Humans are very strange when it comes to grieving the loss of a loved one. We have broad similarities around what we go through and how we process, but these are heavily influenced by our cultures, our social norms, and the family units that we are raised in. I am going to share my thoughts about this topic because I think the more we talk openly with each other about how very hard it is to lose someone that we know and care for, the better off we will all be.
I think it is very rare that someone treats someone else’s grieving process with outright unkindness or lack of care. More often it is a feeling that there is insufficient time to sit and unpick what someone needs, or a fear of doing the wrong thing that leads us to mishandling someone in the aftershock. I can near guarantee anyone reading this will have a memory of discomfort when they tried to help someone through their loss, panicked, and then retreated away from them. I have those memories too.
I have experienced my share of loss. I have also sat beside many friends and family as they have undertaken their own processes of coming to terms with their grief. We have so much language around death and grief, look at all the phrases I’m using in this piece already, and yet we constantly bungle it! I don’t think it’s surprising, death is scary in many people’s minds. We fill ourselves with fear about it. Below are questions I’ve had about supporting others. I have answered myself with kindness and good intent, just like I try to answer anyone else.
- Do they even want to talk about their grief? Maybe. They should have space to if they do, and be allowed to avoid the topic if that’s what they need.
- Will I say the wrong thing to them? Maybe. But so long as your intent is from a place of kindness and love, it rarely goes terribly wrong.
- What if I can’t handle their grief? Such a fair concern, particularly if you are going through your own struggles. Taking the time to check that someone has support, and helping link them up if they don’t, is so powerful. That support does not always have to be you.
- What if I bring up something when they don’t want to think about it? Same can be asked about any contentious topic a person might be sensitive about. If you’re unsure, you can always start the question gently… ‘let me know if you don’t want to talk about this right now, but I was just wondering how you’re doing this week?’
- What is the easiest way that I can support them? Ask them what they need. Offer them chances to talk about their loved one. Prompt their memories and reward their candid conversations with no judgement and kindness. It is hard to be vulnerable.
- When will they be back to their old selves? Possibly never. And that’s OK. Sometimes that means that they will draw back from you or your friendship group. Sometimes that means they will change parts of themselves temporarily or permanently in ways you don’t agree with. Friendship and family relationships are ever changing and they don’t always follow a straight line. Just be kind and go with the flow.
I think the biggest thing I’ve learnt in supporting someone as they navigate their grief is you have to let them call the shots for a while. If that person is your spouse, it becomes about being a steady constant while the other person ebbs and flows between coping and not. If they are a friend, it is about small scale, light touch contact frequently and with no obligation in return, sometimes with the need for seemingly random tasks that actually act as life savers. Sometimes that’s helping them google and research something, sometimes that’s sending food to their house, sometimes that’s just sitting on the other end of the phone while they cry. It doesn’t take masses of your time or energy but it can mean the world to the person you are supporting. If they are family, it’s sort of a weird combo of the two isn’t it. If you live close by, maybe it’s taking more of an active role in helping with house work or cooking, if it’s from a distance maybe it’s just helping with logistics.
At the end of the day, I think we can get awkward and unsure about helping someone who is grieving because we can’t control the timeline and can’t understand it given its likelihood to change at a moment’s notice. We have to appreciate that someone’s way of grieving is unique to themselves, and isn’t wrong or right. It just is. Being present and offering an ear when its needed can make the world of difference for someone feeling lonely and out to sea.
I have always believed that it is a privilege to grieve, because it means I had a meaningful connection with someone. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. It hurts terribly, and in ways that don’t make sense, that take you off guard, that cut your knees from under you. But the fact that I remember people I have lost and still tear up, or smile, or wish I could see them just one more time, all of that just means I had a wonderful connection with someone, and I’m all the luckier for it. I can either fear it, or I can let it flow over me and move on with it. Take them with me. Act in a way that they’d be proud of. Remember them often and speak about them warmly. And giving people I care for and support space to do the same for those that they have lost.