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Supporting a loved one who is grieving: The Do’s & Don’ts
Grieving the death of someone we love, is one of the most difficult and challenging times we encounter in life. Those who have yet to experience an intimate loss like a parent, child, spouse or sibling, may struggle for words, having no idea what to say or do for someone who has.
We live in a culture where everyone and everything moves very fast, we complete countless responsibilities by days end. There is also the expectation of completing things as quickly as possible; always pushing forward, giving ourselves little time for self-reflection or about what is really important in life. The result is, superficiality. “Time is money and money is time,” “The past is behind you, don’t look back,” “Keep moving, keep going.” Some of us have been brought up to not talk about their loved one who has passed and may take it a step further to rid themselves of all of their belongings immediately. “Maybe if I can’t see his/her things or their picture, then the death will be easier to deal with.”
What we’ve been taught to say
As a grief and loss support group facilitator, I hear many discussions, but the number one topic undoubtably rests on what people say to them after losing a loved one. Well-meant advice can sometimes unintentionally minimize the loss or shut a griever down emotionally. For example, “maybe it’s time to move on,” or “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle,” “You need closure.” After losing a child, “You are young enough to have another child,” “Thank God you have other children,” “Your child is in a better place;” or when a spouse dies,“You will find someone else,” “At least he/she lived a long life” or if ill, “At least they are no longer suffering.” Someone dealing with a suicide or homicide death might hear, “What happened??,” or a drug overdose death, there is the added stigma of the addiction which often results in the need to isolate and not reach out for support, fearing how others will judge their loved one or them, as a parent or support role. These statements are unhelpful and diminish the impact of grief.
Before condemning yourself for having said some of these statements to a griever, understand that these statements are said with good intentions. Most people are not purposefully trying to minimize a grievers pain, it goes back to what we are taught to do. Often, we are not prepared to respond in the ways that support others affirmatively.
What to say and do
When my mother passed away, my friends would tell me, “I don’t know what to say.” There are no right words and the good news is, you don’t have to come up with the perfect response. What grievers need the most from you is your presence. They need people who can witness their pain without shutting them down. So, when my friends would ask that question, I would tell them, “You don’t have to say anything, just be here.” Let them take the lead on what they need. Listen to them. I’ve also heard in my grief groups how family and friends will try to decide for them what they need during grieving. For example, a friend may call and say “I know you are struggling, and I want to take you out for dinner tonight. It will be good for you to get out.” We may worry our grieving friend will isolate themselves and though this can be true, it is often thought of in haste. There is a difference between staying home for the first few weeks after a loss- this is normal. Staying home for many months without any interaction is reason for concern.
Offer yourself and your time. Approach them with a desire to understand, rather than thinking about what is best for them. The grieving journey is a process that cannot be decided for them. It would be helpful to say, “I cannot imagine what you are going through, but I want to be here for you. If you want to talk, I want you to reach out to me. What can I do to help you right now?” Another alternative is to invite the person to come to your home to get together. Someone grieving will likely prefer to spend time inside an intimate setting like the familiar home. If they need to cry, they can feel comfortable doing so there, rather than in public. Inviting them into a private, relaxing setting will give them the option and comfort to cry and laugh all in one evening as they navigate their unpredictable emotions. Let them take the lead and do not put any pressure on them.
Don’t underestimate the power of a small, yet genuine and loving gesture. Periodically and spontaneously, send the griever a comforting text message, email message or send a “thinking of you card” in the mail. This means more to a griever than one may think. A simple message could be, “I’m thinking of you today,” “Don’t forget I am here for you,” “Praying for you,” “Don’t lose hope,” “Been thinking of you a lot lately.” Sending them an inspirational quote or poems can be comforting too. Sending them a small gift with a note is an unexpected delight for their day (an angel figurine, flowers, something handmade, a basket full of their favorite treats and snacks, etc…). When you take a moment out of your day to send a thoughtful message, it means a great deal because many people will stop reaching out to grievers after the funeral is over.
Don’t have expectations
I have support group members talk in length about how people in their life will reveal their own discomfort around their loss. Statements like, “maybe it’s time to get some closure” shows their uneasiness. The story of a mother who lost her daughter in a car accident is revealing. Her daughter died only six months previously when a good friend said, "You are still not in a good place." The mother asked me if her friend actually expects her to be in a good place now after only six months? Her friend likely had the intention of simply expressing concern, but how it was stated made her feel like she shouldn’t be where she was mentally and emotionally. It is important to think about how we express our concern so that we don’t inadvertently miscommunicate. The other possibility is that the friend’s own distress over the tragedy of the mother’s loss is getting in the way of giving support. The truth is, we hate to see those we love in any kind of pain. It is hard to handle because we cannot take away their pain and it leaves you feeling helpless. A better way for the friend to approach the mother is, “I will not pretend to know how you feel or what you are going through, but I am concerned about you and I want to help.” It is important to be aware of how you are reacting to someone else’s loss.
If you find yourself overwhelmed by another person’s loss, its best to address that within yourself before responding to the griever. It is common for people to project their own distress and to then distance themselves. If you are struggling yourself, it is better to be honest, rather than avoid the griever. This may cause the griever to assume the worst and feel you do not care. If you are worried that honesty will be hurtful, understand that avoidance is worse.
Losing a child
Parents who have lost a child often comment that it hurts when people around them won’t mention their child in their presence. The common notion is by mentioning their child, it will upset the parents and make them cry. First and foremost, they don’t need to hear their child’s name in order to feel their grief. Their grief is always at the forefront. Regardless of how “Ok” they present themselves in front of you, sorrow predominantly lurks behind the façade. Despite the pain they are in, they do not want their child forgotten. Though difficult for everyone, mentioning their child will just let the parents know that you will always remember their child and not dismiss what they have endured. When a parent initiates a discussion about their child who has passed, the best thing to do is to engage in the conversation and not change the subject. It will mean a lot that you are willing to talk about their child and share in the memories. This is therapeutic for parents- even when it causes tears. Crying is a good thing- it releases our pain, it gives opportunity to be comforted, and most of all, tears express our deep love for the people we love and lost. Don’t be afraid of their tears, they need the freedom to express their grief without feeling that they will distress those around them.
Grieving takes time
A common misconception is once the funeral is over- everyone returns back to normal, even the grievers. On a logistic level, we need to return to our responsibilities, but emotionally, to expect a griever to return to life and function just as well as they did before the loss, is not practical or possible. People who believe this do not fully understand the grieving process. Maybe they have not yet experienced a loss, or they shut themselves down during their own losses thinking that is the best way to deal with grief. Since every person grieves differently, everyone’s timeline of grieving will be different too. Grieving requires much quiet time and self-reflection. It requires patience to go through and get a handle on all the emotions that ebb and flow daily, causing confusion, anxiety and depression. It takes time to sort out complicated thoughts and feelings. Our own culture doesn’t support the grieving process, making it even more difficult for people to cope and get onto a path of healing. Because of this, it’s vital to take time out to seek the necessary support to learn how to cope and heal.
Debunking Myths about Grieving
There are common phrases that we tell grievers that we’ve learned over many generations. “Closure” as it relates to grieving is a myth, there is no such thing. We cannot close our hearts to the people we love just because they have died. Closure is when we complete college or retire from a career or sell a home. The intense pain of a loss decreases in time, but we never stop missing them because we never stop loving them. The idea of closure conflicts with the healing process, as healing requires us to remember our loved ones, to share our memories of them and to keep a spiritual connection. Closure implies that we should close the door on our past and never look back.
“Moving on” is another myth. It eradicates coping. What exactly do we move on to? Replace the words closure and moving on with the words healing or coping. Consider these statements- “I am worried about you. I sense that you are struggling to find a way to cope” or “Is there something I can do for you? Do you want to talk?” or “would you ever consider trying a support group or finding a grief therapist?” or “I have no idea what you are going through, but I want to try to understand.” These questions and statements show that you care and are concerned about the person without telling them what they should do.
Supporting someone who is grieving is not an easy task and it requires you to be patient, compassionate, humble, non-judgmental and unassuming. It’s important to accept where the person is during their healing and understand that this person will change. Time will heal, and in the meantime grievers need people who can walk alongside them and are willing to handle the twists and turns of their grief journey.
The following passage was written by a griever, Joan Wania:
"Sometimes silence, in the presence of someone who is grieving, is a powerful healer. The silent companion allows space for feelings to surface and be reconciled in the stillness. Often, we fear silence. Sorrow, grief and mourning all require room to envelop us before we grow into a new definition of ourselves living without the one we miss so much. All the words and phrases offered to the griever cannot create that new definition. The griever and subsequent mourner need time and space to hear what is deepest within themselves. Keeping up with constant conversation is not only exhaustive it is distracting and sometimes frustrating to the griever/mourner. It often feels like others believe they have to keep the grieving person or the mourning person perpetually engaged. There is a difference between grieving and mourning and both require interludes of stillness, even in the company of others."
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