My husband came up the stairs holding out the phone with a pleading look in his eyes. Could I please just take a few minutes and talk to his mother? She had just lost her brother to a heart attack. This was a brother that had just gone to Thailand for an experimental treatment to heal his congestive heart failure. The family was in a shock. This wasn’t supposed to happen. He was on the mend!
Death is no stranger to this family. His mother had just lost an older sister in January and yet still did not know how to react or what to do to this latest loss. I started to assess the situation. If you are helping or assisting a friend or family member this list might be helpful for you.
Questions to ask:
- “Tell me about the death — when did it happen? Who was there?” People want to talk about their loss. It helps make it more real for them in their own minds.
- “Have you been eating? When was the last time you ate? What was it?” Most often people do not eat or if they do it is sugar foods. In the case of my mother-in-law she couldn’t eat. She said she looked at food and it would make her sick. Suggest to people to drink Ensure, Boost or a glass of milk if they cannot get food down.
- “Have you been drinking water?” Crying takes moisture out of the body. Drinking water puts it back in. Simple sounding but hard to do! People tend to rely on soft drinks and coffee. Both dehydrate the body.
- “Have you been able to sleep more than five hours a night? If not, is it time to think about a non-addictive sleeping aid?” Grieving is hard work and your body needs the energy to get through this process.
- “Have you been crying in front of people?” Oh wow, this is a big question for people, especially the elderly. The common response is ‘no’ which really means: No, because I don’t want to upset others. No, because I don’t want to seem that vulnerable. No, because I will never stop crying. As I told my mother-in-law, you cannot make your sister-in-law’s life more miserable by crying in front of her. In fact, when you cry it gives her permission to cry. She doesn’t have to think, “Oh I am just upsetting everyone”. Crying releases chemicals into your system that help you feel better. It is healthy to cry. Yes, eventually you will stop crying. If you don’t feel you have stopped after some time has passed, then you can seek medical attention.
- “Are you remembering the good times in life or are you just dwelling on the horrible?” The person who has died has left a mark on the grieving person. This person had meaning in their life. They brought joy into the grieving person’s life and others’ life. Remember it. Savor it. Experience it. Share it. This person meant something. Don’t forget. To help my mother-in-law remember the good times in life I am making her helping flash cards. I simply wrote down in my Word program on the computer all the good things in her life lately. I laminated them and punched a hole in the corner and put them on a key ring. When she is feeling blue she can pull them out and read one or as many as she wants. Another way to remember good times is to put pictures of happy times in a photo album. Then the grieving person can thumb through the book when they are down.
People will be thankful you asked questions of them. Don’t be afraid. People know that you care then and want to help them. Questions structure the conversation and help the grieving people focus on something other than the excruciating pain they are feeling. Give it a try.