How We Can Be of Comfort to the Grieving


I'm not a school psychologist or a mental health expert of any sort. I'm not a parent. I'm not up on any high horse telling anyone how to act.

But I am a teacher. Maybe not in the conventional sense, but people tell me on a regular basis that they learn from me. So let's go with that. If one person finds this column enlightening and helps another person because of it, I will have used my writing gift and precious space on this website wisely today.

I want to talk about grieving people and the people who long to offer them comfort.

As a human being who has been on both sides of the grieving process and who has had her own stumbles in it, I want to share some thoughts and observations from that often precarious place. I feel like I owe it to the community of Newtown, Conn., to do something meaningful that might have long-range effects.

With funerals for victims in that town already happening and others being planned, the rawness, the numbness and the disbelief are still reverberating. They're still feeling like they might wake up from a nightmare at any moment. There are and will continue to be flowers, teddy bears, food, outpouring from strangers on the Internet, media swarming, beautiful cards and people in and out of the house. The sentiments expressed will be sincere and well-meaning.

And then will come the silence. Real life.

While there is absolutely nothing anyone can do to alter the fact that these people, these survivors who lost children or extraordinary adults in their lives, will never be who they were again, what the rest of us can do is keep our word. If we say "anything you need" and "if you need an ear" and we mean it, we will mean it beyond the first two weeks after it happens. We will check in regularly. Two months from now, five months from now, they may need us to listen. A year from now, they still may need that promised ear.

We also should not assume that because someone has a spouse they have a built-in support system. Even in the best marriages, one person is going to possibly prefer withdrawal while another finds talking it out beneficial. That's where outsiders can prove invaluable. Not only do we give the person who needs to talk an outlet, but we may be easing up or staving off some tension in their primary relationship.

When it comes to the content of our feedback, if there is any needed at all, I highly advise listening closely and being observant of body language. For example, I've noticed that because so many of the people who died in Newtown on Dec. 14 were children, lots of people have been posting sentiments that bring in a belief system that includes angels. While I personally derive great comfort from that and many others do, too, it would be most compassionate to be vigilant about gauging how that's sitting with the person we're directing it to. Does it seem to soften their expression or make them stiffen?

There will be so much swirling around Newtown the next few years -- grief, survivors' guilt, healing. As badly as we may wish our dear friend will be the person she was before she lost her child, it won't happen. We must mourn that as well. So the consequences of a gunman gone berserk ripples well beyond the empty seat at the dinner table or the endless 'why' that spins through survivors' minds. His actions can take out or drastically alter relationships.

Figuring out how to be with that, well, there's no rule book. We're not mind readers. We can ask and even press things if our gut says that might help, but we should also be prepared for a sad or angry response and not take it personally. And not be dissuaded from trying again. That comes from a place of confidence and care.

As time goes on -- and this is very important -- learn to respond in a positive way to the mention of the deceased person's name. While it might make us uncomfortable to hear that this song on the radio reminds our friend of his beloved daughter, we must not glaze over or appear uncomfortable. He will sense it and shut down.

This is a big deal to those who are grieving and may be for a long time. It soothes them to say their son's name. It soothes them to hear you say their son's name. They will often light up at the mention. Sometimes they see it as a rare welcome invitation to talk about this person they can't get out of their mind.

It may be one less time they escape into solitude to play music that lets them go to their sad or reflective place. They've come to almost see that as a luxury, as a part of themselves that they can indulge to keep a loved one alive in their memory. If we're listening, we can gauge that and be a loving source of solace for someone, and not even necessarily someone we know well.

The significance of hearing people, goodness, how often do I write about that?

It took me so long to learn it. I’m still working on it. Because it's crucial.

Hear that.

Nancy Colasurdo is a practicing life coach and freelance writer. Her Web site is and you can follow her on Twitter @nancola. Please direct all questions/comments to