Comfort on the long road of grief

Comforting the recently bereaved is anything but easy. It is difficult to find the right words or even to overcome one’s own speechlessness at someone’s loss. Here are some do’s and don’ts in grief counselling.

“There is nothing we can offer to ease your pain!” These words from someone in her neighbourhood are the ones that comforted Leonore Matouschek the most when she went through the most difficult moment of her life. Shortly before that, her son Frank had died in a traffic accident four days before his sixth birthday.

Not being able to console is comforting? Strange, isn’t it? No, in fact it is a very important insight. Leonore, now 65 years old, has not only been through this herself and knows all about it, but she is also a proven expert. For twenty odd years now she has been active in the field of grief counselling. She also advises and supports the New Apostolic Church Northern and Eastern Germany: she leads grief groups, speaks at seminars, and works as a consultant in project and working committees.

Accepting the loss

“You will see each other in the beyond.” Such and similar consolation attempts are a sore point for Leonore Matouschek, as well-intentioned as they may be. Certainly, this hope is wonderful. However, at a time when the loss of a loved one is raw and very painful, such a comment is perceived as an absolute blow and will silence any outpouring of grief …

Anyone who wants to help the bereaved must first of all understand a central fact: there is a huge gaping hole in the life of this person and there are a large number of emotional states that are acutely felt. “Accepting facts is the most helpful thought when accompanying and counselling the grieving,” Sister Matouschek says.

Sharing one’s inconsolableness

At the beginning of the grieving process, there is always shock and dismay. And it cannot be explained away. Helpful is the kind of love and attention which Leonore Matouschek received from her neighbours following the death of her son.

Those who themselves admit to being inconsolable allow the bereaved the same kind of inconsolable grief. “In such words, we feel the shared dismay and at the same time the permission to mourn,” the grief counsellor explains. In fact, such empathy conveys the following message, “I am with you in your grief.” – “I don’t know what to say,” is a good sentence, and one which a grieving person prefers to the trivial “I know how you feel”.

Permitting grief

“You have to look ahead. Why don’t you take a holiday.” Such suggestions are well-intentioned, but not helpful. “People who are grieving don’t need assignments on how to develop forward-looking strategies.”

It is much more important to allow grieving people to live and show their sometimes contradictory feelings and thoughts in their own way, says Leonore Matouschek. This not only includes tears and inner emptiness, but expressing one’s pain, anger, despair, and even doubts about God’s help and protection. Helpful are those who listen and restrain themselves with evaluations as well as universal cures. Grief is a process of adjusting to a changed life situation. And this process takes time. It takes more than a few words to come to terms with it.

Being there

But it is possible to send a ray of light behind the walls of these dark thoughts. First of all, it takes a little bit of courage: our own helplessness should not prevent us from being there for a bereaved person.

Whether it is an offer of practical help, an opportunity to talk over a cup of tea, going for a walk together, or writing a few lines to convey one’s heartfelt feelings: every gesture counts. What matters here is that it is not important what the person reaching out likes. The focus must be on the thought: what is the emotional state of the bereaved; what will best match his feelings?

“Standing by the bereaved in a loving manner” is what Leonore Matouschek calls it. Not much more is needed to help so that consolation can grow in the heart of the bereaved.

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Andreas Rother
Congregational life