When someone we know experiences a death of someone close to them, it is natural to want to reach out. One of the things that is often difficult to accept is that what we are ready to give may not be what our friend wants or needs.
People need different things from different people. Some people don’t need what we want to give; even if it is what we might need if we experienced a similar loss. I have had opportunities to learn this lesson a number of times. I think I am finally getting the message. Recently, a dear good friend’s mother died. Of course I thought attending the funeral and a visit (or more than one visit) would be appropriate. I say “of course” because not only is visiting and comforting a mourner part of my religious and cultural tradition, but it is what I assumed was what would be the “right” thing to do for her.
I was wrong.
My friend did not want to see me or anyone else who was not a relative. No friends at all. This was difficult for me since putting myself into her shoes, I would have wanted to be with my close friend. But in fact, in honoring what she wanted, I realized that I wasn’t putting myself into HER shoes, I was putting myself into MY shoes. I learned that honoring my traditions was less important than honoring the friendship.
I admit, this was hard. My inner voice kept badgering me about why I was not going to see her, despite what she said. Maybe she would realize that she really DID want to have me near her? What kind of person was I if I did not make the effort to be with her during her time of need? And then, the internal reply: Who’s need am I listening to? Mine or Hers? Who is this about? Me or Her? She informed me that she appreciated my concern and love and this was what she wanted.
As we consider ways to be there for people in mourning, we need to pay close attention to the messages we get from the mourner. For some people, a visit, sharing stories, being together may work well. For others, a card, a call, lunch delivered, helping shuttle kids or doing errands may be the way to be supportive. For others, it is writing our memories about the person that, when read, may bring some peace. It could be donating to a charity or organization that was meaningful to the person or their family. Perhaps for a work colleague composing an e-mail with an update on work they may have missed, to be read at their leisure could be helpful. We need to think about it. We need to ask, “Who am I in this person’s life?” What do I want to offer? Is what I want to offer what will be right for the person I hope to soothe?
This part IS about us! Sometimes it is important FOR US to convey to someone that they are in our thoughts, or that they matter to us, or that we love them or miss them, or are thinking of them. At other times, we want to be involved in the whole journey, help pick up the slack in their lives, or be a confidant. If we wish to be involved in some practical way, the more specific and pragmatic our offer, the better the chance the person will accept. For example, “I’d like to be helpful.” Specifics: I am going shopping and can pick up milk and egg; what kind of cereal do the kids eat? I’m cooking dinner tonight and can make a double amount. Anyone allergic to onions?
We can define the relationship and sit with the knowledge that the person is not well and see what we feel about it. When we do that, we will have a clearer picture of what we can express that suits us. Put aside the image of the saint who is selfless, drops everything, is sacrificial, and is always there to minister to the needs of others. We can see what works for us in the very personal context of what this person wants or needs. When people have lost someone, their needs change. Temporarily for sure, and sometimes for longer. It can be a very personal and transformative journey for the grieving person as well as for their friends and family. As people in their lives we need to understand that we have an opportunity to undergo a transformation as well.