Doing and Saying Just the Right Things
When Accidental Death or Homicide Takes a Life
Auto accidents, fires, and murders are just a few of the unexpected ways people die everyday. Yet, it is exactly the element of the unexpected that makes these types of deaths difficult for friends and family. Police may be involved. An autopsy may be required by law. In some cases, family and friends are suspected of foul play. There may be complicated legal issues. Survivors often feel incredibly guilty that they didn’t do enough to prevent the tragedy. Here are some things you can do to support friends and family.
When you learn that the person has died…
- Don’t push for details. Let survivors share the details they feel comfortable sharing. Focus on the survivor’s needs and be a good listener.
- Refer to the deceased by name.
- Make sure the deceased’s personal effects are returned to the family after an autopsy.
- Encourage the family to plan a wake, funeral and burial (even if cremated), if you are in an appropriate position to do so.
- Send flowers with a note (see suggestions for notes below) or offer a donation to an appropriate organization.
- Focus on the deceased’s life — not his/her death.
- Ask to help make arrangements or do chores, but don’t be ashamed to admit that you have difficulty handling the loss. Set limits that you find comfortable.
During the services…
- Include siblings. Let them ask questions and express their frustrations with the anger they see around them. Understand that their mischief, during and after services, may be this expression. Assure them, over and over again, that the death was not their fault.
- Don’t feel guilty about saying or doing something that causes a loved one to cry or crying yourself. Crying is healthy.
After the services…
- Remember birthdays and anniversaries of the death.
- Keep in touch with the bereaved. Many times friends and family shy away from the tragedy. Be there for them when they need you.
- Those close to the deceased, especially children, may need special attention. It’s wise to help them find appropriate therapy or a support group. The State’s Attorney’s office should have a victim’s assistance program to inform survivors of their rights and upcoming court dates, etc.
- Be sensitive that children may expect another death. Calm their fears.
- Don’t blame the victim by suggesting drugs, drinking, the "wrong crowd" or other factors caused the death.
- Don’t suggest what you would do or how you would feel. You are not the issue.
- Don’t shy away from being involved. Your support is valued, but don’t take control of the situation. Loved ones need control to help them work through grief.
- Don’t bring up other people’s losses. Let friends and family focus on their loss.
- Don’t pressure family to clean out the deceased’s belongings. They need to do this in their own time.
What to say…
Use your own words to convey messages like these:
"It’s so tragic. I will always remember him/her."
"What you’re going through must be very difficult. Let me know how I can help."
"I’m saddened by your loss. We care and love you deeply."
"The way he/she lived, something was bound to happen."
"Did they find the person who did it?"
"Forget about the trial and put it all behind you."
"If this happened to me, I couldn’t go on."
"God won’t give you more than you can handle."
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