How to be with a family when a loved one dies

Many people may be uncertain as to how to be with family members who are experiencing the death of someone they love.  Questions arise for those who want to reach out:  How can I be available?  How can I be of help?  How do I express my condolences? How can I be a loving, caring presence at such a time?  

Listening Hearts offers guidelines that may help you discern ways to be present at such times. As you consider these guidelines, be aware that “family” may include treasured friends, caregivers and others close to the person who died.

  1. Be aware of your own feelings and reactions to the death. Consider how they may impact your interaction with the family. Self-awareness is important when discerning how and when to reach out to others close to one who has died.
  2. Hold the one who has died in your heart, praying for peace, release and wholeness. Hold in your heart those closest to the person. Try to develop an understanding of where they are in relation to the situation. Look for indications of the presence and movement of the Spirit, such as compassion, calmness, insight, clarity and peace as to how to be with family members.
  3. Consider the variety of ways you may reach out, given your sense of the person and your discernment. Letters and notes can be sustaining, offering words of compassion and love, perhaps some personal memories/recollections of the one who has died, a special poem or prayer, or a picture you may have of the person. These tangible offerings are often kept by the recipient and re-visited, offering ongoing and sustaining moments as the person transitions into the future. Some families provide for online opportunities to share, such as a “Book of Memories,” or protected website/blogs for sharing memorial tributes and reflections. Offer only that which has evolved out of your careful and loving discernment and reflection.
  4. With visits, food offerings, flowers, donations and the like, defer to the wishes of the recipients and their desires for people reaching out to them. Respect their decisions as to what they perceive they need at this time. Find out if there are persons designated by the family to help coordinate such activities. Work through them. A family may have delegated oversight to trusted individuals as members face many immediate decisions and activities, yet have need for rest and quiet.
  5. Listening is often the most important gift you can give. People who have lost a family member or a treasured friend may want to share “what happened.” “Telling the story,” even repetitively, may be part of their healing process as they try to make some meaning out of what has happened. Sharing memories and even laughing at funny stories may also be healing and restorative for families. Be aware that individuals may not yet be ready to talk about what has happened, and that sometimes the best gift you can give is simply to be present with them in their grief. Listening is a task of the whole heart and asks us to be fully open and attentive to the speaker – quieting our reactions, thoughts and ideas. Hopefully, we enter into a listening stance with the assistance and guidance of the Spirit helping us to listen and see with the eyes and ears of the heart.
  6. Hold your desires, opinions and convictions so lightly that you are able to release them and their power over you when you are reaching out to someone. If your advice is sought, avoid any “fix-it” mentality. With the help of the Spirit simply gently guide the conversation into the person’s own reflections and ideas or towards appropriate resources that may assist with decisions.
  7. Be aware that there is no set time frame for grief or for integrating the event of the death of a loved one into one’s life going forward. Even as time passes there are opportunities for you to reach out in love and support. Such times may occur at the anniversary of the death, at a special time like Thanksgiving and Christmas, or at family events when someone who has died may be lovingly remembered.
  8. Carry the family members on your heart and lift them up in your prayers. Prayer is a powerful way to be there for someone and to share your presence. Many speak of the sense of being prayed for and how others’ prayers have comforted, supported, strengthened and sustained them.

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