Could I Get a Little Help Here?
Helping others “lost in the land of loss,” who are grieving, is hard but crucial work. Supporting while you are also grieving has its own challenges, for sure. Over the past two and a half years, I have trudged along my own grief journey since my husband’s sudden death. While navigating this course, there have been folks in my life who have also experienced tragedy, loss and sorrow. Of course, I was often so exhausted myself from traversing the landscape of loss that I did not feel I had much to offer them. Still, I managed to attend a funeral or two, send a few heartfelt texts and make comforting social media posts. And, yet, even though I had put forth more effort than was possible even just a few weeks prior, I still judged myself on how little that amount was.
Let’s just say I have spent a lot of time working on self-compassion in this area. It is a work in progress, as am I. In the past few months, I have been fortunate enough to find myself with more energy and emotional resources, or “spoons,” and have felt I can now offer more support. To my surprise, I find myself stumped as to how to support them more. How could this possibly be? I, too, have suffered and continue to mourn someone significant in my life. I, too, know what it is like to be in unbearable emotional pain and anguish. Still, I feel paralyzed and question how to best support my fellow grievers.
What can you do?
Generally, when confronted with similar challenges, I like to go to what I know in order to figure things out. That means thinking back to my own experiences in early grief and the training I received in becoming a therapist. After taking some time to reflect and review my notes from school and work, I composed the following list of recommendations:
- Listen. Acknowledging the loss is one of the most important things anyone can do for someone in grief. Feel free to start out saying things like, “I heard that your (person of importance) died.” Don’t feel afraid to say the person died because that is what happened. They did not go on a hike and were lost. They did not pass. You pass gas or an exam, not life! They died like we all will one day. Saying the word can give them permission to talk more openly.
- Express your concern and feelings: “I am so sorry to hear this.” Be authentic, especially about the fact that you do not know what to say.
- Don’t judge. There will be enough of that from folks who do not do the research you are doing now on how to offer support and even from those who do! Remember they are doing the best they can in managing their grief, even if it does not look that way to you.
- Ask how they are feeling. Do not assume how they feel because often you will be mistaken. Plus, asking allows them the chance to express how and what they are experiencing.
- Be willing to sit with the person in silence. This may be the hardest thing for folks to do especially given the reflex to try to fix things and because it can be uncomfortable to sit with someone who is suffering so deeply.
- Don’t try to fix it. Experiencing the expression of someone in such intense pain and agony can be extremely difficult to tolerate. Often, people will try to comfort by attempting to “fix” the situation. The only way to fix my husband dying would be to orchestrate the events of that fateful evening so that he would not have died. I know of no one with such ability. Also, refrain from giving advice since giving advice is another way that we try to fix things. Please don’t do it unless someone is asking directly for it.
- Manage your own emotions. I had people want to tell me how sad they were when their own grandmother/brother/child died. Others would look to me to comfort them as they grieved my husband’s death. I realize now that they were also suffering and trying to connect on some level. At the time, my lenses were colored by my own grief and pain, and I was not equipped to provide them with support they sought. However, I was open to grieving with them.
Actions speak louder than words. In addition to wanting to be mindful about what we say to others in grief, what we do for them is more important. One of the most confusing and challenging things I heard during the initial days of losing my husband was to reach out and let others know if I needed anything. Well, I had no idea what I needed. This horror was all new to me. I also had a hard time asking for help either due to pride, low energy, or not feeling I could ask knowing how busy everyone tends to be. However, whenever anyone asked if they could come over to clean, take me to the bank, go grocery shopping for me, or something similar, I accepted. With that in mind, consider offering to provide child or pet care, help with organizing bills, receiving food and guests at the house, helping to make funeral arrangements, etc. Try to think how you can lessen the burden of normal everyday things.
Wrap up and Show up
To wrap things up; I continue to struggle with how to support others in grief because, as many of us know, it is not an easy thing to do! However, whenever doubt creeps in about whether to offer support (e.g., not wanting to bother them, feel there is little I could do), I think about what I learned along my journey and what I would have appreciate from others. So, with this in mind, I continue to reach out to my fellow grievers and ask how they are holding up. I offer practical help to lighten their load. On special days, like anniversaries, birthdays and holidays, I make an extra effort to show my support by inviting them to dinner, checking to see how they are feeling, and providing an empathic ear. I know that the pain will still be there. Their loved one(s) will still be dead, and their world will still be upside down. I know I cannot change that, but I can provide human connection and kindness during this dark time. My recommendation if you know someone who is grieving, above all else, show up for them, physically and emotionally. Say or do something. Be willing to be present in their life as they attempt to heal from deep and incredible wound which will probably take a lifetime of healing.