Springfield Catholic grief therapist authors new book to help people grieve healthier and better comfort those who lost loved ones
By ANDREW HANSEN
Losing a loved one is painful. How we handle that loss depends on each person. But are we grieving in a healthy way? What should we do if the pain is still just as apparent today than when the loss occurred? And what about comforting others who have lost a loved one — what should we be saying and not saying?
Because it can be so challenging to handle grief well, whether it is our own grief or someone else going through a loss, Dr. Dee Stern of Springfield published a book in January to help. The book — Comforting the bereaved through listening and positive responding, What are the bereaved trying to tell us? — tackles a variety of topics from how we can better deal with a loss of a loved one to better understanding what someone who has lost a loved one is feeling.
Dr. Stern’s credentials on this topic are comprehensive. She has a doctorate in psychology, has a master’s degree in psychology and pastoral studies, is a licensed clinical professional counselor, a certified grief therapist, and a certified hospital chaplain. She is also a part-time parish/bereavement minister at the Church of the Little Flower in Springfield where she is a parishioner, and she also a chaplain at HSHS St. John’s Hospital where she facilitates three grief support groups.
Catholic Times Editor Andrew Hansen interviewed Stern to get advice for all of us.
As a society, we don’t seem to be handling loss too well. What are we doing wrong?
A century ago, people were born, lived, and died in the same communities. Everyone in the community knew everyone. Neighbors watched children grow up, get married and have their own children. Then as they grew older, they died and were buried. When someone in the neighborhood died, everyone knew it, and it affected the whole community. Today, we don’t seem to have that same connection. When someone dies, we may not know them or perhaps even make an effort to contact the family of the deceased. That support that used to be there, today is just not present.
Today, people are more involved in a “me and I” attitude and spend more time texting, emailing, and calling each other rather than talking face to face with the bereaved to offer their sympathies. Why does this happen? Could it be people don’t know what to say or are afraid the bereaved will talk about their loved one and begin to cry and others will not know what to do or say to them? We are not in a society today where a lot of people lend a hand to their neighbor, but rather care only about themselves and not the consequences that occur because of their decisions.
What advice do you have for people so when a loss of some kind comes, they are better prepared to grieve in a healthier way?
If you are talking about a death, or any kind of a loss, it is good to have a plan. In fact, have plan A, B, and maybe C. If A doesn’t work, try B or C. For a death, have a good insurance plan, a will, and power of attorney for health care and finances. Have a funeral home in mind, a prearrangement for a funeral, cremation, or grave side burial. If you have a lot of things already taken care of before a death, it is much easier on the family left behind to deal with all these decisions.
As for as grieving, everyone grieves differently and what works for one person doesn’t mean it will work for another person. Sometimes, it helps to fall back on what helped in the past to get you through a stressful situation. If you have something that has helped you in the past, it could very well help you again when a death occurs. No one can predict when a death will occur, even if the doctor says the person has only hours to live, they could live for weeks, months, and even years. It is also important to have someone to talk to about what you are experiencing — not to get advice, but simply to support and listen to you.
There is the saying “time heals all wounds.” Is there truth to that?
The saying you are referring to, “time heals all wounds,” is not really true. It is not time that heals wounds, it is what you do with your time. If you do nothing, your healing will take much longer. Think of a cut. If you don’t take care of it, it could get infected, and you could have multiple problems. However, if you do take care of the cut, healing takes place. Grief is like that. If you don’t deal with it, there can be many complications. If you talk with someone who will listen and not give you advice, you will be helped as you grieve.
What if someone feels like they just can’t get over a loss despite it happening a long time ago. Does that mean they are grieving wrong?
First of all, you never get “get over a death,” rather you get through it. Remember, everyone grieves differently and what works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for someone else. It does not mean that someone is grieving wrong if they are struggling with grief even if has been a long time ago.
Going back to the last question, what has the person been doing to get through the loss of their loved one. If they have not been doing anything and thought they could grieve without help, they may need to talk with someone or get some help from a grief therapist or even attend a grief group. However, there is no time limit on grief. Grief takes as long as it takes. For some people, grief takes several years, for others, a lifetime. Remember, it is in the telling of the story that the healing takes place. In other words, when you talk about your loved one, healing takes place, but when you keep all that inside, your healing takes longer and could have complications along the way.
Part of your book addresses better understanding what someone who has lost a loved one is feeling. What should one say and not say to a person who has lost a loved one to comfort them?
There are so many things not too say to the bereaved that usually causes them pain and a great deal of hurt and that they may never forget. It is interesting that most people remember the negative things people say to them and not always the positive things, because the negative things are always so hurtful.
Some examples of what not to say, are these real comments that were made to the bereaved:
- “Don’t you feel better to know that God needed another flower in His garden, and He chose your child?”
- “You are young enough to have another baby anyway.” (This person suffered a miscarriage.)
- “Aren’t you glad your baby died, because you don’t know what it would have grown up to be like.”
- “You are young enough that you can find another fish in the ocean.”
- “Now that Bob died, you can have some free time and not have to go over to the nursing home, so we can go shopping again.”
- “It was God’s will that you daughter killed herself.”
- “He was always in pain, and was going to die anyway, but now he is in a better place.”
- “It was only an animal; you can always get another one.”
- “You have to get over it, and stop being so sad all the time.”
Things to say to the bereaved:
- “I was so sorry to hear that you husband died. He was a wonderful man.”
- “If you ever need to talk, I am a good listener.”
- “You and your family are in my thoughts and prayers.”
- “I can’t begin to imagine how you must feel since your wife died.”
- “I will always remember her smile. She could light up any room.”
- “Your son was a wonderful guy, and I will never forget him.”
- “Your husband was sure a hard worker and everyone really liked him at work.”
- “Your mother was such a wonderful person and always so welcoming to everyone she met.”
The bereaved want to hear positive things and stories and memories about their loved one who died, not anything negative.
If a friend or family member is going through a loss, what actions should we do and what should we not do to help that person grieve better?
A good thing to do to help the bereaved is to listen to them and allow them to tell their story over and over again. Another thing is to mention their loved one in a conversation or relate a memory or story to them of their loved one. This is very important and helps them realize their loved one has not been forgotten.
Something that you should not do is to give unsolicited advice to them. Also, do not rush them through their grief and don’t push them to do something they are not ready to do such as go out to eat, go to a party, go to a grief group, or get help, etc.
Never ask them how they are because many times they really don’t know themselves. Rather, ask them how their week is going.
How important are rituals to help people grieve better?
Rituals are important because they bring God, family, and the deceased together. Special prayers can be said, and people can offer their sympathies to the family in a quiet and sacred environment. It is a time to remember and reflect on the life of the deceased and a chance to say goodbye to a friend, family member, or colleague and tell the bereaved family stories and their memories of the deceased that they might not know about.
Sadly, many Catholics are choosing to not have a funeral Mass. From the perspective of a healthier grieving process, how important is that funeral Mass?
I believe a funeral Mass is really important, especially if the deceased was someone who went to church and was devoted to God and the Church. If the body is not present, it is called a Memorial Mass, which is also important, especially if the deceased or family has requested it. (These Masses) are a time of prayer, remembering, and reflecting. Before or after the Mass and the burial, it is a good time to talk with family and friends or colleagues of the deceased and tell them stories or memories about the deceased.
For some, there might be the inclination to “show strength” by not crying or keeping things bottled up after suffering a loss. Can that be harmful?
Not everyone cries when there is a death, yet there are some people who cannot stop crying, while others cannot seem to cry. That is OK because that is where you are at that particular time. It does not mean something is wrong with you. However, sometimes when you least expect it, tears will come. It could happen at any time, now or months later.
When someone is grieving, there seems to always be someone who thinks the bereaved should be strong. That is not true. Your loved one has died and now you are on your own. When a death occurs, your whole body can be depleted —physically, mentally, and socially — and for some, spiritually. Sometimes, people tell the bereaved to be strong for their children and not cry in front of them. That is so wrong! You cannot be strong for others when you are grieving. You must first take care of yourself, then others. Remember in an airplane when the mask is lowered for oxygen, you are to put the mask on your face first, then your child. If you are not OK, you cannot help others. It is OK to cry in front of your family because it gives them permission to cry with you instead of keeping that inside and being afraid to cry in front of you.
To those who are bereaved, never apologize for how you feel. It is not you that is concerned about strength, it is everyone around you. They simply do not know what to say or do with you when you are sad. So, down the road when you are able, take some of that control back and tell those around you what you need and want from them. It may be just to listen to you or for a hug, or a shoulder to cry on. Only you know what you need. Do not allow others to tell you how you should feel or what you should do, because it is up to you.
To purchase Dr. Stern’s book, Comforting the bereaved through listening and positive responding, what are the bereaved trying to tell us?, go to archwaypublishing.com.