Connections: How to help when comforting the grieving

Julie Walker
The Detroit News

Even though I tried saving him by sobbing to Mom and the vet over speakerphone, our sweet Louie T. Walker, a handsome Dachshund who loved his family and naps, died Oct. 30. He was 13.

A friend wanted to comfort me, so she asked to see a photo.

“Oh! He was old,” she said. “Well, that’s good at least.”

It’s reasonable and rational to assume that finding a “bright spot” would comfort. My friend thought losing a 13-year-old dog feels easier than losing a puppy. I woke up grateful every day for my Lou Lou. Still wanted more time with him.

This piece is for people struggling to comfort the grieving. Especially during the holidays, when old wounds feel raw again and new ones feel impossible to survive. I’ve unwillingly become a loss expert, thanks to life. Er, death.

Charlie Walker died in January of 2018 at the age of 64 and his dog, Louie T. Walker, died Oct. 30 at 13 years old. Their family and friends tried to offer comfort, but didn’t always succeed.

I’ve had, so I hear, an unusual amount of loss  for someone my age. I blame my big family and working local jobs with the public for long periods of time. I know tons of people and often get close. Every death hurts. There’s no way to “rank” death but losing my Dad in January of 2018 crippled me for a long while. Still does on the bad days. I describe the pain of losing a parent like childbirth – too awful for words and no way to understand it until it happens to you.

People tried to comfort me, but often I felt annoyed. Dad had mental health struggles. He also was stubborn. I’m stubborn too, so we butted heads. Often. Someone suggested that our “complicated” relationship should make his death easier on me. No way. I guess I hadn’t made it clear in my venting that I also adored my Dad. For those who had complicated relationships with people who die, research shows the inability to resolve that conflict can make the loss feel unbearable.

Julie Walker

I initially felt guilty for feeling annoyed. Worried I felt too sensitive. I read everything I could about grief, sought grief counseling sessions and eventually, a regular therapist. I gleaned tips of “what not to say when people are grieving” based off my experiences, and by talking with a friend who lost her Dad last year at the age of 90; a friend whose toddler had a twin die in the womb; and another friend who lost her Dad suddenly just before Thanksgiving.

One major tip stands out: Avoid a silver lining hunt. Even when death brings comfort, say to an ailing grandparent, it doesn’t make the loss easier. Much of what people say to comfort unintentionally comforts themselves, not the grieving person. Don’t shame someone for feeling sad. Start simple: I’m so sorry about your loss. People who think that everyone is too PC and/or sensitive these days should stop there.

We never get over a death. We just learn to live with a hole in the heart. Our job offering comfort isn’t to drag the grieving from the dark. It’s to crawl in there and let them know they’re not alone.

Twitter: @juliejalopy