How Do I Support Someone After a Violent Loss?
Suggestions for the Friends and Relatives of the Grieving Survivor
YES, you can help. Maybe you do not know what to say. Maybe you feel uncomfortable and awkward. Such feelings are normal, but don’t let them keep you away. The simple communication that you care is probably the most important and helpful thing anyone can do. This guide suggests the kinds of attitudes, words and acts which are truly helpful.
Let the Survivor be your guide. Remember that everyone grieves their own way. Be yourself. Express your concern in your own way and in your own words. But listen more than you talk, and ASK before you hug, kiss, hold or touch a survivor. Do not assume you know what is good for them.
Friends and families are often at a loss for words because you are also shocked. It is okay to admit that you don’t know what to say. Your presence matters. Cards and simple gifts may also express your care and concern.
Never attempt to tell the bereaved how they feel. Never tell a survivor that you understand how they feel. Unless you have lost a loved one to homicide, YOU DON’T!
Avoid clichés and easy answers. “He had a good life,” “It’s God’s will,” and “Aren’t you lucky that …” are not likely to help. A simple “I’m sorry” is better. Do not attempt to make sense of the loss.
Accept silence. If the survivor doesn’t feel like talking, don’t force conversation. Silence is better than aimless chatter. Be a good listener. Accept whatever feelings are expressed. Listen nonjudgmentally. Be as understanding as you can be.
Do Not Be Anxious or Afraid. Survivors need to talk about their loved one and the circumstances surrounding his/her death, sometimes over and over. Don’t be afraid to mention their loved one’s name.
Do not probe for details about the death. If the survivor offers information, fine, but often survivors are not able to share any details of the death because of the on-going criminal investigation. Be respectful of this.
Be of Practical Service. Help attend to practical matters. Help answering the phone, addressing Thank You cards, preparing meals, taking care of the children, doing chores (dishes, trash, laundry). This kind of help lifts burdens and creates a bond. Do not assume that a seemingly calm child is not grieving; include them in your sympathy.
Be patient with the time grief takes. Do not whisk away clothing or hide pictures. Do not criticize seemingly morbid behavior. Have patience with emotions that go up and down. Survivors may inappropriately direct anger they feel at those closest to them. It is a safe outlet for the survivor, and family and friends should not take it personally.
Stay in Touch! Keep in touch over weeks and months. Be available. Phone calls and notes are tremendously important to the survivor, especially in the months following the death. Many survivors are just beginning to deal with their grief 3 – 6 months after the death. This is when they really need the support and care from friends and family. They need to be reminded that they are not forgotten.
Help survivors find life-enhancing ways to honor the memory of their loved one. A donation to a charity, church, museum, school or a scholarship program in the name of the loved one. Lighting a candle or planting a tree or flowers on the anniversary of the loved one’s death.
Remember the survivors on the anniversary of the death. Call or write to them. The survivor remembers, and it will be a comfort to know others have not forgotten. Also, remember the survivor on the birthday of their loved one, anniversaries and other significant life events.
Give the survivor permission not to grieve. The survivor needs to know that it is OK not to grieve all the time.
Survivors Tell Us That Small Gestures Mean a Lot.
- Allow survivors to grieve in whatever way they wish and for as long as they wish.
- Allow survivors to cry freely. It is a healthy expression of grief and releases tension.
- Allow survivors to talk about the victim, his or her life, and the murder. Allow them to criticize the victim and to talk about the good times and the bad times. Allow them to keep the victim in the family.
- Allow survivors to be angry: at you, the victim, the criminal, the criminal justice system, or simply at the unfairness of life. Anger needs expression and sharing.
- Remember the survivors and the victim at holiday time, the anniversary date of the murder, and birthdays. Let the survivors know you remember, too.
- Allow the survivors some time away from day-to-day pressures. Offer help with the children, a day off work, a day out of the house, help with groceries, or whatever you can do to give them a break.
- Reassure the survivors that the murder was not their fault or the victim’s fault.
- Tell survivors that you are sorry the murder happened and that it is horrible that someone killed their loved one.
- Support survivors in their efforts to reconstruct a life, even if it means a major change in the lifestyle, or work, or place of residence.
- Let survivors know that you will stand by them and that they mean a great deal to you.