Gifts with sympathy can speed healing


December 4, 2007



Six years ago, Renee Wood wanted to comfort her sister-in-law, whose father had recently died.

A former social worker in neonatal intensive care and renal units at Little Rock, Ark.,-area hospitals, Wood was familiar with the grief process. But the Geneva mother of four still couldn’t find the right way to express how sorry she was for what her loved one was going through. So she designed her own tear-shaped pendant to give as a sympathy gift.

“I wanted something that was going to say to her, ‘I know what a significant loss this has been. I know you’re devastated,’” said Wood, 42. “I wanted something that was going to last forever and was going to be a reminder of her dad.”

Although many people have experienced a death themselves, they often feel helpless and unsure of what to do when another person is grieving. Experts insist it is important to acknowledge a friend or loved one’s loss and allow him or her to talk about it, particularly during the holidays.

“Historically we struggle with grief and loss,” Wood said. “ If you just say something like, ‘I know the holidays are going to be difficult this year,’ it certainly opens that door for them to begin a discussion if they want to.”

Wood’s gift to her sister-in-law and background in social work led her to start her own business, The Comfort Company, in 2001. In addition to the Forget-Me-Not teardrop pendants, The Comfort Company’s selection of sympathy gifts includes holiday ornaments, personalized garden stones, care packages, framed poetry and windchimes.

“So many of us try to gauge how that person is feeling,” Wood said. “They don’t want to bring it up and remind [the person] of their loss. But it never leaves.”

Jordon Wolf, manager of clinical social services for Hospice of Northeastern Illinois, advises against using clichés when helping others through their grief. Expressions such as “Time heals all wounds” are best avoided, he said.

“That kind of stuff is invalid,” Wolf said. “That’s not what it’s about. It’s about just offering your support.”

Even often-said comments such as “He’s happy now,” “She’s out of pain” or “God needed another angel” are unnecessary, Wood said. The loss should be acknowledged, not minimized.

“It’s like the elephant in the room,” Wood said. “Nobody wants to talk about it. But it’s the talking that brings the healing, especially during the holidays.”

One of the best ways to help someone through his or her grief is to simply offer support, said Crystal Lake psychologist Dawn Levitan.

“Sometimes just sitting right next to them, letting them talk or just basically being there is enough,” she said. “Don’t try to run away from it.

“Don’t try to push it away or go around the grief. People don’t know what to say because it brings up all their own unresolved issues.”

Approaching a grieving friend or relative about their loss might be awkward, Wood said. But the worst thing to do is ignore or avoid the issue.

“If you’re not comfortable, call at a time when you know they’re gone and leave a message on their machine,” Wood said. “If they’re on your mind this holiday season, you need to let them know.”