I grew up in Sri Lanka and had just started my junior year at a university away from home when my father was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He died three months after his diagnosis. During most of those three months, I was able to be close at hand to help because my university was closed due to student unrest. Now, in the season of the twentieth anniversary of his death, it seems fitting to share insights of the grieving process gleaned from my own. Although the cultural environment may differ, I believe there are universal elements of grief and the way we respond to it. My hope is that my own experience may help others respond in a more thoughtful and compassionate way to those in their own lives who are grieving.
Remember that grieving begins before death
In the case of a terminal illness in the family, the grieving process begins before the death actually happens. I experienced this grief by being saddened when people inadvertently treated my father (Thaththi, from thaththa, Sinhala for father) like he was already dead. We had several visitors during Thaththi's illness. Most made small talk with him and were either hearty or tongue-tied in his presence. Their more “real” conversations were with us, away from the sickroom. An inability to talk naturally to the terminally ill probably reflects our own discomfort with the reality of impending death. But I felt sadness listening to the conversations with Thaththi move from natural to stilted. It was as if friends had already severed their connection to him, had already assigned him to their past.
Allow the bereaved to talk about their grief — or not
After my father died, besides at the funeral, hardly anyone spoke about him with me. It was as if he never existed. This heightened my grief. A cherished gift you can offer the grieving is an invitation to talk about their loss and to talk about their loved one if they choose. To be sure, talking to the bereaved about their loss after the funeral is an unfamiliar art. It is as if we experience a sort of paralysis, fearing our own incompetence in dealing with the extreme vulnerability of the grieving. But to share memories and ask for stories of the person who has died can be a valued gift to the person in grief.
In my Sri Lankan context, people were extraordinarily generous in extending practical help, even at cost to themselves. As a culture, though, we were not accustomed to offering emotional support. In our American context, we may have the reverse situation. We may weary the grieving person by trying to make her tell us how she “really” feels, even when she prefers a little space. Allow the person to speak or not; the person in grief is not obliged to respond in detail to everyone who asks her how she feels. When people do share, we need to listen well so that we don't dismiss what they are actually saying because it doesn't fit our ideas of what they should be feeling.
Acknowledge that you don’t know how they feel
Don't tell them you know how it feels unless you have experienced a similar bereavement yourself. And even then, you most likely don't know how they feel. All you know is that it hurts. It is okay to say that you can't imagine what they are going through, even though you might feel that's not particularly helpful. I had a well-meaning friend who had not lost anyone close to her say that she knew exactly how I felt. This added frustration to my grief. Even if we have experienced a similar grief, our feelings and theirs will not correspond exactly. In a situation of raw grief, it is wise to allow our grieving friend be the expert on their own feelings.
Be sensitive on your first encounter after the funeral
If at all possible, don’t allow your own awkwardness to increase the burden on the grieving. Returning to campus after the funeral, I met a friend who looked nervously at me, unsure of what to say. It was left to me to initiate the conversation to put her at ease. It was almost funny to see the relief on her face as she understood that we could still talk normally.
Sometimes it takes a long time for the reality of the loss to hit home. The intense busyness in the period immediately after the death can keep the bereaved from dealing deeply with the reality of the loss. My period of intense grieving was a few months after Thaththi's death. During that time I had a visit from a friend whom I hadn't talked with since the funeral. I assumed she had come to see how I was doing, but her plan was to discuss student ministry. Predictably, our conversation was mutually unsatisfying. I was still grieving, even though she had moved on.
Understand the secondary losses
Although the primary loss is the loss of the loved one, there are many secondary losses that become apparent over time. One of these secondary losses is the termination of the identity-by-association with your loved one. If someone loses a spouse and they have always done activities with a clique of other couples, she might feel she no longer belongs to that group. If a parent loses her teenager, she will also miss her child's friends that once hung out at her house for hours on end. With Thaththi’s death, I sensed a loss of the identity our family had experienced in church. My father had been heavily involved in the lay leadership of our large congregation. Family conversations had often included a healthy dose of church gossip. Suddenly we were cut off from it. Everybody was kind, but we were no longer at the hub of church affairs. We had lost a part of our identity and this only compounded our grief at the loss of our father.
Extend practical help
During my bereavement, we had a lot of practical help from different people. This ranged from a friend and neighbor inviting me in for lunch every day during the month my mother stayed with Thaththi in hospital to my father's friend unobtrusively leaving a bag of provisions in the kitchen when he visited us after the funeral. It is okay to say "let me know if you need any help,” but realize that this lays the burden of asking for help on the grieving person. Instead suggest ways you would be available if she needs support. Even better, just do some things that you know will be appreciated. Bring some groceries. Bring dinner. Provide a gift certificate for a restaurant or take-out. Visit and wash dishes. Fold a pile of laundry. Vacuum the living room. Play with the children.
Support the bereaved as they make difficult choices
Affirm your friend as she makes hard choices in adapting to her new circumstances. When my father died, I was president of my university's missional christian community (known as the discipleship cells) and also chair of the national student leadership team that envisioned ministry priorities across all the campuses as well as provided a support network for the particular ministries on each campus. I believe my main focus at that time was to be both faithful to the ministry on the campuses and sensitive to the emotional needs of our family. Thus I decided not to put in the concentrated effort needed for my best academic work, but only what was manageable. If I had striven for greater academic excellence at that juncture of my life, I would not have been able to cope with the demands of ministry and our family needs, including my own.
I also began coming home for weekends more frequently than before. Even though on a limited student budget, I started the practice of taking the expensive express train or air-conditioned bus rather than the cheap slow train or bus, so that I would be less travel fatigued and more available to my family.
Here is Thaththi holding my baby brother after his christening with my mother and me also in the foreground.
Celebrate and Remember the loved one
Even though the ache has dulled over time, there will always be moments when I greatly miss Thaththi. I always love hearing stories of how he impacted others. On the occasional visit to my old home church, a friend would still say that much of what he learned about leadership was picked up from my father. Your friend will also appreciate your memories of their loved one. If you never met their lost loved one, invite your friend to share a special story about them. We love the opportunity to remember and celebrate our loved one with you!
Allow me to share one story to celebrate my father with you and give you a sense of who he was. Thaththi ended up as the director of a prestigious conference facility in Colombo. It was his title and the reputation of the organization that were the perks for him; salaries were poor and he earned a rather low wage compared to those in similar positions in the private sector. Yet when it was time for a revision of the salary scale for all employees, he reduced the gap between the salaries of the workers and that of management. He initiated a small increase for himself and the few white collar employees and allocated a generous increase in wages for the blue collar workers who ended up benefiting greatly as they were also eligible to earn overtime if they chose.
God was very present all through my bereavement as I received his comfort and was deepened in my own walk with him. Yet all too often we pray, but go no farther in providing support for our grieving friends, ill-equipped to be sources of God's comfort. It is a great solace to the bereaved to be allowed to grieve as needed but also to be able to remember and share with friends and family — and even with new acquaintances — remembrances of the person they have lost. May we allow God to shape us to become compassionate comforters of the bereaved.
If you have suffered the loss of a loved one, how have you been helped by others in your grief? What actions or words have been helpful? What have you found difficult? What suggestions do you have for others who are grieving or who are caring for someone in their grief?