What is the appropriate thing to say to someone whose loved one has died?
It’s a question I pondered after my husband died in 2009 and whenever I have to sign a sympathy card.
I used to think that as a writer, I should have an all-purpose "grief phrase," but no one phrase can cover every situation.
The most important thing to do is to say something that acknowledges the person’s grief, whether it’s through an "I’m so sorry" or an "I’ll never forget the time …"
Too often, Americans avoid mourning, which is the outward expression of grief, according to counselor, educator and author Alan Wolfelt, who spoke to mourners March 29 in a Rochester talk sponsored by several funeral homes and Lifetime Care.
"To integrate grief into your life, it requires that you are touched by what you experience," he said.
Wolfelt uses humor to help people answer such difficult questions as "How are you doing?" In my experience, this question is an honest attempt at reaching out, but it rarely invites the honest answer, "I’m lousy, I don’t sleep and I miss my loved one." Wolfelt said he responds with clinical terms: "I have anhedonia, polyphasic behavior, lethargy of grief and short-term memory loss."
Anhedonia is the inability to take pleasure in things that you once enjoyed, and polyphasic behavior is what happens when you hop from one task to another without finishing a task. Mourners are often lethargic because grief can disrupt sleep and throw off a body’s circadian rhythms, Wolfelt said.
His prescription is for mourners to surround themselves with compassionate, good listeners and to rest, stay hydrated, exercise, and embrace faith and spirituality.
The goal, he said, is relighting a person’s divine spark — that which gives a life meaning and purpose.