“When someone dies, what can I say or do that’s helpful?”
Practical support for grieving persons at and shortly after death.
I want to be as helpful as possible when offering support to people who have just lost a loved one. (It’s why I’ve written a book about it).
You do, too.
As I look into academic research into what’s called “bereavement support”, the research concludes with “these things seem to help” and “There is inconsistent implementation” and “there hasn’t been much research.” And the research relates to palliative care and intensive care. We know individual stories, we know what we do, but we could go further. (Here’s my ongoing research page)
So, because I’m part of a research group, I’m going to start some work on my own.
What words and actions are most helpful to people in the first moments and days following the death of a loved one? What words and actions do people report as being helpful?
To start, I’ll ask about what people remember that was helpful following a death.
I’m choosing the word “helpful” carefully. We often worry about saying the wrong thing or saying the right thing. We often want to figure out what “works” to fix things.
Rather than thinking about right or wrong, or even best, I want to think about figuring out how to be helpful.
- First up, I’m building a short survey. This survey will test whether people actually remember helpful things
- Then, there will be one or more larger surveys. These surveys will have branches allowing for deeper dives into particular situations. And will be more demographically rich, allowing us to test my thinking that different people and different situations affect what’s helpful.
- At the same time, I’ll be learning more about a couple grief models and writing more about what I already understand.
- Once we have a working survey and some results, I’ll be developing resources that fit with what we are learning. (Including looking at what could change in my own work in these moments.)
- If this research is fruitful, interviews and focus groups may be helpful.
I can imagine being able to say, “Here’s what the data suggests, based on our conversations with a few thousand people.”
1. Here are the actions that help.
2. Here are the actions that don’t.
3. Here are the kinds of deaths where there are gaps
4. Here are the individual differences that shape responses (age, relationship, gender).
On September 2, 2022, the first public draft of the survey was sent to 121 subscribers of a newsletter I publish called “Finding Words In Hard Times.”
There are a hundred books that tell a story about loss and say, “Here’s what someone said to me.” And turn that into a helpful, but often anecdotal grief book.
And there are a hundred books that say, “Everyone has a story.”
I want to gather a bunch of those stories as a way of saying, “Here’s what our stories together say.”
And I’m pretty convinced that people are different. And situations are different. And knowing about those differences can help us be helpful. Especially at really hard times.
It’s what Jesus did when he talked with two friends after their brother died. He spoke with Martha, he wept with Mary.
It’s what I do when I listen to a family member talking about a person who died. Is this a person who needs space, who needs answers, who needs a next step?
I’ve been having helpful conversations for a long time. What I don’t know, for sure, is what people remember from those conversations.
So I want to be able to say, “A year later, here’s what people remember.”
I want to be able to say, “Here are the things that we thought we should do, and this personality type loved them, but these people found them annoying.”
Some notes about the project.
- At the heart of this project is being able to help others (and me) who say, “I don’t know what to say.”
- I care about helping people figure out words. With a PhD in rhetorical theory, years of writing, of teaching speech and spiritual formation in colleges, and helping people understand the Bible and life in ordinary language.
- This is, then, less about the long process of grief and more about what to say in a moment of speaking. With our fear of death and our fear of public speaking, this moment is pretty scary from a communication perspective. And can be talked about, helpfully, through that lens, too.
- I care for (and about) people at times of death. With our own loss of a daughter, all four of our parents, and six years as a hospital chaplain, I’ve had opportunities to be on both sides of grief support.
- In the first stage of research, I’m trying to learn what people remember about what was said and done. I assume that people will remember some helpful things, some specifically not helpful things, and will have gaps. In this first phase, I’ll be looking for patterns and themes.
- Eventually, I want to be able to offer help for people finding words for different death situations. Although losses aren’t more or less significant, there are differences between the kinds of things to say and do. For example, a stillbirth, a car accident, a death with Alzheimer’s and a murder invite different kinds of response.
- The “risk” is that the project has a present therapeutic element in addition to the gathering of information. Some people have never been asked, have never had the opportunity to talk. At each stage, resources will be available that point outside the project to offer help.
- At this point, this is an un-funded, independent research project. I will be asking for an advisory board to help me with direction. Eventually, funding would be helpful. (For the moment, feel free to provide financial support at sustaining.)