Ask an expert - LINNEA WILSON, RETIRED PASTOR
Last updated 8/2/2023 at 2:56pm | View PDF
How can people support those who are grieving?
Supporting someone who has suffered the loss of a loved one doesn't require grand gestures or eloquent words of condolence. Simply being present for that person can make all the difference, said Linnea Wilson of Hinsdale, a retired Lutheran pastor.
"The ministry of presence I think is really important, Wilson said. "Just going and sitting, being there. (Asking) 'Would you like to take a walk? Could we spend some time together?'
"One of the most important things I heard and have said is, 'I don't know what to say right now. I'm here, but I don't know what to do.' That's OK," she continued. "No one has given us a script."
Wilson, who has counseled grieving families as a pastor, knows loss firsthand. She and her husband, Lanny, lost their own 14-year-old daughter, Lauren, in a tragic accident almost 30 years ago.
"I think in the case of children being killed, there really is no explanation that fits our grief that we can plug in and say, 'Oh, this is the reason why.' There just isn't one."
While stages of grief exist, the process is not linear and often there is no end, she said.
"The way I describe grief, as it happened for me, is that the edges were very raw in the immediate aftermath of our daughter's death, but then those edges got rounded off over time," she said. "There are always edges to be bumped into, but they don't hurt as much. They're not as sharp."
She shared a story about a female pastor she met in her early days in seminary, about 18 months after Lauren died. The pastor told her she needed to talk to someone about her "unresolved grief issues." So Wilson went to see to a professor who specialized in grief.
"Of course you have unresolved grief issues - your daughter just died," he told her, offering reassurance that there was no timeline she had to follow.
She pointed to one thing people should avoid saying to someone who is grieving.
" 'I understand what you're going through.' That's the biggest mistake anybody can say. I cannot imagine right now except in the very broadest sense what the Richards are going through," she said, referring to the family of 14-year-old Sean Richards, who died in a tragic accident July 20. "Each grief process is different."
She also encouraged people to follow through on what they say.
"The second biggest (mistake) is saying, 'I'll be there for whatever you need' and then not being there or, 'I'll call you next week' and the call never comes," she said. "I had one friend say, 'I can't deal with this right now' and I never heard from her again, but she had the courage to say, 'I can't deal with this.' Another friend just disappeared."
People also need to remember that the grieving process is often a long one.
"Gestures today, gestures next week, gestures next month are important," Wilson said. "Everybody will be there today and fewer people will be there next week, but who's going to be there in a month or two months with those memories or that time to spend or that phone call?"
Parents who have lost a child want their son or daughter to be remembered, she said, so share stories with them. And if those stories elicit tears, don't feel bad.
"Those tears are tears, in my case, of joy that somebody did remember. And the tears are part of the grieving process, I think," she said.
She encouraged parents of kids who are struggling with grief to use the library as a resource.
"There are really wonderful children's books that talk about death, usually about the death of an animal, but that can certainly, in wise parents' hands, be used to talk about death in general, death happening unexpectedly and being able to say, 'I don't know why,' " Wilson said.
Allowing people to have their own experience with grief is important, especially for couples who have lost a child. Her husband chose to go back to work, while she followed the opposite path.
"The best thing I can say to couples and to families is to give each other the space they need to grieve in the way they need to grieve," she said. "Understanding how the other person is processing may not be the most important thing."
Those who are part of a faith community can rely on that support as well as the prayers of others, even if they don't feel like praying themselves, Wilson said. They can remember the words of Romans 8: "Nothing can separate us from the love of God and Christ Jesus."
"Boy, that's where I hang my hat because that's the only thing that's important to me," she said.
And she believes the green ribbons and lawn signs that ask people to pray for Sean offer the community at large a means of supporting the family.
"How wonderful that people are seeing that as a way they can help or support or keep a memory alive," she said. "Maybe that's as much as prayer can be for some people."
- by Pamela Lannom