Acknowledgement of Loss Most Helpful to Mourners

In "How To Help Friends in Mourning," Megan O'Rourke reviews the results of an earlier Slate survey on grief, pinpointing what bereaved people themselves said about their needs.

The most surprising aspect of the results is how basic the expressed needs were, and yet how profoundly unmet many of these needs went. Asked what would have helped them with their grief, the survey-takers talked again and again about acknowledgement of their grief. They wanted recognition of their loss and its uniqueness; they wanted help with practical matters; they wanted active emotional support. What they didn't want was to be offered false comfort in the form of empty platitudes.

The survey results emphasized the following:

  • Bereaved people do not care for (and sometimes feel hurt by) the stock phrases commonly offered by others, for example "I know how you feel"; "It's all for the best"; "Time heals all wounds"; "It was God's plan."
  • Meaningful rituals and memorial activities, both formal (funerals, wakes) and informal (private gatherings, scattering ashes), were judged as highly important and comforting.
  • People in mourning benefit from others following their lead. "The way to help someone grieving is as much about context as it is about content. Being sensitive to where you are and what the grieving person needs in the moment is paramount."
  • Offering -- or simply implementing -- concrete assistance was deemed to be much more helpful than the standard, "Just let me know what I can do." There is the caveat that mourners sometimes want to be left alone, so sensitivity is a must.
  • Acknowledging the death was reported to be one of the most helpful things for bereaved people, through just a phone call or a card and especially by not shying away from speaking of it when in their presence. It is valuable to recognize that there has been a loss, that it is unique and meaningful, and that the mourner needs -- and deserves -- the time and attention necessary to grieve the loss.

Following Megan O'Rourke's series on grief for Slate, the magazine published a survey on the topic, to which 8,000 people responded within in a week. The results of the survey were reported this April in "What Is Grief Really Like?" The articles in the original series included: