Q: Very recently, our next-door neighbors’ 17-year-old son was killed in a car accident. I am constantly aware of how blessed I am in my life and I remain grateful every day for all that I have and who I am becoming. How can I help this family who is experiencing such pain? While I believe that good things come out of bad, this seems like a situation where nothing good could ever happen. — Nicole
A: Dear Nicole,
Thank you for your strong caring in the midst of this tragedy. You sound courageously willing to place yourself within a stream of grieving. You already offer a loving touch by looking squarely at your own feelings of helplessness. Simply knowing that you cannot “fix” anything gives you an open, compassionate presence which will make a difference to your neighbors in this difficult time.
I shared your question with a friend of mine whose son died unexpectedly, and she affirms that, in her experience, gentle presence helps the most: “If we cry, cry with us. If we say irreverent things to lighten the mood, let us. I think the hardest thing for other people is the need to make things better. No one can. Your loved one cannot be given back to you. The pain is excruciating. Recognizing this, what can one say? Other than, ‘What do you need?’ or ‘Would you like to talk?’ or ‘What physical things can I do to lighten your load?’ Mostly, we are aware of sincerity, and it is remembered and appreciated.”
As you offer a willingness to listen, bear in mind that just about the whole gamut of feelings may come up: anger, numbness, shock, appreciation, disbelief, humor, love. You don’t need to do anything to soften or change what arises. Accepting as natural a wide range of emotions provides essential solace.
You may also want to bear in mind that there tends to be a huge burst of help within the first two or so weeks after a tragedy. After that – as friends and family get overwhelmed and need to get back to their ordinary lives — the bereaved may feel deserted right at the moment when some of their shock is wearing off and they hurt worse than ever. Of course, returning to “ordinary life” is not an option for those who lost the loved one. So companionship over the longer haul often proves to be especially healing.
In the midst of providing empathy, don’t forget to tend to your own needs. Your young neighbor’s death underscores the Inca prayer: “O, for how short a time you have lent us to each other.” The feelings of gratefulness you describe in your letter may be interlaced with feelings of vulnerability. Receive these as a gift. They will lead you to a fresh discovery of the preciousness of life and of relationships. And that is an unmistakable good which awareness of death offers us.
Patricia Campbell Carlson