A person’s death is hard to process, whether someone close to you, a public figure you’ve admired for a long time, or a victim of violence that you just heard about. There is no right way to mourn as grief comes with many emotions—often in waves that last for uncertain amounts of time—and our relationships with others are unique. Even expected deaths due to declining health can be a struggle as we realize a person is now gone forever. Our minds fill with whys, what ifs, and what nows.
Humanists are honest about death and understand the importance of living our one life to the fullest while we’re together on Earth. People telling us our loved ones are “in a better place” or that their death was “part of God’s plan” doesn’t reassure us, in fact it might frustrate us more. We prefer to focus on how he lived, how she impacted others, and what work they leave for us to continue. This is why humanist ceremonies are a form of storytelling made up of readings and music important to the deceased and their loved ones, memory sharing, and silent reflection. Sometimes we incorporate religious traditions that bring us solace like lighting candles or incense, washing and covering the body, and taking turns adding items to the site such as dirt, flowers, stones, and so on.
While ceremonies (both in person and online) offer an opportunity to celebrate a person’s life and say goodbye together, we must continue to show up for each other throughout the grieving process. Here are some effective ways to support people in mourning:
Share love and appreciation to reassure people that they’re not alone and you’re processing the death with them.
“She will be missed and I will always cherish the time we had together.”
“He is no longer in pain.” This is helpful if the deceased had a stressful or long battle with health issues. Survivors may feel guilt for not being able to do more or for continuing to live, so help them focus on the future.
“It sucks that they died.” Let’s be honest and give space for people to sit in their negative feelings without trying to find the positive. Let’s acknowledge that we want more time with people we care about, and we don’t like it when that’s not possible.
“I know you had a really difficult relationship with them.” Sometimes it’s a relief when an unkind or abusive person dies. People may feel guilty that they aren’t sad, weren’t able to mend their relationship, or can’t find nice things to say about the deceased; it’s nice to reassure them that they don’t need to lie to you.
Provide emotional care and physical assistance to help people recognize they don’t need to do everything on their own, especially not all at once.
“I’m here for you and your family.”
“I’m happy to help as needed.” Or “please let me know how I may support you.” To lessen the burden on others to determine what’s needed and what you (and others) can do, suggest particular tasks you’re able to take on that might be needed. Perhaps you could do chores, assist with arrangement planning, provide meals or supplies, handle childcare, or distract them with entertainment.
“Let’s breathe together.” Yes, sometimes reminding people to focus on breathing is helpful to regulate all the emotions and thoughts running wild within.
Discuss memories of and lessons from the deceased that you will always cherish. Share stories people may or may not know to paint a fuller picture of the loved one’s life. Reflect on how the person shaped people’s values and how you plan to continue their work. Felix Adler, founder of the Ethical Culture movement, said: “The dead are not dead if we have loved them truly. In our own lives we can give them a kind of immortality. Let us arise and take up the work they have left unfinished.”
“They will live on in our memories and forever in our hearts.”
“I remember the time…,” “I’ll always appreciate how…,” “I loved joining you both for …,” “He taught me…,” “She used to say…,” and “They always cared about…” are a few prompts to try.
Listen to people in mourning without responding or be silent with them. Sometimes there’s no right thing to say because no words are needed. Silence may feel awkward these days as we rely on telephones and videoconferences to connect during COVID, but it can be more comforting than words. Let them cry or cry together. Just be there for them and with them.
Like the pandemic, grief doesn’t have a clear expiration date. We will miss loved ones during holidays and social gatherings. We will remember deceased celebrities and cultural icons while enjoying or lauding their work. We will honor the memory of victims of violence to share their story and protect others from such injustices. Value the time we have together and let’s stay connected while we have time.