to believe they are fine when they’re not.
Offer a few words about the deceased like, “she always made me laugh” or “I felt good when he was around.”
Don’t relate this death to one that you have experienced, because it’s not your loss. Encourage or allow the bereaved to cry as it’s a normal and healthy reaction to grief. And, by all means, let them talk about the loved one so he/she can remember the loved one’s life and not just the death.
Listen, listen and listen. Suggest counseling when the time is right so that the bereaved can receive emotional support and understanding about the grieving process. A counselor will offer reassurance that the person is not going crazy, that he/she is grieving normally. Many funeral homes, places of worship, hospices and community centers offer free counseling for those who desire it.
During my time counseling military service members and their families, I have learned the following from Army widows:
They stress that it is important to not make any promises to the bereaved that you can’t keep.
Don’t look away or avoid eye contact with the bereaved.
Do not ask about money, life insurance or benefits that the bereaved receives.
If you bring food, ask about food preferences, allergies, how many people are expected and to use disposable containers labeled with the name of the person who sent the item.
Notice if they need toiletry items such as feminine hygiene products and toilet paper or diapers and formula.
Share stories of the deceased with the bereaved children, so they know others loved the deceased.
Part of being a friend is staying by a friend’s side in good times and bad. Sharing the difficult journey with your friend will be challenging at times, but isn’t that what friends are for?