Lessons Learned in Loss

This week I thought I’d share something from my personal life. As most of you know, this year I lost my sister Roxanne to cancer.  This is something I wrote a little while ago about what I’ve learned about how to care for people who are grieving.

Lessons Learned in Loss

I’ve been a pastor for almost nine years.  I have walked people through the journey of loss and have, I admit, even taken a little pride in the effort I make to care for people who’ve lost a loved one.  When people asked me how to care for a grieving person, I usually had a few ideas. Some of them were even good!  This spring, however, I lost my sister, and, like all things in life, going through it taught me more in a few months than I learned in many years of watching.  And so I would like to share, from my own experience, what I’ve learned.  Here is what I would say to anyone who is wondering how to care for a grieving person in their life:

1. Say Something

I cannot stress this enough. I know a lot of people aren’t comfortable talking about death. Some people assume “I don’t want to say anything and upset her.” But here’s the tricky thing – and I’ve had this confirmed by others who have losses – when you don’t say anything the grieving person doesn’t think “Oh they don’t know what to say….” They think “Don’t they know what I’ve been through?”  When someone is grieving, that death is around them like a cloud every minute. They think about it all the time.  You don’t have to worry that they’ve forgotten and you bringing it up will upset them.

They are already thinking about it. What you are doing is saying “You are going through the biggest thing in your life and I acknowledge that.”  It’s true that if you take the risk, you  might say something stupid.  It’s still better than saying nothing – I promise. When in doubt just say “I’m sorry for your loss.”  Or “I don’t know what to say.”  Send a facebook message.  Write an email. Send a card.  ACKNOWLEDGE.  

2. The grieving person will not be able to care about you and your life in the same way

I love caring for people and helping people.  I am usually happy to hear the details and frustrations of a person’s life. But when the newness of my sister’s death was all around me, I didn’t have it in me.  I still loved the people in my life, but I couldn’t engage in the same way in conversations I usually could.  Your boss gave you a hard time today? My sister died.  You’ve been shopping for months and still can’t find the right dress for that wedding? My sister died.  You’re exhausted because you’ve just had so much to do lately? My sister died.  I know, maybe it sounds selfish.  But give your friend some space, and try to understand.  Try not to offload on them without acknowledging the weight they are already carrying.

They still love you – know that – but they are overwhelmed with grief.  Overwhelmed. And so if they seem standoffish when you talk, or a little distant, or if they seem to shut down a bit in certain conversations, it’s not about you.  It’s the grief.  Your friend will come back. Wait for them.

3. The hardest times come months after the death

This is the biggest thing I hear from people who are grieving, and that I experienced myself.  All the initial love and support in the early days is life-giving and needed desperately after a loss. However, for me, I look back on the first couple of months after my sister died and my grief was so raw and fresh that I wasn’t even able to begin to process it.  I had no idea what it meant that my sister was gone. I wasn’t ready to talk.  I didn’t even know how to.  

And then, a few months later, when it really hits, everyone seems to think you’ve moved on.  It seems like no one is asking anymore, or talking about it seems to make people feel awkward. You feel like people expect you to be over it.

A number of months after my sister died I was in a situation where someone asked for prayer requests from the group. When asked mine I said “Well the expected.“ The person looked at me blankly and asked “What would that be?” I was shocked!  Had they forgotten my sister had only died a few months before?  It was still the biggest thing in my life!!  Yet, I recognize for those that are outside of the grief, it’s hard to realize how fresh the loss still is even months later.

To care for those who are grieving in your life, connect to them after time has passed.  It doesn’t have to be a lot. Send them a message and say you are thinking of them.  Acknowledge that they are still grieving.  When they mention their loss, don’t change the subject. Say “It must still be so hard for you.”  You will show them great love in doing this.

4. Listen to their story

I watched my sister die. I remember every detail about that night and the days before it.  They were a pivotal turning point in my life.  And I needed to tell the story. I needed to say “This is what happened the day my sister died. Please just let me say it out loud.”  I was aching for my loved ones to ask me.  Few people did. I understand why – most of us would assume that people would not want to talk about that – but in my experience a lot of people who have had this sort of loss need to process the experience.  Saying it out loud is part of the journey.

A few months ago I talked to someone after a loss and said: “Tell me about the days around the death.”  I just listened as he told me every detail – planning a funeral, choosing a casket, making hard decisions.  This was the most incredible thing that had ever happened to him, and he needed to share his story. I soon found that most people I talked to who had lost someone responded with relief to that question: “Tell me what happened.” This was true for people who had lost someone even years before.

Let me say here that I’m not sure this one applies to everyone. I think in fact that for people who have had tragic, sudden loses (such as ones caused by an accident) it may not be true.There may be too much trauma in rehashing the day of the event. But be willing to take the risk.  If a close friend has lost someone (I’m not saying to do this with your co-worker you barely know, for example), offer to get together with him or her in a safe place and say simply “Would you like to tell me about those days?”  They have the option to say no (and honour it if they do), but if they say something like “You don’t want to hear that,” or “It’s such a long story…” say:  “I would like to hear your story if you would like to tell it.”  Some people will talk about the death, others about the funeral, others about the moments of learning of a diagnosis. They will know the story they need to tell.

5. It’s never too late

Have you read this and thought of ways you should have done things differently when someone you loved had a loss? It is not too late.  Weeks, months, years later it is not too late to write or call and say “I realize that I should have said more. I want you to know I care for you.” Never. Too. Late.  If you have regret, don’t.  Instead, say something now and change the story.

Final thoughts

I hesitated to share this because I have no desire to make anyone feel guilty or for people to think this is some passive-aggressive way of telling my friends what I wished they had done.  I felt blessed by the  support I received, and have prayed for, and received, the ability to give grace to  those who, perhaps, just did not know how to be supportive in the ways I needed.  (I recognize as well that I did not always know how to ask for what I needed  – but that’s another whole set of lessons for another day!)

I share this because I learned some things, and my hope is that these reflections can give some insight to others.  I hope that we can all get better at being there for people during a loss.  I know that I have learned a lot, and I’m grateful that out of my loss I have learned a little of how to better be there for others in the future.  I hope by God’s grace to keep learning more.   

If you have been through the experience of grief, I’d be curious to know your thoughts.  Would you agree with these lessons? Would you change anything? Add anything?  What do you think people need to know? 

24 comments

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  1. Wendy Herbert

    Every word you wrote was so true. Almost 15 years ago I lost the man I loved. I watched as his health deteriorated and held his hand as he slipped away. I needed to talk about it, I needed the strength and support from my friends and family but I couldn’t process that things were happening in their lives too. I had just lost the live if my life and it was hard to focus on anything else. Time is a great healer and we do go on with our lives but the wound never totally heals. Thank you Leanne, you got it perfectly right.

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  2. Arlene Button Riche

    Leanne, This is beautiful! And, in my experience, all true! I would add that we shouldn’t assume because people are moving forward with their lives that they have forgotten about your loss or gotten over theirs – I’ve had to revisit that with Jacob a few times since Roxanne’s death. He would be so distressed because it seemed to him people have forgotten while he is still grieving – we need to be patient with those around us. We all move through grief at different paces; sometimes we move forward consistently, sometimes in fits and starts. Some quietly, others publicly.

    I would also encourage friends to say their name… don’t treat them as a “he/she who must not be named”. It was several months before we could ‘remember’ and call Rox by name. I found it so hard. I know the moment… music camp at Starrigan. I finally HAD to speak her name in the group… it was such a relief. It was wonderful to have reached the point where her name felt safe in my mouth again… precious memories.

    As I move into February my thoughts turn to our birthdays… 22nd and 23rd… and to the 20+ birthday dinners we shared. I know I will laugh; I know I will cry… but, through the tears and the smiles, I will always be grateful for those dinners and those memories. This leads me to my last point. Only those closest will likely know the “special” dates – birthdays, anniversaries, the date of passing… unless we ask, how will the grieving friend feel free to share?

    You are a gifted speaker and blogger, Leanne! Thank you.

    Arlene

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    • friesenandfriesen

      I will also be thinking of you during those days Arlene. I can’t imagine how much you all must miss her!! Not that Roxanne would have wanted Jacob to be sad, but ….I think this post about him needing to grieve her would have meant a lot to her.
      Keep talking about her!

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  3. Deanna Terry Mason

    I agree with what you said, and from experience, its hard, but be there for them, and let them talk, take your cues from the people involved, you will be able to sense, if the timing is right or they want to talk, by their actions, learn to read people, and just be there,

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  4. Jennifer Rowsell (@jenrowsell)

    Thank you Leanne for writing this. On Saturday a loved member of our congregation passed away (cancer. Ugh.). Leaving behind a toddler, teen, and husband. Visitation is at our church tomorrow and the funeral is Thursday – the first one I’ll ever participate in. I will keep this blog in mind as I seek to pastor this family (ESP kids) in the coming months. Thank you!

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  5. Anne Vyn

    Thanks for this, Leanne. I think you covered the grieving experience accurately and beautifully. Everyone takes the journey through the valley of death differently but there is no doubt about….death is a dark valley for those who are left behind.

    I can remember wise words of someone who brought comfort to us during our time of grief by reminding us that we were travelling THROUGH the valley, we weren’t going to set up camp WITHIN it. Those words encouraged my heart to keep looking for the Light of HOPE at the end of our dark tunnel…..a Light of Hope that would lead us through.

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  6. Evelyn

    Great information, Leanne. Yes, I did talk about the day my dad passed to a lot of people. One of the benefits of being a hairstylist! I just shared over and over, it was really helpful. One of the most touching things was that first Christmas when I got a card (from a thoughtful pastor!!) who acknowledged the loss I would feel during what is usually thought of as a joyful time. I need to be more intentional about doing that for others.

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  7. Mary Pat Vollick

    Leanne,
    I admire the courage you have to share your story and turn your profoundly sad experience into a life lesson for all of us. You are courageous and brave and inspiring. May God continue to bless all of us with your presence in our lives. You are such a gift!

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  8. Rod Elliott

    Thanks for the wisdom. Grieving is part of a death and loss. The letting the elephant out of the closet and coming along side to listen, support, and touch your loved one is so important. It has been 32 years since dad died. I can tell you the people that made a difference in my time grief. I can not tell you about the people that put their foot in their mouth. Thank you Leanne for sharing.
    Rod

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  9. Ruthanne Cameron

    Leanne I am so glad to have read your words of wisdom. A dear woman of faith that I worked with many years ago lost her husband last June. I sent her a sympathy card at the time. A few weeks ago on a cold and dark morning at the bus stop she came up to me to say she noticed me and wanted to thank me for the card. I asked her how she was doing and as she told me she started to cry. I wiped away her tears and gave her a hug, but as she walked away to catch her bus I felt so bad that I had stirred up all this emotion.This has been on my heart ever since. How wonderful to read that I didn’t remind her husband died, she lives and breathes it. Perhaps she needed to tell someone that day how sad she still is and God gave me the opportunity to be there to listen.

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    • friesenandfriesen

      You absolutely did nothing that you should feel bad about, Ruthanne. Although I don’t know this woman, I would almost certainly say that she remembers that as a moment of love and care. Causing tears is not a bad thing. They are often close to the service, and sometimes people need to release them. Thanks for sharing.

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  10. Cindy Baker

    Thank-You Leanne. Everything you said is so true and is a very good reminder to all. I saw teenagers i know in three different families lose parents in recent years. It changed me. Effort in good understanding and support can make a world of difference. I just wish more people understood this.
    Also, your sermon this week deeply spoke to me as i deal with a difficult matter in our lives at this time. As always, thank-you for sharing your gifts and wisdom.

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    • friesenandfriesen

      Thanks for sharing Cindy. It’s so true that we just don’t know what to do in these hard things.
      And I’m glad that the sermon was helpful to you. If you need to chat, let me know. We can do a coffee 🙂

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  11. Susan

    Well said Leanne. I am going through the same thing. My younger brother died in March and I feel like everyone has forgotten. He was my best friend and we talked regularly on the phone. His loss in my life is still huge. The other weekend, I started to cry and couldn’t stop all weekend.

    Even though,people have forgotten, it is still very hard for me.I am even surprised when the grief comes over me and it seems sooo big still, sometimes.
    Than you for your suggestions. It is a very lonely experience. I just want someone to be interested in Steve (my brother) and what he meant to me.
    Thanks for your post.

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  12. friesenandfriesen

    Keep talking about Steve and what he meant to you, Susan. It is very normal that you are still finding the loss of someone so significant to be such a big part of your life. It has not even been a year!! Thanks for the reminders that we all need to remember to not “forget” our friends in their grief. Well said.

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