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Commentary: Comforting those who are grieving

Carol Bradley Bursack, Minding Our Elders columnist.

Dear Carol: My dad died after years of living with a cancer diagnosis. My mom, my siblings and I are all going through our separate grief processes. I spend a lot of time helping Mom, yet I, too, am grieving, which seems to be overlooked by Mom's friends. I can understand that, even though it hurts. What's most strange, though, is that while we are all irritated by different things that people trying to comfort us do, what we agree on is that people either can't or won't take time to listen to us voice our pain. Could you lay out some rules for helping people who are grieving? — MW.

Dear MW: My condolences to you for your dad's struggle and eventual passing. As you note, this is a tough time for your mom, your siblings and certainly for you.

You show wonderful insight when you say that people mean well, however many would rather do something — anything — than be made uncomfortable by listening to you express your grief. This is human but regrettable.

Also, as you wisely note, everyone grieves differently. What comforts one person may annoy another. This makes it impossible for any friend or colleague to get it right every time. However, per your request, here are a few ground rules that apply to most circumstances.

As noted, listen to the person who is grieving. Most people want to talk about their loved one. The grieving person should be in charge and we who want to comfort should listen to them express their grief. Be sensitive to body language, as well. Sensitivity to both is how we will learn what we can do to further help.

Don't remark that you know how the grieving person feels. You don't. Simple tell them how sorry you are. If you know them, and their body language shows that they'd welcome a hug, provide that physical comfort, too.

If you were friends with the person who died, eventually share good memories of your times together. Relate funny or touching experiences. Talk about how your friend will be missed.

Never imply that the person grieving will "get over" this death. People eventually learn to live with the absence of their loved one, but that is different than getting over their loss.

If you are close to people who are grieving, don't forget that they need comfort long after the funeral. Ask from time to time how they are doing because they will still have needs even if that need is simply to talk about their loss

I've listed a few general thoughts since one column can't allow space for an in-depth view. For more ideas, feel free to read my past columns and articles on Search for the words "grief" and "grieving."

Again, MW, I offer my sympathy. Your whole family is grieving and will for a long time. Don't forget about the option of grief counseling — individual or group — if you need more long-term support.