Grief is not contagious
Don’t shy away from people in grief – you can help by Phyl den Ronden
You don' t need a degree in psychology or social studies to help a friend or relative in grief - you simply need to care.
Road deaths are the most devastating kind of death experienced by modern man. It is difficult enough to accept the brutal and violent way a loved one has died, but coping with the suddenness of road death is sometimes impossible. Alive one moment, dead the next. No one ever really comes to grips with that. It is completely out of context with what we expect of death.
We expect that death only steals away the sick, and the aged, and in these circumstances, we at least have time to prepare for the aching void it creates in the family circle. Just about every victim’s family will tell you, “It always seems like only yesterday.
Time stands still for the grief-strickened family of a road victim. Years later a familiar sounding footstep on the stairs will send them rushing to the door to greet their loved one who died. There is something cruelly unfinished about a life cut short so unexpectedly. For years people will experience a psychological jolt when preparing a simple meal. They will remember another meal they prepared, only to have it dry out on the plate. They will recall scraping the uneaten food into the bin, numbed by the news brought by the police officer.
Widows will cringe at a searing spasm of when they smell a familiar after-shave lotion on someone else. In an instant they recollect the night they came back from the morgue, only to sense the presence of their dead husband - the odour of his after-shave still lingering in the bathroom.
Alive one moment, dead the next. There are so many every-day reminders that say it can't possibly be true.
‘You CANNOT understand'
“I understand exactly how you feel” is a cruel barb to the person suddenly bereaved. It tends to strip all dignity from the shattered soul who KNOWS this is not true.
Though you think you understand, you cannot, despite how close you might be to your friend. But don't let this stop you from empathising.
You can say, “I know I can't possibly understand, what you're going through - but I'd like to try. Tell me in your own words, so I can help.”
Then there is the cry from the bereaved, “NOBODY understands what it's like until it happens to them." Of course they don't, and the bereaved only add to their burden by expecting this kind of understanding from other people.
To them I say, "Accept it, and appreciate a dear friend who is at least trying to understand.
"Give them some guidelines on how best they can help you through your ordeal. Though their suffering is not as deep as yours, they nevertheless ache with a want to ease yours. Give them that chance.
"Friendship, as you would know, is a two-way communication between compatible people, and the relationship should be no different during the period of grief. Don't sever the lines of communication because you feel cheated by fate and think that your friend is the 'lucky one"'.
'Don't take over'
Above all don't take over the life of your grieving friend. None of us can truly know what is best for someone who is sorrowing - but we can learn. And the only one you can learn from is the person you are trying to help.
You must listen to them, no matter how jumbled their thoughts are in the beginning. If you are listening with your heart, you'll instinctively know what you have to do.
There will be times when they won't want to talk.
Be there and share their quiet moments with them.
Let them break the silence, let them lead the way.
Quite often the bereaved person seems beset with unusual bad luck and misfortune, and this drives them further into despair. They are convinced the death in the family was just the beginning of a string of life's tragedies.
More often than not this is not so. The physical and emotional turmoil of grief robs them of the ability to cope with the simplest problems.
Don't despair with them or on their behalf. Get them to write a list of things to be done in order of importance: Car needs a tune up - you can take it to the garage. Dentist appointments for the children - take them there. The list may be quite long so enlist the help of other friends.
However, it would be unwise to leave your friend feeling helpless. Take SOME of the problems over so they can cope comfortably with the remainder.
Do try, most gently, to keep them to a normal routine. Men will often cope with grief better than a widow or mother who is housebound because the routines of his job will remind him that, despite the loss, all other things are fairly normal.
Letting go slowly
Acceptance comes slowly; and the time in between the death and acceptance of it can be strewn with many false hopes. There are days when the bereaved seem to have reckoned with it. Then, as one woman described it, "The next day is terrible - just like I am being punished for feeling good." This is the normal process of grief. As a friend you can help them ride it out. The "bad days" will be fewer and further apart and the "good days" will stay longer. But this can be most depressing, especially since a road death leaves in its wake many legal problems, making statements to police, court appearances or being in court at the trial of the person accused of causing the death.
The families of road victims often try to hurry the healing process of grief so they can have the strength to face all the other emotional hurdles yet to come; compensation claims denied by insurance companies and the legal hassles that ensue. Try to be there when a mountain of forms have to be filled out. Go with them when documents must be signed and all the cold formalities attended to. Don't feel helpless because you can't do these things for them. Your presence alone tells them you care.
Because acceptance comes slowly, you must allow your friend to let go of their loved one at their own pace. Some parents make a shrine out of their dead child's bedroom, trying to keep their memory alive as long as possible. Let them be. They would be plagued with the guilt of giving up their child too soon and too easily if they did otherwise. When the time comes to dismantle the shrine - and it will - you will know from the things they say, "It's time I did something about that room." Take the cue. "I'm free all day tomorrow. Let me help." Make out a list of practical ideas on where to donate clothes, books and other treasures where they'll be most appreciated. It will please the parent that someone will benefit from their loss and the precious articles are not wasted.
One mother who came across her dead son on the way to work found herself being both angry and sad in the following months. She kept his room as it was when he was last in it. She would sit in the room and talk to him, chastising him one day and expressing her love for him the next. There was nothing morbid about her behaviour because this was the kind of relationship they shared before he died. She simply needed more time to let go. Others made her feel guilty and "out of her brain" for her reluctance to "bury" her son. She was quite unaware of why she did this but what she was doing was letting go slowly.
No one can accept a death like this as suddenly as it happens, especially when the victim was young - and left behind many unfulfilled dreams and ambitions.
'Pull up your socks'
Though at times your patience might wear thin, as months go by and your friend seems little improved, telling them to "pull up your socks" and get on with life can be a cruel blow. For the past months they have been straining every fibre of their being to do just that. They certainly don't need a sharp reminder of their inability to do so, and it is probably all too soon to expect it of them. Have more patience.
Old Aggie anecdotes don't help either; "I know a woman whose husband died and we thought she would never get over it. Then one day she just 'snapped' out of it, like that." This will only heap them with an extra load of guilt.
Be there on special days. Just as no two individuals are alike, no person copes with grief in the same way as another. There is no recipe to follow, no rule of thumb, and no textbook ever written that will tell you EXACTLY how to help the bereaved. Caring, listening and just being there is the least, and at the same time, the most you can do.
A phone call, a letter or a card, but more especially a visit on the days that are most poignant for them: Birthdays that might have been, the first Christmas shopping day with one less gift to buy and the anniversary of the death.
I am often asked, "Don't you get depressed being involved with death and grief?" No. In fact I am most humbled by the special people I meet.
CARS recommends the book Coping with Grief by Mal McKissop with co-author Dianne McKissop. The book can be easily obtained from the ABC Bookshop or any other large booksellers.
Recommended retail price for Coping with Grief $10.95
For a double-sided cassette $22.95
For a triple CD $34.95
See ABC Bookshop website
To make other enquiries telephone ABC Bookshop (07) 3377 5455
Phyl den Ronden, whose mother was killed by a drunk driver more than thirty years ago, founded Citizens Against Road Slaughter in 1984 to help victims, bereaved families and their friends through the loss and grief she too had experienced. Phyl said, “There was no one and no organisation for my family at that time.”