Whenever we lose someone close to us, there is a range of thoughts and feelings we experience, sometimes over time and other times all at once. Sometimes the thoughts are rational, and sometimes they are so irrational that we are glad no one else can hear them. Either way, we all have our moments where we process things in a way that is unique to us, and we hope and need people to understand that. Here are ten things I’ve learned through my own grieving processes over the past two years:
1. People need to figure out where they are.
A major event like losing a loved one, particularly when it is by surprise, is a complete shock to the system. Each time it happens, it is completely unique. The person suffering the loss has never lost this person, during this time in their lives, for this reason before. They need to process emotions that they may not even understand at the moment. They are stuck. This becomes even more complicated if they still need to go on with their days like business as usual. This includes going to work, taking care of their family, attending pre-registered events, etc., that not only may keep them busy, but keep them from carving out the space they need for urgent self-care. To add insult to injury, if they are in a location that is not near their inner circle of support, they may struggle with letting go because they feel there is no one near to catch them.
2. This is not the time for getting in your feelings.
If you reach out to a grieving person and they don’t respond, are short, tell you to give them space, or any other response that seems off-putting, cut them some slack. Sometimes we think we are being helpful by showing we care by constantly calling and “checking on [them],” when in reality for a lot of people, every time someone says “sorry for your loss” or “what happened” or “you’re in my prayers/thoughts,” or anything else of comfort (especially if it is something that seems to warrant a reply), it feels like the band-aid gets replaced and ripped off all at the same time. If they are still struggling with #1, this just hinders their time for self care even more. If the person is like me, they feel guilty when they don’t respond to you, and that repetitive, sometimes robotic, response they give you is more for your sake, even if it is painful and energy-draining for them.
3. If you can avoid it, don’t project your grief on to them.
We all grieve differently and there is no right or wrong way to do it (within reason), so by no means is this a plea to “keep it to yourself.” If you all are each others’ support for situations such as loss of a loved one, lean. If you lean on each other, it’ll keep you both upright. The interaction I’m referring to is that of the peripheral griever. For instance, my Granddaddy recently passed. He was like a father to me. My entire family knew it. However, not everyone who knew my family (or me) did. Can you imagine how I might feel if someone came to me and said something like, “Oh my goodness! He was such a nice man! I would see him cutting the grass sometimes and he’d always speak. My heart hurts. I just can’t believe it!”?
WHAT. DO. YOU. WANT. ME. TO. DO. WITH. THAT!? How can I help you!?
In my mind, I’m thinking “You think YOUR heart hurts?! I lost a PARENT AND GRANDPARENT ALL AT ONCE!” Instead, I’m expected to have some sort of pleasantry as a response. This is not meant to say that the other person was being selfish or insensitive. They may have even felt that sharing a positive tidbit about my PaPa would be good for me to hear. Things like this are great; who doesn’t like to know how the deceased touched the lives of others? But there is a time for that.
This goes back to #1 & #2. The next time you end up at someone’s house who was the closest to the deceased, watch them disappear at some point. When my PaPa died, I would watch my Granny sneak away sometimes because she was physically and emotionally TIRED of playing her First Lady role at her HUSBAND’S (not Pastor’s) funeral. Imagine how polite a little First Lady is to her church members during this time. Think about how she feels. Could you do it?
4. You do or don’t have to let the person know you’re there for them.
This one is tricky. Here’s my take on it. Biologically, I am an only child. Through life experiences, I have gained a dozen siblings and parents. I already KNOW I can lean on them and the extent to which I could. None of these people have reached out to remind me they are here for me. If you are not a part of the inner circle of the person suffering loss, however they define that circle, they may have not even considered you as someone willing and able to help them out. Saying so is extremely comforting and helpful. But remember, timing and phrasing are everything. See #1-3.
5. It helps if you know your person.
I recently lost someone else and I stopped eating. Not intentionally, but time somewhat stopped so I didn’t pay attention to meal times. One of my sisters asked if I ate, my response was to downplay the downward spiral I was in, and about an hour later, there was a delivery man at my door with my favorite local pizza order. I ate it because it smelled amazing, I hate wasting food, and it tasted like the warm embrace I know was really being sent with it.
Here’s why this worked. She KNOWS me and knows even if the sky is falling, I would talk to her sooner than most. She also knows that I am terrible at self-care when I go through the motions of acting like nothing is wrong. Knowing my pizza order was a tasty bonus, but the root of it is that she knew what I needed and how to take care of me from afar. For some, this type of approach may have worked, for others it may have been intrusive, manipulative, or rude. If you know your person, you know not only what they need, but how to make sure they have it. Intent versus Impact. See #2-4.
6. Even if you do know them, your efforts can still crash and burn.
My best friend tried to support me in only the way a bestie would when I lost my Granddaddy. However, I was so far gone because of the combination of things mentioned in #1-5, that her efforts couldn’t get through to me. I was worn down too much for her to be able to build me up and I didn’t make it any easier for her in her efforts. She isn’t in the same state as me so she couldn’t physically see the light going out of my eyes. If at first you don’t succeed, I can’t say you should just try, try, again. What I’ll say is think about #1, 2, and 5. Sometimes you keep trying, sometimes you switch it up, and sometimes you stop. Whatever you do, do not make it about you.
7. Don’t ignore hints.
Some people (myself included) are not fans of people dropping hints about what they want. Just say it, already! But sometimes a grieving person struggles to articulate what they need and/or don’t feel comfortable letting it be known outright. I once told one of my sisters that I was bored and just sitting at home doing nothing. She drove about an hour to come do the exact same thing with me. We probably talked for about 3 minutes. I am still unsure whether I was trying to drop her a hint, but her response was just what I needed.
8. Act on your support.
“Let me know if you need anything” or “I’m here if you need me” should not be as empty as an American asking you how you are doing. If a person finally tries to lean on you, CATCH THEM. Think of this time as a Trust Fall. You volunteered for the exercise, they finally worked up enough nerves to trust you and let go and then they FALL?! They literally are now worse off than they were before, all because you offered them buzz words. It’s okay not to be able to help. Think about #4. Deep down they know some people who have their backs. Don’t add yourself to the guest list and then ditch the reservation.
9. Provide tough love when needed.
Tough love is still love (if you do it right). You know how in the movies when someone is sad, they lay in bed all day and someone comes and gently asks them if they are hungry or want to get up? That’s one approach. If a person stays unresponsive too long, however, it can become unhealthy, both physically and mentally.
That’s why in some of the other movies you see someone come in, fling the curtains open, send someone to the shower, and force them to sit and eat. You MUST think of #1 & #5 here. Depression is real. Not showering or eating is a symptom. The root cause is what you’re looking for. If it is simply grief, then do what you need to do to support your person in a way that they need. If grief evolves into something deeper, forcing them to shower isn’t a solution. Tough love may take on a different form here. I’m going to bring in #2-3 here as well. When I say don’t project your grief, that also means don’t project how you grieve onto them. Some people go work out a lot, others might stay in. The person who stays in when they grieve shouldn’t scold the person working out and say they need to sit down and focus on themselves. The gym is where they focus. So when you try to support from a place of tough love, rev up the love and be mindful with the tough.
10. Know that they are thankful for who you are to them, probably now more than before.
No matter how things all play out, if you were a valued part of their life, the person experiencing grief has thought about that at some point during their mourning. The whole “life is short” moment people have during loss definitely takes them down this path. They are thankful for who you are to them, and in that, they are thankful for what you do for them during this time, even if it is nothing. They love you and cherish your love. Things may not necessarily be the same from here on out, but if you’re open to evolution, the two of you will continue to weave your paths together.
With all these things considered, the common thread here is LOVE. Remember that love is a verb and you have to choose to act on it over and over. If you care for that person, you will be flexible and respect boundaries as needed in a way they won’t forget. Sadly but assuredly, someday it will be their turn to consider these things for you. Help them understand what this kind of love looks like.
Brittany is living life as a musical; everything is better with melodies of the heart. She is applying forglobal citizenship, collecting memories and sharing laughs with others far and wide. She hopes by embracing her truths as they come she gives others the courage to do the same. Connect with Brittany on Twitter @GloballyLocal6.