Vermont’s farming community has recently experienced tragic loss due to several accidental deaths. We are all extremely saddened by this and are holding their families in our hearts. Elsewhere, too, in our lives and in the world, tragedy strikes unannounced. We are sometimes caught in our own grief response because we know and care about those impacted or the tragedy touches us personally in some way. We can feel paralyzed as to how to help. Here are some ways that we can offer practical help to the recently bereaved.
What can help
- Be there. Call and arrange to visit, e-mail, write a letter, and follow through. Your contact matters. Grief can be isolating and scary.
- Short phone calls are better than long ones. A grieving person’s brain is often working over-time to process their loss.
- Saying “I’m sorry” is enough if you can’t think of anything else.
- Those who are grieving may want to talk about the person who has died. Simply listening can be one of the most helpful things you can do. Your memories of the person who has died will be most welcome, too, as once someone has died, there are no new memories unless someone shares theirs with you.
- Use the person’s name to your friend. Ask about them; learn who they were. Sharing memories of their loved one keeps the person alive and present in the moment.
- Send regular notes to check in and see how they’re doing. Connection can be helpful.
- In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, mourners are often unable to eat or deal with the smallest tasks. Offer to help with administrative tasks such as opening mail or making small meals.
- Similar bereavement stories can be helpful; don’t be afraid to share them if you, too, have experienced such a loss. In the early days of grief, it’s important to know that it’s survivable, that you will laugh again, that all happiness has not gone from your life – someone who’s been through it can be a lifeline.
- The first year following the loss has many “firsts” without the loved one there. These days are particularly raw: the first time signing a card alone, the first birthday, the first holidays. Reach out on these special anniversaries and check in.
- Create an environment in which the bereaved person can be themselves and show their feelings rather than having to put on a front.
- It’s OK to be silent while someone sobs; you can give them a reassuring, gentle touch to let them know you are there. Tears are useful to rid the body of stress hormones. It’s also OK if someone doesn’t cry – everyone processes grief differently.
- Offer and provide specific, practical help such as shoveling the path to the barn, taking a chore off their hands, making a meal, watching the kids or feeding the calves.
- Know that grief doesn’t have a time limit.
- Know that everyone grieves in their own way; there is no ‘normal’ way.
- Don’t be afraid to make the bereaved person laugh. Tell them about your day or “silly things” (once you’ve checked in on them) – the minutiae of other people’s lives can be really comforting and momentarily distracting.
- You won’t make the grieving person cry when you mention the person they’ve lost. The tears were probably there anyway. Don’t let fear of this hold you back.
What does NOT help
- Avoiding someone who is bereaved. It’s confusing and hurtful.
- Saying you’re sorry, and then never mentioning the death again (unless the bereaved person has asked you expressly to do this).
- Using clichés such as They’re in a better place now; They were a good age, though; I understand how you feel; You'll get over it; Time heals.
- Saying it's time to move on, they should be over it. How long a person needs to grieve is entirely individual.
- Being alarmed if the bereaved person doesn’t want to talk or demonstrates anger.
- Comparing their loss to how you felt when you lost your pet.
- Never tell someone how they are feeling. Grief is individual.
Many people don’t consider bereavement counseling right after a death, but it can be very helpful months or even years later. Farm First offers professional, free and confidential counseling for Vermont farmers: 1-877-493-6216. Farm First can send you materials to share with your friend if he or she wants to see materials before calling. The website is www.farmfirst.org (password: farm).