Condolences vs Comfort Working Toward Healing
By Judy Strong
Condolences are the heartfelt words conveyed to others who have lost a loved one. They sincerely acknowledge the sadness and perhaps shock at the death of a friend, family member, neighbor, or co-worker. Condolences are readily received and appreciated in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy. Surrounded by those close to you, the warm words of solace keep you connected at a time when you feel terribly alone.
Comfort is long-term. More personal and on a deeper level, comfort is a commitment to the survivor of a painful loss. Comfort requires time, patience, and understanding. Regular visits and phone calls, listening and affirming the griever’s pain and anguish, and recognizing the need to socialize takes a sensitive and thoughtful approach to another’s loss and pain.
Staying close to someone who is grieving can affect you emotionally, and may drain you of energy. Though the time commitment needn’t be great, it should be consistent. Comfort can be extended in a number of ways, but always addresses the real needs of the griever. Determining those needs is really based on communication. Ask and observe and allow the grieving person to take the lead.
Asking a bereaved person what they want and need or what you can do to help may elicit a sincere “I don’t know.” Refining the question will often lead to some specifics. “What would help you the most right now?” may get you started in the right direction. Usually immediate needs are all traumatized people can think about. Shock prevents you from grasping too much of your situation, and easing the pain and confusion is paramount. A comforter can begin to simply focus on the acute aspects of early grief and continue to support their friend or relative as obvious needs become apparent.
It’s important that major decisions not be made without the knowledge and consent of the grieving person. When crisis strikes, all power and control are wrenched from the survivors, leaving them feeling helpless and disabled. Something too awful has happened, over which they had no control, and reclaiming choices over their own lives seems unattainable. Putting the ball back into their court is an important element in the mourning and healing process. They need to be kept informed of any ongoing decisions regarding their loved one and their own well- being.
A committed comforter can make a significant difference in the way grief is processed, both immediately and in the long-term. Security and stability can be reestablished, a sense of purpose and confidence instilled, and a desire to heal and move forward initiated.
Trauma comes in many forms and usually takes you by surprise. Expressions of sympathy are extended as soon as the word gets out. People call or stop by, bringing words of solace and food for body and soul. There are hugs and tears, promises of help and regular phone calls to keep in touch, but it is usually short-lived. The fact is, within three weeks, most friends and acquaintances have dropped off, perhaps a few following up with a phone call or two, and maybe an invitation to an outing or a gathering at their home for dinner or an evening with friends.
Survivors learn quickly that, though friends are sympathetic, they are also uncomfortable with the emotions associated with grief. We’ve never been taught how to respond, what common behavior is, and what is most helpful to someone coping with loss. But true comfort is really just good sense, good neighborliness, and the ability to learn as you go along. Staying power, flexibility, and genuine empathy for the other’s plight will yield positive results for individuals, families, and ultimately, for our society.
Death education comes after the fact. We learn through experience. But we can start to familiarize ourselves with some basic knowledge and begin to practice it, even in small doses. Words of comfort and inclusion in casual social outings, such as lunch or a movie or ballgame should be extended throughout the first year of bereavement. Grieving people feel isolated and, in fact, are often not invited because others are uncomfortable and unsure of what is appropriate. Just ask. They will say yes or no. Enjoy yourself and relax. Reentering the main stream of life is unbelievably difficult following a traumatic event. A good friend and comforter will ease that transition and allow the healing process to proceed. One day a feeling of peace and optimism will settle over the person in mourning, signaling that true healing is taking place. The griever can move on, and the comforter can rest, assured that simplicity and consistency yield remarkable results.
Copyright© Judy Strong 2011.