The Awkward Pause: A Practical Guide to What to Say or Do in the Difficult Moments

Experiencing the death of a loved one or supporting someone who is experiencing death can often times be very similar to not knowing what to do with your hands when you’re posing for a photo. You want to take a beautiful picture, and you want people to see that you’re supportive, engaged and loving, but you have no idea what to do with your words and actions.  The purpose of this guide is to give you some thoughtful suggestions on experiencing a loved one’s death or supporting a caregiver in a way that is sensitive, meaningful and helpful.

In our society to the way down deep of our core, we just want to help. We want to ease suffering and inject hope into a hopeless situation. It can be done, it can be thoughtful. The suggestions below are going to increase in intensity and may or may not be applicable to all situations.

Note: These things are absolutely applicable to caring for a loved one residing in a facility or non-home environment. Often facility or hospital staff are very open to helping you make the environment more welcoming and supportive of visitors.

  1. Food isn’t the only option.  Here in Atlanta, many of us naturally tend to rely on the most delicious casserole that was painstakingly created from scratch to show our love and support for each other. However, then a person or family has a refrigerator full of casseroles and a heart full of grief. A few alternatives:
    • A basket of prepackaged snacks, drinks, fruit and bottled waters. Think vending machine options for visitors who are coming and going from the home. In this scenario, the host or hostess has minimal work to do. If they are actively providing care for an ailing family member, the less work, the better.
    • If family are sitting vigil, a refreshment station with coffee, teas and lemon water is also a good option when trying to keep your hands busy in support of the host or hostess. Everyone wants their home to be welcoming and to honor their family members as much as possible, but the tasks of creating this environment can be exhausting.
    • Practical things that require a grocery store visit: Paper plates and utensils, napkins, toilet paper, hand soap and all the things that a host or hostess has to keep on hand for visiting family members. Stocking these things takes work.
  2. What in the world do we say in the long silences and the awkward moments with family members and caregivers? It is no secret that some people are much better at this than others. Here are some thought provoking suggestions on how to manage these interactions.
    • Asking questions about the loved one that you may not know. “What was mother’s favorite song” or one of my favorites “what was her life work? Did she have a traditional job? Did she stay home raising her children?” These things refocus a caregiver from the pain of the present to the fond memories of the past while honoring their loved one.
  3. How do we fill the time we want to spend with our dying loved one, but it is hard to be sure if they can hear our words? What if you’re trying to spend time with someone who is mentally unable to follow the conversation? How can I make this interaction meaningful?
    • Reading: Reading out loud to another person gives us a sense of conversation even when the words won’t come on their own. Read favorite books, poems, stories, paperback books or newspaper and magazine stories. Take a breath, read slowly, giving yourself ample time to breath in and out slowly and evenly. Being a calming presence can be a reassuring positive in a sea of discomfort and confusion.
    • Photo album review: Have old family photos or albums close by. Flip the pages and reminisce out loud as the memories come. The person you are spending time with may or may not be mentally present but the calm and familiarity of your voice and the words you are speaking are delivering calm energy to both you and your loved one.
  4. How can we help support caregivers?
    • Never forget: Caregiving is a burden of love, but still very much a burden. It is an exhausting, difficult and lonely experience which no one wants to talk about for fear that someone will doubt their love and commitment. Ask a caregiver how he or she is doing. How are they feeling. What is the hardest part of their day? Let the conversation go from there on how you may or may not be able to help with these things. The most important part is allowing a caregiver to talk about their difficulties and get things they are probably afraid to admit to even themselves off their chest.

Hopefully this guide has given you some fresh ideas as you experience these situations with friends and family. Not all pauses are awkward, but when you’re searching for ways to show your love and care, keep these ideas in mind. Leave some of your thoughts and suggestions to share with the community in the comment section below.