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The Priceless Sympathy Gift - A Gift of Service, of Time, of Hope: Interview with Robert A. Neimeyer, Ph.D.

by Polly Giantonio

 "Chatting" - image by Giuseppe Milo

Image by Giuseppe Milo*

One situation many of us face is what to offer someone who just lost a loved one. It’s a delicate interaction and one we can feel very uncomfortable about. Yet we want to reach out. In researching various avenues for a blog on gifts for the bereaved, I came upon the website of Robert A. Neimeyer, Ph.D. I was drawn to the poetry section of the site, and to the tender but keen sensitivity toward loss conveyed through his words. As I explored other pages on Dr. Neimeyer’s site, I realized his expertise in the field of bereavement and issues of loss.

For writers of poetry, sensitivity to the surrounding world is expressed sometimes exclusively in poetic form. Dr. Neimeyer, however, extends his sensitivity to the larger community through his extensive body of research and daily encounters with clients.

The following brief interview with Dr. Neimeyer was conducted on October 30, 2015. He highlights the most priceless sympathy gift we can give to the bereaved - that of service.

Friends and family of the bereaved often wonder what gift to give or if there’s a way to help out during the period of acute grief. What sort of attention would you say could be given to the bereaved?

I believe we can respond by showing we care and that the bereaved matters. For example, we can assist with routine tasks, taking the trash and recycling out, picking up kids from school, running errands or dropping off a meal for the family. These little gestures are really acts of meaning, which say, in essence, “You do matter.” These actions speak volumes. We can compassionately enter the reality of their world that has been shattered by loss, and join them. We can ask ourselves what we might need in this situation. Our research shows that this type of support can be more meaningful than any words of consolation we say. Through our gestures of kindness, sometimes backed by words and a willingness to listen, we convey that we are there for the bereaved.

Many people ask what to say – in person – to someone who has just lost a loved one. Sometimes it’s an awkward encounter – the person wanting to express consolation, or perhaps wanting to make a comment that fits the one who died, or telling a joke to cheer them up, only to find the bereaved is offended. What do you recommend?

Meet the bereaved where she is. She rarely needs me to cheer her up. She needs someone who meets her at the relevant emotional place of desperation or hope. It matters much less what I say than what I’m willing to hear. Ask more questions and give fewer answers. A simple question like, “How are you doing today?” provides an allowance that today might be different than yesterday. Or, “How are you doing with this loss?” Depending on your relationship with the grieving person, you may ask more probing questions.

The bereaved often appreciate an audience for their stories. Be willing to spontaneously listen to stories about the lost loved one, and if you have one about the person, share your own that conveys what that person and that loss means to you.

At our university, we have a secretary whose child died about two years ago. At Halloween people in the office were sharing pictures and stories about their kids and their costumes. This secretary accessed a photo of her own child dressed for trick-or-treating when the child was living. Suddenly the office fell silent, as if the other secretaries had just seen a real ghost. But this was an opportunity to simply say, “How much you must miss him,” or simply, “He looks so sweet in that outfit,” just true and human responses that invite more conversation and a chance to share spontaneous stories that can include everyone.

You’ve touched on what we can do and say. What gifts can we give, then, to those who are mourning?

Give the gift of time, the gift of shared remembrances or an audience to hear the stories.

Give the gift of service. Perform routine tasks for someone whose nights are sleepless, whose energies are diminished.

Give the gift of hope. We can stand with them in the hope that it won’t always be so hard without giving the cotton candy consolation that “Time heals all wounds.” In the end, it is what we do with the time that matters, and that usually involves honoring our love for the deceased, and reconstructing a life of meaning going forward.

In a blog post you mention that your research indicates that a worsening of grief related symptoms is a common phenomenon as the second anniversary of the death approaches. Would you comment on this? That seems to contrast with the familiar idea that “time heals all wounds.”

We do find that, and yes that’s true. Usually most people try to be considerate of and to engage the bereaved for the first year of their loss and on the 1st anniversary of the death. And there are some religions that formally recognize the loss and its importance with various rituals through the first year of bereavement.

But after the 1st year, the recognition fades in most communities and traditions. So people can be a lot more alone in year 2 than in year 1. But for the grieving person, the turning of the calendar page doesn’t equate to the lowering of grief. Having friends who “stay the course,” and continue to recognize and support them through a hard transition, are ultimately the greatest gift we can be given in our bereavement.

In an earlier response you mention the relationship between hope and reconstructing a life of meaning. How difficult is it for a bereaved to “craft a new puzzle piece to fit the hole” left by the death of a loved one and find meaning at a time of great loss? And what do you do to help them with this process?

Good question. On the one hand, I never suggest directly to the bereaved that life is or should be meaningful, or how they should find meaning in their lives in the wake of a loved one’s death. Such questions of meaning emerge naturally, when they do (and they do, with great frequency). But they emerge when the bereaved feel a need and readiness to engage them. My role is sitting with them in the painful ambiguity of their loss, and I adjust what I sense is required to what the person actually needs in the moment.

I suppose what I am saying is that the grief itself has meaning. We don’t need to construct a life meaning for the bereaved. As my friend Kathy Shear says, grief is the way we love people after they die. But sometimes the grief can also be a trap, one that blocks forward motion. I therefore listen to what is noble and loving in the person’s sharing, but I also want to listen to what I recognize as complications that are layered in the grief.

Basically, I ask myself, “Is the person struggling with challenges?” and look for the answers in two specific areas.

(1) How is the person struggling around the event story of the death itself? For instance, if the loved one died of COPD, is the bereaved replaying the person’s struggle to breathe? If it was a sudden death like a heart failure or a violent death, is the bereaved struggling with the details of what happened? In all of these cases, are they continually asking, “Why, why would God let this happen? And what did I do that I shouldn’t have done, or failed to do that I should have done?”   This anguished search for answers suggests that they are grappling with regret and with making sense of the manner of death itself.

A second meaning making process revolves around (2) the back story of the relationship with the lost loved one. How is the bereaved person contending with the sense of separation from the deceased? No longer is the lost loved one joining the person in bed at night, or at breakfast in the morning. In all of these daily situations and a hundred others, the bereaved is looking for a way to convert a relationship of close physical attachment to a relationship based on spiritual or psychological connection.

The question becomes, “How do I reconstruct a (changed) life with meaning?” This idea of meaning making is broad and deep, as it implies asking, “What is the meaning of my life now in light of this death? Or, does my life have meaning? Does it matter?”

[ End of Interview ]

We appreciate the time Dr. Neimeyer generously afforded us, and his continued efforts in the area of bereavement. Readers who are interested in more information about Dr. Neimeyer and his publications are encouraged to visit