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5 Ways to Comfort the Sorrowful

What to say when there are no ‘perfect words’

By Bill Dodds

I’m glad my grandchildren know something about comforting the sorrowful, but I wish they had learned of this work of mercy when they were older.

During one sad six-month period, there were three deaths in our family – their grandmother (my wife, Monica) and two great-grandmothers. These children went through an ordeal of funeral after funeral.

The grief and sadness that come with the death of a loved one are well-known and can be overwhelming, but I would like to address the positive growth that can accompany an awful experience. This is a fruit that, thanks to the Holy Spirit, can blossom in our souls, young and old.

I’ve seen such growth in my daughter, Carrie. I recognize it in myself. I think my grandchildren have developed a greater empathy and sensitivity to the sorrow of others. Carrie doesn’t hesitate to gently and respectfully approach a fellow mom or a teacher or a coach whose loved one has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, or to step forward after news of a death. Much to my surprise, I do the same. My natural shyness disappears. It isn’t just that I can do this, I want to do this.

How to reach out? After my wife’s death, a former classmate emailed me a simple message: “I have an idea of what you’re going through.”

Yes! That’s it.

I have an idea because my own spouse died, but I don’t know exactly what you’re going through. I don’t have the “perfect words” to bring you comfort, but I can acknowledge your pain, your grief, your loss.

Before that awful year and those three deaths in the family, I shied away from those who had experienced a recent loss. I have no doubt my grandchildren did, too. Yet in the early days, weeks, and months after Monica’s death, they saw their own mother grieving and they offered her comfort. I suspect they knew how to do that, in a childlike way, because she had offered them comfort. They learned that tears don’t have to be hidden. And there’s nothing like a good cry.

“The cry bug” is how my grandson, Dominic, wonderfully described it. It just bites you. That insight ties in with these five points written from the point of view of someone who is grieving:

1. Despite the old adage, time doesn’t completely heal all wounds. Grief diminishes but it’s like a chronic condition that I learn to live with, knowing it can flare up at any time.

2. It’s comforting when you admit, “I don’t know what to say.” Tell me you’re sorry he died. Tell me she and I are in your prayers. Tell me a story about her, something wonderful or funny you remember.

3. Don’t be afraid to talk about my loved one just because I may cry. It’s so much worse to have no one say her name. Crying doesn’t bother me. I’ve become a world-class crier. I’m not offended or upset if you send an email or call me on her birthday or our wedding anniversary or the date of her death. I love it!

4. I’m not the same person I was before she died. I live on the same planet but it’s a different world. This huge loss is made up of countless small losses that are a part of my days and nights.

5. You can help by graciously inviting me to gatherings even if I continue to say “no thanks,” or if I cancel out at the last minute. If I do attend, be patient if I seem distant. Even in the middle of a crowd of loved ones, sometimes I’m lonely because, in a very basic way, I am there alone. But your ongoing support and understanding and prayers mean a great deal to me. They continue to make a huge difference as I stumble along. And I’m so very grateful for them, and for you.

Bill Dodds and his late wife, Monica, founded the Friends of St. John the Caregiver, an international Catholic organization that promotes care for family caregivers. His novels include Mildred Nudge: A Widower’s Tale and, for children, My Great-grandfather Turns 12 Today.