As I was out walking today, I got to thinking about how many times I’ve been asked “What do I say? What do I do for someone who is experiencing grief?” Those are great questions, and as the words hit the screen, I found this post one of the hardest I’ve ever written. Why? Read on and I’ll try to lay it all out for you.
So, here goes! I’ll write from the first-person perspective and you can consider my words as if they were also coming from others. The catch? It isn’t so easy because pain is universally messy and anyone who says or thinks otherwise needs to rethink that view. However, I’m not trying to make this any more challenging than it is.
Consider Grief and Loss as a Complex Process
We aren’t limited in our grief to the death of someone. A move, a change in schools, a friendship that goes bad, a failed relationship, an act of God that destroys everything you owned, a shift in belief, growing up and moving on: it is all part of the cycle of grief and loss. For this post, we’ll journey with death.
Please consider your feelings as you think of others who face the unthinkable in their lives. Please credit them for facing what they are dealing with in their own way, just as you do the same. Please consider their minds, hearts, souls, their physical needs, and the relationship you have with this person.
You never know what will happen to you to set you on the path into grief and loss. You never know how your life may suddenly transition along paths you thought you would never be walking.
We as humans tend to think of ourselves as indestructible until we are well into adulthood, and we still avoid the thoughts that it—whatever “it” may be—can, and will, at some point, happen to us. When it does happen, we are caught ill prepared. Few people think about the “what will I do if” scenario seriously. True, you might let your mind wander, but most people don’t really go there because they don’t want to think in those terms until it blows up in their face.
I’ll admit that I was rare. I was forced to think about it at age 14 and again at 16 when my younger sister underwent heart surgery. I thought about her possible death, and when it actually happened shortly after my high school graduation, I still wasn’t prepared for what actually happened. But, having thought about it earlier helped. Living through it was another thing entirely.
Some Handy Things to Know
The catch is that what might work for one person may not be the right thing for another person. So, with that in mind, I’m going to lay down some general guidelines and a few specific things you can say and do for people in emotional pain after a death.
The first rule is that we all miss those we care about. To say that we will never think about them is an untruth. We get through the process, but we don’t, if we’re honest, ever get over it completely. No matter what you believe about death and an afterlife, we miss those we care about being with us! Yes, at some point in time we move forward, but that movement is a process. It is normal and OK to miss and hold on to the memories. Someone just got removed from our life, and whether it has been a lifelong relationship, or a shorter one, that person is irreplaceable. This is why the “at least you can” comments, or “God must have needed an angel,” hurt so much. Regardless, these people can’t be retrieved.
Who we are is formed by our relationships: our memories, the love, the pain, what we’ve gained, or lost, by having them. Death happens, and we can’t replace that person. I won’t delve into the negative side of a loss. I know it exists.
The next rule is there are no other rules, because everyone’s grief and pain and journey look different. So, the first big “to do” is to remember that there is no such thing as “fixing” someone’s grief. There is nothing wrong with anyone who is grieving that a good cry and lots of caring won’t help.
Another thing you need to understand is that humans can react like injured animals to grief, loss, and pain. We might feel the need to defend our territory aggressively. Like an injured cat or dog, it might be important to secure the wound/person in safety, and let them know you are aware of the loss they have experienced. They still might snap and react. Stay calm, keep a cool head, and give them a wee bit of space. Don’t abandon them: tell them you are still with them.
I know, now you might be saying “Snap?” (Any label might fit this behavior, but I’ll use “snapping” here.) I don’t think I want to deal with a snapping person. Why should I have to deal with snappy behavior? You need to deal with it because at the core of pain, depression and uncontrollable reactions camp out like an ugly monster. This monster is in attack mode until it understands that it can let down the defenses it has erected. Many times this is when people turn and leave, abandoning their family member or friend. Knowing why a person is reacting violently by displaying intense emotions toward you is helpful. Hopefully they are also letting you see them in this state because they trust you enough to let you into their space. Reserve judgement because you don’t know enough to have an opinion yet. When they calm down, ask gentle questions. They’ve just let you into a dark and scary place and sympathy is needed here. Remember that empathy can allow reflection in a gentle manner. What both of you have just witnessed was powerful. You may both be sitting with strong emotions. Your reactions, both verbal and nonverbal, can be crucial here.
Keep in mind that they might be triggered by something that they don’t understand yet. Helping them by listening as they talk it out will bring both of you closer to an understanding. Remember, this is one of the things that friendship is all about. Remember, you aren’t there to fix anyone. You are there to support and listen.
Setting healthy boundaries is also helpful. For instance: “I think that this is pretty scary for you and I can tell that you are showing it by snapping at me. But, please don’t snap at me. I’m willing to sit here with you. I know you need someone to sit and hear the ______ that you are feeling, and when you snap it causes me to want to back off.” I actually had a friend remind me of this after I told him not to interrupt me. It was, for our relationship, the right thing to say, and I was relieved that he could keep a cool head when my emotions and pain were tumbling out in ways that I would have rather not hurt him with. At the time, things were raw, but I recognized that I did need what he offered me.
Boundaries, set in a gentle manner, tell the person being heard that you will be patient with them, but that you are also needing to protect yourself so that the urge to leave when the hard stuff hits the fan is safe for both of you.
This next part is tricky. In setting boundaries, you may have to go to some places and hear some stuff you don’t want to hear. If someone has to let a string of words fly that you don’t like to hear, sit with it. Sometimes the use of multiletter words is shorthand for the stuff that, in the moment, the person can’t verbalize. It buys some time to be able to return to the thought and rephrase it. Sometimes it is all someone has. Don’t set too rigid a boundary in this. Be tolerant.
During the first days or weeks, people are in hypersensitive mode. Everything is a trigger. Relationships and boundaries get tested in new and horrible ways. This test can go on for weeks or months. I’m not excusing awful behavior. I’m saying that you can gently set some healthy boundaries so you don’t feel like running away. You can do this by acknowledging the pain you may both be feeling. The two of you are feeling it differently, and there is no correct way to manage pain. It just is.
For some people, the depression around their grief and pain hits them hard, and for others, it is a gentle, oncoming cloud. They may or may not see it or feel it coming on. They might get defensive about it. Part of the defensive behavior is that they might not fully understand what they are dealing with. This might be a huge first for them. Don’t try to fix it. Sit with it. Our feelings and thoughts with grief aren’t always worked out quietly and gently. Trying to fix something disrupts the natural process of things.
There Are Some Helpful Things to Know in This Process
Tell me you respect me for getting up every day and facing the nightmare I’m living.
Tell me that you don’t understand, but you want to understand, and mean it. Tell me this even if you’ve been through something similar. I’ll tell you what it feels like for me. Most likely it will not feel, or be the same version of grief, loss or pain.
Tell me that you will listen to my stories, no matter how many times I need to talk about whatever it is I’m dealing with, and follow through with this promise. I’ll move forward in my own way and in my own time. Don’t expect to see me on a schedule, because it doesn’t work that way.
If it is OK with you, tell me I can call you when I’m in a bad place, and then be there for me when I do get courageous and risk calling you. I’m not going to be in a good place, so you will need to drop what you are doing and create a safe place for me to let it all out.
Tell me I can fall apart if I need to, and mean it.
Tell me you will sit with me until… (This might mean different things to different people. This sitting business is hard.)
Sometimes what ails the soul needs exploring and understanding. So ask if you can question me about what it is I’m struggling with. Your healthy curiosity will cheer me on. I may, or may not, be desirous to share my experience with you. Ask open-ended questions that require a sentence, paragraph, or even a page to answer; be patient. Grief, loss, and pain aren’t contagious, so feel free to learn about what I’m willing to share. The things I’m not willing to share might change over time, so be open to a changing landscape.
This means that you might ask some very basic questions. Tell me in advance that you are wanting to understand me, the pain I’m in, and you, just like me, are summoning up the courage and bravery to explore and learn. Turn towards the unknown. As you face the pain with me, I’ll still struggle, but I won’t be as alone.
Understand that when I’m alone, I may still dissolve into a ball on my bed. I might shed tears that I can only cry in privacy. This is normal and part of the healing process.
Consider that the “first” of everything will be hard. I don’t know how I’m going to feel, so ask if I want company on a holiday, birthday or anniversary. If I say that I need to be alone, ask if there is anything that you can do to help ease the day. A simple phone call might do the trick. I might not be ready to do lunch, or anything, in public. Respect my wishes. On the flip side of this, keep me in the loop. I might be one of those people that needs to know what’s going on in the world despite not being able to pull it together enough to get out. However, I might want to get out, and then when I’m there, I find it was the wrong choice, so allow me to exit stage left gracefully.
Sometimes someone’s struggles might require a meal six or twelve months after the grief has set in. (The grief might not set in for over a year.) Bad days come at different times. They are not predictable. This is also true for being able to provide self-care for oneself. While the thought might be appealing, the energy needed to actually pull off the self-care might be lacking. Making the coffee or tea and cleaning up the mess is a huge help. Running the bathwater for the much-needed soak and cleaning up the mess might be necessary.
Sometimes the person can tolerate reading, or being read to, and other times, the sensory overload is way too much for them. It is the same with music. This is not abnormal. The brain can get messed up during this process, so be gentle and sensitive.
Fixing Me and Fixing “it” Doesn’t Work
Fixing me or fixing it—whatever the “it” is—can’t be done, so instead, learn to sit with the uncertainty that the ugly pain brings to our doorsteps. I think it is the idea and desire to fix the pain that someone is feeling that leads to all those “don’t say this” articles, as those comments, no matter how well meaning, cut like sharp knives and cause deep wounds to be opened. If you want to offer reassurance, offer the reassurance that you will walk with someone through their grief and pain for however long it takes. Saying something like “Get over it,” and other comments like it, tells the hearer of the comment that you are wanting to fix it and rush them through a process that can’t, and shouldn’t, be rushed. “Fixing it” is more about your needs. I think this is also one of the reasons why “at least” and “they are in a better place” comments are so unwanted. While it might reassure the person who says it, such things are insensitive to the loss that is on the surface. It feels like a fix and a “I need you to exit your grief and get back to the way things were” kind of thing. Things won’t ever be the way they were.
What Do I Say?
Start with “I don’t know what to say, but I’m really sorry that this has happened in your life. I can’t imagine what this is like for you. I’m bringing dinner over tonight/tomorrow.” (Then show up—no excuses!)
Make this about the grieving person. Ask about sharing memories of the deceased. Many times people hold back with this. Sometimes when people lose someone, they want to know about the things that others remember, and reminisce. There is a desire to share what we loved about them. “Gone” doesn’t mean it’s a taboo subject. “Gone” can mean that the need to remember is vital, and it should be present in our relationships.
Sometimes it’s actually the “doing” of something. One of the hardest things for widows or widowers to do is to grocery shop. There is something about roaming the aisles that sets the mind, the memories, and the grief flowing in ways that nothing else does. Maybe it’s all the stuff they loved to eat, or the fact that you won’t be fixing it for them anymore. Maybe it is all the stimuli going by that causes people to abandon grocery carts and head for their cars without having purchased anything. The cupboards may remain bare. So, offering to help with the shopping might be useful. Offering support for this task might be just what is needed, but then again, it might not be easy for the person to tell you what they want and need. It might be helpful to go with them and have a list, so if they need to leave, they can, and you can finish the job for them.
Keep in mind that it is embarrassing to have laundry pile up and not take out the trash. Offering to help with this, if you know them well, might really hit the spot. Brew up the tea or coffee, or whatever it is they are drinking, and let them relax. The fact is, a cleaned-up space can help them relax. Actions count!
There is so much, but I think I’ll leave the reader with these parting words: you can’t fix it, replace it, or rush it. Speak words of gentleness and care. If the words don’t contain your own need for fixing, replacing, or rushing of the process, you are on the right track.