Helping a Grieving Person: Articles


I recall viewing a memorable film entitled “Peege.” The main character was an old lady, Peege, a resident in a nursing home. Age and debilitating disease had left this formerly jovial, fun person barely able to function. 

The film portrays the family arriving at Christmas for a visit, which is, to say the least, awkward. They have come with totally inappropriate gifts in the circumstances. No-one knows exactly what to do or to say. Peege herself sits staring blankly into space. Every now and then the producer of the film intersperses scenes from her past to show flashes of what she was like, depicting a very outgoing, high spirited character whom everyone had loved. What a contrast to this shadow of a person whom the family had come to visit that Christmas morning.

Eventually, with their duty done, the family leaves for other festivities. But Peege’s grandson stays behind for a final few minutes. He speaks to her about days gone by, and especially how wonderful she made Christmas for everyone in years long past.  In these few special moments, he tells her how much he appreciates and loves her.

As he speaks, however, Peege seems unresponsive, as if the words were incomprehensible to her. Yet, after her grandson leaves, and as the film ends, the camera closes in on Peege’s face, and there it is for all to see. Just the hint of a smile! She may not have been able to express it, but you can plainly see that these few moments of reminiscence had been meaningful to her.

That film taught me how important it is to reminisce. Those for whom conversations about “today” may be difficult can often still remember “yesterday”. 

Memories are vitally important, yet often neglected. In this culture where we are frequently encouraged NOT to think or talk about death and dying, this statement is crucial:

Grief invites us to REMEMBER, not to FORGET. 

Sadly, the attitude seems to be that if we pretend that everything is normal, somehow we won’t have to face the harsh realities that are part of a life-threatening situation. People somehow decide NOT to talk about it, and act as if nothing has happened.

But something has happened. Circumstances have meant that life has changed, and indeed will never be the same again. How can we come to terms with, and accept the changes that have occurred, ones which we may not like or did not want, but which are reality, nonetheless?

Memories can help us come to terms with a situation in several ways.

  1. Retelling the story can help to make it believable. Often when we hear bad news or some crisis happens, our initial reaction is to say, “I don’t believe it.” Such is the shocking impact that our mind seems unable to absorb it. Every time we hear the story again or have it confirmed in some way, it becomes more real, more believable.
  1. Memories help us put things into perspective. When we are in a difficult situation, we are inclined to think only of that situation. All Peege could see was her current situation and the misery associated with it. Her grandson helped her to see another picture, a much happier one.

Memories help us to broaden our outlook and see that sometimes there is another way to view things. These may be difficult days, but there have been other days, good and better days. Reliving the memories of those days helps bring the darkness of these days into a different light. What is happening is bad, and if the person dies it will be tragic. But this should not define their life. Just because a bad thing has happened does not mean that the whole of life is bad.

Helping the individual remember the better days does not deny the present reality; it merely serves to put it in a softer context. Life is difficult right now, but it has not been all bad. Remember when this happened? Do you recall that happy moment, or that humorous incident? These better memories help to put life into perspective, good and bad, happy and sad, enabling the person to come to a better place of reconciling the fact that “that’s life.”

As Soren Kierkegaard says, “We live life forward, but we understand it backward.”

For the listener also, reminiscence has many rewards. Not only is there the pleasure of being helpful to someone, there is the satisfaction of getting close to them and learning and growing from their wisdom and experiences.

Questions that enable Memory Work                            

(Share this exercise with the significant people in your life.)

  • What was it like for you growing up? Who was your best friend? What kind of things were you interested in as a child?
  • What are some of the happy times you remember?
  • What are some of the difficult times you have had?
  • What were some of the humorous incidents you recall?
  • Describe your relationship with … . How did you meet? Recall and describe your favorite memory of your early relationship
  • What was it that kept you together?
  • List three or more important days you shared.
  • List any bad days you shared together.
  • Complete the following sentences:
  • “I’ll never forget when we … ”
  • “I’ll never forget when you … ”
  • “I’ll never forget when we first …”
  • What is the most difficult part of this present situation for you?
  • How does it feel to remember these things now?

Leaving a Legacy

It is important for those who will survive to have memories they can relive after the person is no longer here. People in a life threatening situation are often concerned about leaving a legacy which children, as well as friends and family will remember for years to come.

A meaningful legacy is far more than money or material things. It is primarily the memories we have of times spent together. These can be enhanced by thoughtful investment in tangible things like letters, scrapbooks, photographs, audio tapes and mementos to reinforce the memories.

My grandparents used to tell us stories of their early lives. One would regularly tell stories of his military service, and how he was wounded in action during the war. Every time he told the story, we would groan, but many times in the years since he died, I wished I had recorded it, or written down the details I have now forgotten. My paternal grandfather went to Pittsburg in the early 1900’s and worked in the Carnegie Steel Mill. What an adventure it must have been in those days to leave Scotland and set sail, not knowing if he would ever return. How I wish I could have recorded his voice telling these tales.

I would like to have asked my Dad what each age was like for him. Imagine getting to read some of his school report cards. I know he traveled quite a bit before he married my Mum, but I am not sure where. How did they meet, and what made them decide they were right for each other. I wish I had a video of my Mum talking about some of these things or giving some words of advice. I’d like some of the recipes she worked with, and so many of the things we took so much for granted.

All too quickly the opportunity to learn about family history is gone. Things are mentioned but we just don’t pay enough attention, until it is too late.

By creating legacies, you give your loved ones gifts they can treasure for generations to come, even though they may not seem to appreciate them just yet.

  • If time allows, organize your photographs in albums, and record audio tapes to be played while people are looking at each one.
  • Write letters to your loved ones telling them how much they mean to you.
  • Make a “Remember” scrapbook in which you place artifacts or write recollections of things such as holidays, life lessons, or achievements.
  • Designate jewelry or other significant possessions to be given to people on special significant occasions. Maybe there is something a child or grandchild could receive on graduation or marriage with a hand written note from you.
  • Make a CD or DVD telling your life story, including your memories of growing up, teenage exploits, adult experiences, accomplishments, philosophies and memories. That way you will live on and be more real to generations who might not remember you.
  • Leave a DVD, or a letter which will express your feelings and give encouragement that can be given to the special people in your life long after you are gone.
  • Make a DVD to be played at future events such as a child or grandchild’s wedding or graduation. Decide at what future family events you would like to say something to someone special.
  •  You may not be there physically, but with your message, you can participate.