Dack Van Orden was born and raised in Idaho Falls, ID. He currently lives in the Houston Texas area where he and his wife are the parents of three daughters and one bonus daughter. He has served in a variety of callings within the Church, most of which have been in various youth callings. His favorite was teaching early morning Seminary. He currently serves as a counselor in his ward bishopric.
One afternoon in May, I received a call from my dad. “Dack, you need to come quickly to Clark’s house, there’s been an accident.” I dropped everything and headed over. When I arrived at the house, I learned that Clark’s youngest child, a 2-year-old-daughter named Kenedie, had accidentally gone out the front door and was run over by a neighbor’s friend who was delivering a couch. Kenedie had made her way behind the truck and he never saw her. She was rushed to a hospital, but the weight of the truck was too much for her little body and she had passed away.
By the time I reached the house, I was told that Clark was upstairs in his room. I went directly there. As I walked into the room, I saw my brother, and hero, cradled on the bed, his back towards me, heaving in pain. I had never seen him look this way. Clark was always so strong, so invincible. I made my way over to him and lay beside him on the bed. There was nothing I could say or do in that moment to give him any relief. We lay there for a long time, not saying anything.
This was my first experience with the death of child of someone that I was very close to. It was so hard to see my brother experience this tragedy. It was also painful for me because I knew there was absolutely nothing I could do to fix this, no way for me to take a portion of his pain, and no way to relieve him of that hurt.
The Intensity of Grief
Nearly 20 years down the road, my older sister’s 23 year old son, Ethan, a student at BYU-I, was riding his bike on a Saturday morning when he was hit by a vehicle driven by a young lady and instantly killed.
Our family was devastated. How could this happen again?! Once again, I witnessed a sibling’s immense grief and pain. At one point she said to me, “I feel like I have cried myself dry. My body simply can’t produce any more tears.”
A year later, our best friends lost their 19-year-old son—who was preparing to go on his mission—in a drowning accident.
A few months later, a close co-worker of mine lost her husband.
Shortly after that, our bishop lost his daughter—a student at BYU—in a car accident.
Most recently we have another set of close friends that lost their 19-year-old daughter in a matter of hours to a pulmonary embolism.
Each incident was absolutely heart wrenching. Not only was it difficult to witness this as a brother, friend, and ward member, but we had to calm our own daughter’s fears that someone within our little family might have an accident as well.
Personally Responding to Grief
Through this process of grief and mourning with our family and friends, we came to learn that those who experience these devastating losses each respond differently.
Each mother, father, and siblings dealt with the loss in their own ways. In the case of our close friends and their son, they asked that we act as the gatekeepers to help coordinate family and ward support. They had also become so numb, so shell-shocked, that it became a necessity for us to step in and make certain arrangements.
As part of this process and through the other experiences, we noticed patterns of those coming to mourn, support and love the family that had lost someone. Since these accidents, we have also had very long and personal conversations with those that have lost someone and discussed what helped at the time, and what was hurtful.
I would like to share some of those thoughts in the hope that we can all improve and become better at mourning with those who mourn and comforting those who stand in need of comfort. While I want to stay away from a list of Do’s and Don’ts, I will provide some of my thoughts and share the feedback we’ve received.
We Can’t “Fix” the Unfixable
I think that most people want to help; they want to comfort. However, because this experience can be so tender, and in some cases so raw and emotional, it can be quite uncomfortable to come into that situation.
No matter if it is the days right after the passing or years down the road, knowing what to say or what to do may be intimidating. In many cases we may feel like we want to “fix” or take away that pain. We feel like, “I wish there was something I could say or do that would help ease this pain they are feeling.” “Maybe there’s a scripture or a lesson I can share with them that will help.” But in many cases, we end up saying something that is more hurtful, albeit unintentionally, than helpful.
Additionally, many times people will walk away from this situation because it can be so uncomfortable.
I have found that we are not there to be a problem solver. We can’t fix something that is unfixable. There’s nothing we can say or do that will bring that person back, so the goal is not to make it better.
The Balm of Listening
By listening to them, by loving them, by mourning with them, that is our way of doing something.
One of the best things we can do is to not talk.
Let them talk.
This helps us to not accidentally say something hurtful, and it helps them to be able to express their feelings. Allow them the freedom to grieve openly. Sometimes people that are grieving feel like they need to keep their emotions to themselves. Giving them the opportunity to talk and express what they are willing to share helps with their healing process.
Each Loss and Person Are Unique
One of the consistent threads I have seen in all our experiences is that no two losses are the same, and no two people handle the grief and mourning process the same. Because each loss and each person are unique, so too will be our response to them and how we may be able to love and serve them.
Even if we have experienced our own loss of a child, spouse, or parent, that doesn’t mean that we know exactly what they are feeling or experiencing in that moment. Never say, “I know exactly how you feel.” Instead, we might say, “I can’t possibly understand what you are going through, but I am here for you.”
The Personal Timeline of Grief
One of the most consistent observations we have learned from friends and family that are grieving is their own personal timing. We need to allow people to grieve in their own way and on their own timeline.
One of our friends recently shared with us that a well-meaning person made the comment, “Hasn’t it been over a year now?” There is no timeline for grief, and we shouldn’t ever imply that anyone should get over the loss of their child, especially in a year’s time.
Many grieving parents feel like their life stopped the day of the unexpected death. They may feel this way for years as they process the layers of pain they feel and redefine their new perspective of life and their relationship with God.
For many, waking up each day means they survived another painful day. For many, they will never be “over” the loss of their child, spouse, or parent. The best explanation I have ever heard was,
“Time doesn’t heal. I will never get over the loss of my daughter, however, my brain has learned how to manage the pain a little better.”
Accepting Their Unique Journey
In addition, we have seen husband and wife handle losses completely differently from each other. We may see one that has the appearance of thriving while the other is literally a shell of themselves. Both must be accepted and loved. In almost every case, the person they were before the loss will not be the same person they are after a loss, or at least not for a while.
A good day today does not mean that the bad days are over. I have seen people turn to God, while others grow very angry with God. No matter where the grieving parent is, they must be accepted and loved.
I have seen those that turn to church, friends, and co-workers for social support and didn’t want to be left alone. I have seen others not be able to get out of bed and refuse the support of those around them. Both must be accepted and loved. Let people mourn in their own way and time.
One biggest don’ts I can give is never, under any circumstance say, “They are in a better place.” This is not a helpful statement. No matter our religious belief or feelings that they truly are in a better place, no one that has lost a loved one wants to hear these words. Instead, please say, “I miss them too.” Or “I am so sorry for your loss.”
Each parent feels like the better place would be in their home or in their life. When young people unexpectedly pass, the parents mourn for their child but also for the future they are going to miss regarding what they have dreamed of with seeing them get married, having a family, and a wonderful future. The parents feel cheated of a shortened life.
Details Are Painful
In a recent conversation with one of our friends, she expressed that when she meets new people or ward members and they learn about her son’s death, they ask her how he died. While this might have been asked out of concern or empathy, it was very hurtful to her. In her eyes, this person was asking her to “tell the story of the worst day of her life”.
I had never looked at it this way, but once she explained how painful that was to be asked that question, it made perfect sense. There is a culture within the Church where we feel the need-to-know people’s back story and history. While this can be helpful when it comes to callings and other areas of church service, we need to be aware that it can also be hurtful.
We need to be cognizant that parts of a person’s past can be painful. There may be parts of their past that they don’t want to share. This can also apply to a loss or a person’s repentance process. In almost every case, it should only be shared if that person chooses to share it with us.
Sacredness of Remembering
Overwhelmingly, the most consistent thread that I have seen with those experiencing loss is that they never want that person to be forgotten. They want people to remember them, who they were, memories we have with that person, and why we loved them as well.
As such, don’t be afraid to bring up the name of the loved one. One thing I have found helpful is to say, “I was thinking about your dad the other day and I remembered this story about him. Do you mind if I share that with you?” This gives them the ability to let us know if it’s not a good day, but more importantly it shows them that we remember the person they lost.
The Tenderness of “Firsts”
Another consistent thread is what I call the year of firsts.
The first year after the loss is going to be the hardest.
The first birthday, anniversary, or any of the holidays will be a reminder.
For a lot of our friends, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day were particularly hard.
We set reminders in our phones to reach out to them on the day of the loss and the birthdays of those they lost.
Consistent, Caring Contact
Another important thing to do is to make sure we are in contact with them in the weeks and months following the funeral. For many people they can ride the wave of support and love during the week or two after the funeral. But once the funeral is over and friends and family leave, they feel completely alone.
It is critical to stay in touch with them, go sit with them, go mourn with them, and go love them in the following days, weeks, and months.
Each person dealing with loss also has triggers. Perhaps it’s their child’s favorite song. Maybe it’s the events that they were involved in or the season that they experienced trauma from their tragedy.
Each person experiences unknown hardships. Managing these pains is difficult year after year. No one can take their triggers away, but we can listen to the Spirit more during these times so we can know how to reach out.
Love, Listen, and Learn
LOVE LOVE LOVE!! That is the key to being there for others.
LISTEN, don’t talk! Just sit with them.
LEARN what their needs are from our observations or what they may share with us.
Just remember, no situation is the same. How individuals respond will always be different and at different times as they try to move forward.
Grieving parents or spouses have feelings that they are usually unable to express and describe. Family pictures and vacations. The world is now a different place for them.
Just remember to love.