This past year has left so many of us in mourning. Some, like me, have lost a piece of their heart due to the death of a child or a parent or a loved one. And some are mourning the loss of a marriage or a business or a job due to the pandemic. Others lost friends this year or a sense of community or purpose or safety.
In this time of national grief, I have come to intimately realize that, despite our best intentions, we aren’t always helpful in how we try to comfort or support those in grief. If you follow me on social media, you know that I have been very open about my grief journey and that I’m committed to using my experience to make grief less taboo. Part of my mission is to not only make people more educated and aware of grief itself, but also to show how we can best support someone who is going through loss.
So whether you are going through grief right now or trying to best support someone in your life who is grieving, please consider these Do’s and Don’ts for supporting people throughout their grief journey:
Watch Your Words
I don’t want you to be afraid to speak your truth or to carefully parse out every word you say. But please be very careful when trying to offer comfort to someone in grief. For instance, when my Sammy passed away, I had a friend reach out to me and say something to the effect of: “As I sit here snuggling my kids on the couch I am thinking about the pain you must be feeling and sending you love.”
She meant well, truly, but it shot right through my mama heart like an arrow. Of course I want my friends to cuddle and enjoy their kids. But, highlighting your ability to still cuddle your child while I can’t snuggle mine isn’t really helpful. I think it’s always better to go with less rather than more in these instances, like “I’m just thinking about you right now and sending so much love.”
Get comfort elsewhere
Also try to avoid putting the griever in a position of comforting you. We aren’t in a position to soothe or support you in your reaction to our grief. Certainly supporting someone who is grieving can be difficult and can trigger our own feelings of loss and fear. But turn to other friends or family or even a therapist with those feelings, not the person who is in throes of grief.
Less Food, More Connection
People who have lost a loved one know that their fridge can be overloaded with homemade casseroles and cakes those first few weeks. It’s a kind gesture, but unless you know your friend really wants or needs more food, it can get excessive. So what can you do instead? Wait 2-4 weeks and then send food when the rush is over (the same goes for flowers). It will be much more appreciated and let the griever know they haven’t been forgotten after the rest of the world has moved on and they are still in pain. Give a gift certificate from their favorite restaurant that delivers. And when they are ready to emerge into the world again, make a reservation for dinner at a place you know your friend or family member will enjoy. Then, invite them. Handle all of the arrangements. Put it in their calendar if you can. Pick them up. Help get their shoes on or get them out the door if you need to. Then, take them out. Talk to them. Be present. Put down the oven mitts and just hold their hand.
“Let me know what I can do,” we often say to mourners. “Anything, anything at all,” we promise, and we truly mean it. But here’s the thing: We won’t ask. I mean, I for one am not really gonna call someone at 3 a.m. and tell my friend “I need you right now. I am in so much pain I don’t know how to keep breathing.”
Most of us wouldn’t ever reach out and ask for help, even when we are in those throes. We don’t want to be a burden. And, for many of us, asking for help and even more importantly ACCEPTING help is just not in our nature or emotional makeup. So when we say “Let me know if you need anything,” we are actually heaping a bunch of emotional labor onto a griever’s already full lap.
What can we do instead? Again, be proactive. Don’t ask or offer to help in an open-ended way. Instead, offer real, tangible things that you want to do to help, either in the present moment or the future. Ask if they want to go for a walk. Offer to do the grocery shopping for them. Drive them to the grocery store or church. Ask if they want you to take the dog to the groomers or weed the lawn or whatever else you see that needs doing. If they say ‘no,’ alright. But keep asking. Keep looking for ways you can be of service, and don’t take the no’s personally. This brings me to my next point.
Stop Trying to Earn an “A+” at Helping us Grieve
Okay, this one is for all you Type A’s out there (myself included!). One thing I have noticed in the past few months is that some people view grief as a sort of competition. It’s usually unconscious. They feel deeply insecure about the loss I am enduring and how to help, and it triggers feelings of helplessness and fear that they aren’t sure how to manage. So to cope with that pain, they kind of go overboard and let their inner Type A take over. They want to be the ‘best’ at helping me grieve, the one who makes the most grandiose gestures or the one who travels the farthest distance to show up at my door. They send massive floral arrangements and constantly send me long, wordy messages trying to offer me guidance and support. Sometimes they will make that grand gesture and post about it afterwards, almost patting themselves on the back and letting the world know they are a good friend.
While the gestures are lovely, it doesn’t usually touch me where I live or make me feel seen or comforted. Because deep down I can feel that these gestures are more about their own self concept or comfort than mine.
You know what impacts me the most? Not the big elaborate gestures but the friends who make small, earnest and consistent efforts to let me know that I am loved. I have a friend who sends me a little green heart emoji every day. I have a friend who just sends me a voice recording once a week offering love and support. Other friends send me songs or poems or funny memes throughout the day. These small gestures mean so much more than the costly flights or floral arrangements or presents.
So, think small when helping someone you love go through the grief process. Think real. Stop trying to make a big impact and just focus on making connection. On letting your friend know they are loved and they are on your mind.
Let Me Care about You, Too
I hate when a friend of mine is sharing a struggle or a stressful event, and then will stop herself and say, “Never mind, this is nothing compared to what you’re going through.” Ouch. This is coming from such a good place but I really dislike being shut out of my friends’ lives that way. It’s as if I have a scarlet letter on my chest, “G” for grieving, and as such, I don’t get to be involved in all the triumphs and tribulations of the people I love.
Take it from me: Just because someone is in grief does not mean that they don’t want to hear about their friends’ lives. If I ask about something in your life, I really want to hear about it. Yes, I am grieving, but I still care about your divorce or your dog’s heart problem or your financial stress. I still want to hear about you and your life. I still want to be your friend, in every sense of the word. I am still here. I am still me. So I speak for all grievers when I say: Please, let us in! Let us be part of your world.
Sit with My Pain
This is perhaps my biggest tip of all: Before you try to comfort someone in grief or offers words of sympathy, please stop and check in with yourself. Ask yourself: Am I trying to ‘fix’ their pain? Am I trying to resolve their grief and make them feel better…so that, in turn, *I* can feel better?
Yikes. When you put it that way it sounds kind of selfish, but it’s actually a very common and very human response. We don’t like to see the people we love in pain, because it causes *us* pain, especially if we are empaths or people who struggle with codependency. As an empath, my natural response whenever I have seen someone I love grieving is to go overboard trying to help them. It’s part of why I became a therapist, part of my role in my family: To be the fixer, the nurturer, the one who takes on everyone’s pain as if it is my own.
Does that sound familiar? Even if you aren’t an empath or someone who struggles with codependency, you probably have felt overwhelmed or anxious or deeply saddened at the sight of your loved one’s grief. In response, you may have tried to ‘kiss it better,’ to brush it under the rug, or tried to encourage your friend to forget or move on or somehow just get past the pain.
But you know what has been the most healing for me while I am grieving my son? Friends who are brave enough to sit with me in my pain. Friends who see my deep grief, and who don’t want to change it, but who want to be present with me during it. Friends who are conscious enough and enlightened enough to be willing to let my pain and sorrow and brokenness exist, without judgment, without criticism, without needing to fix me or manage my hurt. Friends who honor my grief by being willing to see my grief, to sit with it, to let it exist in all of its messiness.
Grief is Not Linear
The most important thing to know about grief is that it is not linear. Some days I may laugh and dance and be in an upbeat mood. Other days, it will be as if Sammy just died and I am lost in a world of pain. That’s normal. That’s okay. As my friend, be willing to let those tides ebb and flow, and support me by being aware that there is no expiration date on my grief.
What happens most of the time with grievers is that we are surrounded with love and comfort in those early days. For the first month or two, love comes pouring in. But then, life continues on and you start to forget about your friend’s grief a little bit. Do you want to know the most impactful floral bouquet I received after Sammy’s death? It was not in the days or weeks following. It was the bouquet someone sent me three months after he died. Three months. That moved me so much. Because it was as if my friend was saying, “I didn’t forget. I still care. I still grieve with you.”
If you want to help someone in grief, try to remember that their pain doesn’t go away just because time has passed. Keep checking in. It doesn’t have to be a large gesture, as I said above. Maybe just a thoughtful email or an invitation to get coffee. And set a calendar reminder for the anniversary of their loved one’s death so that you can be sure to reach out around that time. Holidays are also hard.
Maybe your friend will feel extra sad around Christmas or maybe they will be really suffering around their loved one’s birthday. Find out what days are the hardest if you can, and be there for those days.
Let me end with this: Over the past three months without my Sammy, I’ve been tended to, nurtured, uplifted, and supported by so many people, most of them not even blood relations but my family all the same. My family of choice. And strangers and acquaintances have reached out to me with such unconditional love, such tenderness and empathy, with all the love and light in their hearts, and for that, I will be unendingly grateful. I have been truly ensconced in love and that feels me with such warmth and community even in my darkest hours.
So, although it hasn’t always hit the mark or been overwhelming at times, I know all the gestures of support came from a place of love and true compassion for my pain. Thank you, thank you, thank you to all my dear ones who have been so selfless and gentle and giving to me. I am so honored to be offered the best of human nature when I have been suffering from the worst of it.
(***Please see here to see what I am doing to fight back against drug dealers on social media so no other families have to suffer as we have).