I received this note from 20 year-old Maeve last evening…
Hello, my name is Maeve. I am 20 and I just recently lost my aunt to cancer. She was the mother to four children, two sets of twins. The older two and girls, aged 13. The younger two are a girl and boy, aged 12. I worry about them knowing the struggles and pain they are enduring and will endure. I am traveling tomorrow (Friday) to see them and to attend my aunt’s funeral (Saturday). I am not sure what I should say to them, what will resonate or what will not sound genuine, so I look to you for guidance on this tough time. Thank you for all you do. All the best.
My Dearest Maeve,
I can’t imagine the pain you are enduring just now having experienced the death of your beloved Aunt, more than likely at a rather young age herself. And to have four small children who will grieve their mother’s death, is tragic as well.
When death strikes our life, whether it is anticipatory, as in the case of cancer and illness, or sudden, as in the case of murder or suicide, the finality of it all is still jarring and fills us with struggle to know what the right thing to do is when we help our fellow mourners.
First of all, may I say, that for a young woman of your age to reach out to me in her own grief, seeking answers as to how best to help her cousins in ‘their’ grief, tells me you are an amazingly compassionate woman. And because of this character trait that you possess, I am certain you will exude deep empathy and care for them.
But there are a few things you may wish to know.
◊ Every child (and adult) grieves in a different manner.
So it will be unlikely that each of your cousins will deal with this in the same way. For example, one may wish to be pensive and sit alone to deal with it. Another may be the gracious host to greet those attending the services. Another may wish to give the eulogy as their act of remembrance, while another may wish to write notes and tuck them into the casket.
◊ What you say and how you touch a person at this time can be anchored in their mind for a very long time.
When we are in a highly emotional state, sometimes subtle things stay with us. So it’s important to be careful with our words.
Well wishers who attend the services and funeral sometimes think it is their job to come up with some ‘pat’ phrase which will ultimately make them feel better but actually causes the grieving person more harm than good.
Phrases like “It was God’s will” or “Well at least she’s not suffering any more” or “At least she’s at peace” or “God never closes a door without opening a window” or “Just give it to the Lord” or “Everything happens for a reason” or “It’ll get easier with time” all leave me with the horrible inclination to smack someone. Sorry…
Maeve, the most appropriate thing to say are words that cannot sting. Words like, “I’m so sorry.” “I can’t imagine what’s you’re going through.” “I wish I could take away the pain.” “I’m going to miss her.”
Speak from your heart. Don’t try to make it perfect for the other person because you can’t. This is one thing you absolutely cannot fix. You don’t have any control over the death of your Aunt, nor over how your cousins and other relatives will feel, but you do have wisdom to not make it worse.
◊ Be with them.
I know this sounds like such a simple thing, but the most powerful thing you can do when someone has died is to actually be present with those who are mourning. And that includes you.
Spend time together in silence. Not saying anything may feel strange at first because you feel the need to fill in the gaps of silence but don’t. Let the pain be present. Let the moment go where it’s going to go.
Let the sorrow be felt. Let the tears come. Don’t try to hold them back. Don’t try to be someone you’re not. Don’t try to make it all right in some manner, because you just can’t.
Allow whatever is going to happen, happen. Have the faith that each of your cousins will have the experience they personally need to have to deal with their Mother’s death.
But by you being genuine and kind and loving, they will always remember your compassion. They will always remember how you took the time to travel so far to be with them at one of the most devastating times in their life.
So ultimately, my dear Maeve, it’s not the words as much as it’s about the love. The care. The tenderness. Your presence.
Attend to their needs. Ask them if you can get them anything. Bring them water at the funeral home. Make life easier for them when you can.
◊ Talk aloud about their Mother.
When you all get together for a meal, or back at the house, don’t be afraid to bring up her name out loud and speak about wonderful memories you may have experienced with your Aunt. Even though folks may cry, it’s ok. Nothing is more precious than sharing stories which will make others feel better.
“Do you remember when Aunt and I did this?” “Do you remember when you and your Mom did that?” “I will always remember when Aunt gave me that beautiful bracelet for Christmas.”
◊ Lastly, share your grief, too.
It’s perfectly fine to say things like “I will miss her so much” or “I wished we had lived closer so I could have spent more time with all of you” or “I’m glad she was my Aunt, she was a magnificent person”.
Remember, Maeve, as much as you want to be there for your cousins, you are grieving also. Feel your feelings, too. Give yourself permission to grieve, also.