Helping others with grief

Loss: A new book helps people learn to treat grieving friends and acquaintances with tact and kindness instead of awkwardness and discomfort.

January 05, 2001|By Sarah Pekkanen | Sarah Pekkanen,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

When a friend is mourning the death of a spouse or child, it's natural to want to help. So why do good intentions so often go wrong?

Lynn Kelly knows firsthand how painful the grieving process can be - she was widowed at 34 when her three children were all under the age of 10. Compounding Kelly's grief was the fact that a few of her friends, perhaps scared of saying the wrong thing, said nothing at all: They avoided her.

"That's the worst thing people can do," says Kelly, a Colorado native who continues to miss her husband more than 20 years after his death. "It sends a message you don't care."

So what should - and shouldn't - people do when a friend suffers a miscarriage, or a co-worker's parent dies, or a neighbor loses her husband of 50 years?

In her new book, "Don't Ask for the Dead Man's Golf Clubs" (Workman Publishing, $6.95), Kelly provides wisdom gleaned from 150 interviews with people ages 17 to 90, all of whom have lost someone important to them. Her book seems to have hit a nerve, perhaps because while there is plenty of literature to help those doing the grieving, there hasn't been much in the way of guidance for people surrounding the mourner, Kelly says. She was interviewed Wednesday by Matt Lauer on the "Today" show, and tonight will sign copies of her book at the Power Plant location of Barnes & Noble.

At the top of her list of no-no's: Don't judge people by saying, "Aren't you over it yet?" or try to empathize by saying, "I know how you feel." It's much better, Kelly advises, to simply say, "I know you're in pain."

Incredibly, some people even try to lay claim to the deceased's belongings, as the title of her book suggests. One daughter told Kelly that on the day of her father's funeral, someone asked for his football tickets. A Chicago woman recounted how an acquaintance telephoned after the death of her son: "My son had a pet python. We got a call from someone who barely expressed sympathy, just said, `I'll take the snake.' "

"When you ask for a gift," says Kelly, "it sends a message that somehow your loss is my gain."

Kelly understands that it isn't always pure greed that motivates such requests. "Death is scary and people are afraid," she says. "Asking for a gift is another reaction to great fear. ... If we pile things up around us, we can keep death away."

The right thing to do sounds simple but can be surprisingly difficult.

"Just be there," Kelly advises. "Get on a train or plane or bike or walk over and physically be there. Don't worry so much about what to say. Just say, `I'm sorry' or `I don't know what to say.' "

One man who was mourning the loss of his father was moved when an old friend said nothing at all, but placed his hand over his heart. In Kelly's book, others recount small acts of kindness that helped ease their grief: One woman received an angel ornament a year after her child's death. Another, whose husband was a Marine, was grateful when a friend came to the house and polished his sword. Despite the bumbles some people make when confronted with a friend's loss, such gestures showed Kelly that most people are longing to help in any way possible.

"Overall, the kindness we show to each other is still alive and well at a time when we're feeling computerized and distanced," she says. "The things people do for one another are just awesome."

One can't-go-wrong tip she offers is that people should write down a memory of the deceased and give it to the family. "Ultimately, what we have left are memories of the person we love," she says. Notes or cards on the anniversary of the death are also a good idea.

Friends should also pitch in and help with chores around the house - prepared meals are usually welcome - but shouldn't take it upon themselves to clear away the deceased's belongings. When a Colorado family lost their 7-year-old daughter in an accident, someone cleared out her room without asking, upsetting the family.

Although the uncomfortable feelings our society associates with death can be complicated in the case of a suicide, Kelly says such deaths should be treated exactly the same as any other loss.

"I think there is some kind of feeling that people who lose loved ones to suicide should be treated differently than people who suffer different kinds of losses," she says. "Withhold judgment, and don't be nosy. Don't ask, `Why did he do it?' "

Friends should also avoid cliches, she advises. Don't tell a woman who has suffered a miscarriage that 25 percent of all pregnancies end in miscarriage. Don't tell someone who was widowed at a young age that they'll marry again. And don't ever become impatient with the grieving process, Kelly says.

As one man who lost his 81-year-old father says in the book, "Don't say, `Well, you still have the children.' If I lost a leg, I would still miss that leg."

Another thing people shouldn't do is always wear long faces around mourners. "There's a myth out there that laughter is disrespectful and inappropriate, and it's not at all," Kelly says. "It's healing. It provides a release, like crying. Telling the good, fond stories and good memories is very healing. When you can start to laugh a little, you start to heal a little bit."

Book signing

Who: Lynn Kelly, author of "Don't Ask for the Dead Man's Golf Clubs"

When: 6:30 p.m.-7:30 tonight

Where: Barnes & Noble Power Plant at the Inner Harbor, 601 E. Pratt St.

Call: 410-385-1709

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