HOW TO SUPPORT SOMEONE IN GRIEF
Grief: What a long and complicated process involving various intensive emotions. One could write hundred of articles on this topic alone. There is a lot of information about grief and the different emotions and cycles people rotate through. However, my interest is discourse on how to be supportive to someone experiencing it, not on grief itself.
On a personal note, I met/connected with my husband during a time of grief. My husband has a strong and close family, most of whom live elsewhere. Shortly after meeting my husband, his younger brother experienced a traumatic accident and was hospitalized. He nearly died. Gratefully, he survived.
Though I barely knew my husband at the time, I sensed his despair. As a therapist, I was also greatly aware of the unhelpful and avoidant dynamics surrounding grief. So, I leaned in. I inquired about his brother, asked my husband about how he was feeling, and simply listened. I have experience of learning to just ‘sit in the ick’ with another. Nothing magical or grandiose. Just a desire to be present. The interaction was a matter of minutes. However, years later, my husband still references that moment and how meaningful it was for him. He was feeling so sad and so alone in his grief at that time. Simply connecting with him on a human level was helpful and needed.
Grief is a heavy and complicated process. The greater the love, the more intensive the grief tends to be. It can be difficult to know how to be helpful or supportive to others during this time. Most people do too much. They take on the mindset of having to make someone feel better and move through grief. This is not possible and your attempts to do so simply cause more added pain and hurt.
I want to remind that grief can be activated by different types of events. We do not always recognize these as triggering grief. However, it is important to have an understanding of what a person may be cycling through. Here are common triggers, but please note, it is not a comprehensive list:
- Death of a loved one
- Chronic illness/Cancer/Dementia of a loved one
- Facing one’s own death (Illness/Cancer)
- Death of a pet or ‘fur baby’
- Relationship loss through break-up or divorce
- Sudden loss of job or home
There is a lot of avoidance when talking about death itself. You can see it in just language choices when addressing death. Phrases like ‘Passed away, Crossed over, Moved on”. There is a belief that these terms somehow assuage the sadness or sense of loss. Truly, they do not and just add to the sense that we need to avoid talking about the things that make us uncomfortable.
If you really want to be helpful and supportive to someone experiencing grief, then you will need to first address and accept your own discomfort with the topic. You can be uncomfortable and still be helpful, that is ok. You just need to own your discomfort and not try to reduce it by saying or doing things that make you feel better. The goal is to be available to someone else in a manner that is helpful to him/her.
Another critical suggestion is to have your goal be focused on being present. Do not focus on making a person feel better. This is where things go array. You simply cannot. There is nothing you can say that will make a person feel ‘good’ about the loss they are facing. It is invalidating, makes them feel alone, and likely will halt any communication about their sadness. So please, avoid commentary like “It was God’s plan, S/he is in a better place, It was meant to be.” This does not typically resonate with someone. More likely, they may display plastic smile and nod, while harboring thoughts of throat punching you.
Here are some suggestions on how to be available and sit with a person in their sadness:
- Have communication about communication: Tell a person you want to be supportive and invite them to give feedback on what that is. Let them know you are a safe person. ONLY DO THIS IF YOU ARE TRULY CAPABLE OF ACCEPTING FEEDBACK. You have to be able to take feedback without personalizing it.
- Learn to mirror: It is like a dance but the person grieving is the lead. You are not to push, pull or try to make them pivot. You move with them. You follow.
- Ask questions: Do not assume you know how they feel or what they need. This changes constantly. Ask how you can be helpful. Ask how you can make them feel loved in that moment.
- Touch them with permission: Do not underestimate the value of a hug or sitting and holding a person’s hand in silence. It is enormously helpful. However, ask if you can do so before doing it. Sometimes, people are in a place of not wanting to be touched. If they say no, allow for it and do not view it as rejection. It is where they are at in that moment, not about you or your importance.
- Learn to manage your discomfort with silence: People tend to get uncomfortable and fill space with words. These words are generally the ones that cause hurt. It is okay to feel uncomfortable but own it. Sometimes when facing grief, people just want to sit and be. They want a presence, but they do not feeling like talking or listening. This is a VERY helpful thing to do but most struggle with it. There is a sense of needing to do more. This is what I referenced as “sitting in the ick”.
- Stop the avoidance: Some people avoid talking about the personality that died or is dying. There is a desire to ‘not upset’. A person grieving is going to be triggered left and right. It could be a song, a place, or even a memory that floods in. Simply going to the grocery store and reaching for an item that the person who died love can activate it. Just accept that this will happen. It is inevitable. I encourage you to talk as you normally would and if a person triggers, revert back to learning to be present and sit in it with him/her
- Be emotional: Do not avoid expression of your own sadness. Just do not make it the responsibility of the other person to comfort you. I have actually cried in session with clients. Some of the things people have had to face are brutal. I own my emotion by saying “Do not feel responsible for my tears. My heart is just reflecting the sadness of this situation. You do not have to take care of me.” It can be extremely validating for someone to see another person resonating with the pain of the situation v. always looking at stoic, unemotional faces.
- Realize the emotional journey of grief is long term: There is no ‘getting over it’. It is a matter of a person processing, over and over, the emotions related to grief and learning to live with it. It will not disappear from their life. It can get triggered repeatedly for the rest of their lives. There is no resolution. It is a management process.
- People cycle through grief differently: Everyone is unique in their journey of grief. This can cause discord, especially in families, as individuals may express different aspects of grief at different times. Because a person is not aligned with another in the same way does not mean they are not grieving. Allow for personal variances to emerge without judgment.
- Recognize that people rally support right after the death of a person. There is a falling away after some months go by. That is often when the real grief starts and a person begins to truly process the loss. Do not be surprised by this. Commit to being one of those few folks who can be present when the realness of it sets in.
- Do not equate lack of emotional expression with being ‘over it’. People cycle through emotions and sometimes, there can be a storm ranging inside and a person’s demeanor is not reflecting it. It might be that they do not want to share it OR, they have experienced negative push back from others and are scared to.
- Avoid pushing spiritual or religious beliefs on someone: Death can really challenge a person’s faith or religious belief system. Allow for this. Even if a person identified him/herself as strongly religious in the past, this can a tumultuous topic. Avoid pushing attending religious services, praying, etc if the person does not resonate in that space. You might find it helpful but it does not mean that s/he will. It is not the fix.
It is my goal in writing this that this proves to be helpful to at least one person. It saddens me to observe how alone people feel in their grieving process due to the responses of others. Again, most are intending to be helpful but are taking the approach of pushing people through their emotional process. Trust in a person’s inherent drive to move to the other side of acceptance. By being present with them, you actually enable this process without having to take ownership of it for them.
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