June 21st, 2018

What do you say to the bereaved?

By Lethbridge Herald Opinon on April 12, 2018.

Allan Wilson

The horrific tragedy of the Humbolt hockey team has moved millions of people across Canada in a remarkable outpouring of sympathy. Here in Lethbridge the roots of the respected family have directly touched more than a thousand people: former students of the father, rugby enthusiasts, education colleagues – myself included.

Last month Logan Boulet signed an organ donation card and now six people are living better lives because of that. And last month it was 20 years since my son was given a cancer diagnosis, a battle he lost 22 months later in January 2000. I know far too much about having a son die, but I will not presume to know exactly what the families of those 15 victims are feeling.

But from 18 years of living a different life, reading countless books and essays, writing about the experience, and sharing stories in our local chapter of The Compassionate Friends, I can write about things that will be helpful to say to bereaved parents, and things you can do.

1. Understand that their lives are changed forever and they will not “get over it.” It is not a lover’s broken heart, it is not like getting laid off from a job, not like flunking out of med school, not like having your dog die. It is a scar, a wound that does not go away, although it will soon enough be covered over with common social interactions – they may seem “normal” on the surface in a few months. You learn to live with the pain.

2. It is possible a bereaved family will eventually find some contentment and fulfilment but they will never again be as happy as they were before the tragedy.

3. Support them, even if you don’t know what to say. “I don’t know what you are feeling, but I will stand with you.” That is far better than saying nothing, or avoiding them.

4. Help them without asking. Make food, shovel their sidewalk, cut their grass. Don’t say, “Is there anything I can do?” because they may not ask, being so deeply hurt. In this specific case, signing an organ donor card would be a good step.

5. Remember the day the child died, remember the child’s birthday, remember Christmas, and send cards and messages, even 10 years from now. Those days are harder than others.

6. Don’t avoid them because you have trouble dealing with their pain, or even your memories. What you feel is about 1/1000th of what they are feeling.

7. Sometimes the question “How are you doing?” is very difficult. It may be better to show up at their house next month and say, “Let’s go for a walk.”

8. They may decide to go back to work very soon, or much later, or not at all. There is no wrong or right on that matter: whatever helps them maintain their fragile sense of equilibrium is more important.

9. Avoid any religious or spiritual talk unless they bring up the subject. They don’t need preaching or easy answers.

10. From the experience of my wife and myself, if they can find meaningful activities to do and get support from others (they can’t do it alone), they will slowly, slowly, slowly feel better. As I look back 18 years, it seems “feeling better” progressed at about one inch a month.

Sometimes life isn’t fair. And that’s why it is important to help each other deal with how brutally unfair life can be. And after a long dark night of despair, we can come out the other side to appreciate the best parts of our common enlightened humanity.

Allan and Sandy Wilson lead the local chapter of The Compassionate Friends. It is an international non-profit, non-religious support group. They meet the first Saturday of the month at 10 a.m. at McKillop United Church.

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