Grief is all around us…
The first year after my husband died, hearing that someone else in my social circle had lost a loved one to death would bring me to tears. I would cringe inside and feel waves of grief and empathy. The problem was that at that time, my emotional reserves were beyond empty. Sharing my spoken condolences, a card and maybe a comforting text or two took all I had to give.
And, the desire to help is strong.
My reactions changed as time went on. When I again would hear similar news, my empathy was still just as huge. However, I wanted to help more. I wanted to provide a bit of comfort from someone who was experiencing something similar to what I had and was. But, I was still grieving and did not feel confident in offering much. I worried about “holding it together” while doing so. What did I do? I would give them a book on grief. I would offer my ear to listen to them. It was what I could do at the time.
It was not until a dear friend of my husband, and now mine, lost her father that I made some key realizations about how to better help others when grieving. This woman had been an all-out saint when my husband died. She stayed with me for weeks as I literally got myself back on my feet and back to work. So, when I heard of her loss, I desperately wanted to give her even just a small piece of what she had given me.
But supporting those in grief is hard!
Make no mistake about it, being a supporter for someone in grief when you are still grieving takes a lot! It brings up many feelings of your own grief and additional ones like guilt and inadequacy for not being able to offer more. It requires a set of advanced skills, and it is impossible to do it perfectly!
Luckily, years of providing support to clients and analyzing emotions have trained my brain to look for patterns and general themes in behavior (even my own). Here are some insights and suggestions based on my own experience and book knowledge in case you ever find yourself in a similar circumstance:
- Be aware of your intention. Why do you want to help? Of course, we all naturally feel a connection to someone in pain. It is part of human nature and what has allowed our species to survive. However, part of you that may want to feel closer to your own grief by spending time with someone else grieving. Part of you might miss being surrounded by others brought together by grief. Being aware can help you better know how you might respond to the person grieving and the situation in general.
- Know what you can give. Just because those who supported you were able to cook dozens of meals for you or spend hours on the phone with you after the death of your loved one, you might not be able to do that right now. It is better to honestly state what you know you can do then promise something you cannot provide.
- Needs are different. Bodies tend to require things for life: water, food, rest. Beyond that, however, each person’s physical and emotional needs may differ. It is still great to offer what worked for you, but understand it may not be what they need. I tried helping my friend with an organizational task. I failed to see that her doing this task helped her cope through distraction and purpose. She did not need my help with it. So, I found something else!
- You will get triggered. Of course you will! How triggered depends on how much of your own grief you have processed, the amount of time since your own loss, how supported you are, food intake that day, etc. Have a plan set in case this happens. Make sure it involves some healthy self care. Use the coping skills that have helped you with getting triggered in the past.
- Cut yourself some slack. Wanting to offer help for someone and being able to do it are two different things. Try not to judge yourself for what you can and cannot provide. Recognize that you are giving what you can at this point in time. Give yourself permission to not be the “perfect grief supporter.” Allow yourself to feel your own grief and be gentle with yourself when you do.
- Give yourself space to recover. Do not be surprised if you are worn out from supporting the person. Focusing on helping someone else can prevent you from recognizing your own needs in the process. Give yourself time to “recover” from helping physically and emotionally which may feel similar to grief symptoms: fatigue, mental “fogginess,” muscle aches, appetite loss, etc.
The benefit of having lived with our grief and loss is that we have a somewhat different perspective than many. Offering support from this perspective is, indeed, a gift. However, it is not an easy one to give. So, when you feel the desire to be really present for someone in grief and to make their journey less difficult, do so mindfully both for their sake and for your own.
And please, always remember, we don’t have to journey alone…