Written By Brittany P Male LCSW, CADC
When I was 20, my father died in a motorcycle accident on a late spring afternoon. I had just finished my sophomore year of college and was preparing for a busy summer as a lifeguard back home. It’ll be 12 years this May, and I still remember vividly the moments leading up to, and following, finding out that he had passed. My life shifted in a way that I couldn’t have seen coming, and for the next several years I spent my time picking up the pieces that had been shattered on the floor of my family’s living room that day.
That may not have been where my experience with grief started, but it sure was the first significant death in my life. Since then, I have experienced the death of one of my best friends as well as a very close aunt. I’m not sharing this with you for sympathy or to compare grief experiences, but instead giving you context for what I’m about to share. Although there were so many people that offered their condolences and support to me throughout those early years, there were also those who left me feeling disappointed, and even hurt unknowingly. It was only years later, after some distance from the rawness of grief, that I realized the avoidance and lack of knowledge our society has surrounding death and grief was what made it difficult for people to empathize with me.
I find that death initiates a form of grief that for many people is too difficult to acknowledge. Acknowledging someone’s death means that we also have to acknowledge our own inevitable death, and when someone close to us experiences a death it also leaves us to acknowledge that people close to us could also die. In general, we do not like to think about those things happening. This desire to avoid thinking about our own mortality as well as the mortality of those we care for often times motivates us to avoid those who are experiencing this loss.
I should mention that grief isn’t just reserved for death, but can also be experienced after any significant “ending”. Most of us have experienced losses such as moving, ending of relationships, leaving jobs. For the purpose of this post, I will be directly referring to the grief experienced after the death of someone close to a person, but much of what I’m about to share could apply in any of the above examples. The primary goal of this post is to help provide some guidelines for those who know someone experiencing deep grief.
Below, I have identified several points to keep in mind when you know someone who is grieving. In no way is this an exhaustive list of things to consider, but I do believe it is a list that will get you started and give you some direction when trying to help the person you care for navigate through their grief. In addition, please keep in mind that everyone’s experience of grief may be different so the points shared below should be applied with that in mind.
Sometimes the person may not be ready to talk about their grief or may not even acknowledge that they have grief (this was me for about the first six months). It wasn’t that I didn’t cry about his death or didn’t talk about it, but it just didn’t quite sink in until several months later. I hadn’t fully allowed myself to acknowledge the significance of this loss in my life. When I’m talking with clients about this denial stage, I share with them that this is a protective stage that our brain allows us. Keep this in mind please.
What’s interesting about this is that for most people around someone who’s lost someone, after six months they may “assume” that the person is better and moving forward from the loss. In reality, though, they may just be beginning to acknowledge the grief they’re experiencing. This is where the patience comes in. We often want to “fix things” and make them better quickly and what I’ve found with grief in both my own experience as well as having counseled those experiencing grief, is that grief is not “quick” and therefore can not be “fixed” quickly. In fact, grief is not something to be fixed at all because when someone has lost someone significant---they are changed forever. They will never be as they were before.
Humans don’t do discomfort well as a whole and difficult emotions create discomfort so we have a tendency to try to fix or resolve them. Grief requires that we just allow the person to sit in that feeling instead of trying to fix it. The only solution to their grief would be to not feel it anymore which is an impossible solution considering that the loss can not be undone, so instead of trying to fix it----just provide support and comfort. It’s important to keep in mind that although those early days and weeks may require a little more support and comfort, ultimately they will need your support and comfort for many weeks, months, and years to come.
If you’re unsure what kind of support and comfort they may benefit from, there are a few things to consider. You could ask them what they need. Sometimes however the answer you may get is “nothing”. That doesn’t mean do nothing. That means they don’t know what they need because no matter what you do, their loved one will not return to them. If they say “nothing”, I encourage you to reflect back on that person and ask yourself what kids of comfort and support they’ve valued in the past. Maybe they’re someone who appreciates being alone but would benefit from having meals sent to their home or groceries delivered. Maybe they’ve valued time spent talking with them and you could plan to get together with them if they’re willing to allow them the time and space to talk. Maybe they’ve got pets or children that, at this time, are added stressors and they could use a few hours to rest and you could offer to watch their children while they do something for themselves.
As a whole, we can be a little self-involved, and are often guilty of personalizing things even when it has nothing to do with us. It’s important to remember that when someone is experiencing grief, sometimes this may motivate them to say or do things they may not do otherwise and therefore leave you feeling like you’ve done something wrong.
Moving past denial and sadness, there exists anger. When someone close to you dies, “social rules” go out the window. Not to say it’s “right”, but there is a sense of entitlement to do whatever the heck you want because well, you earned it. Politeness and courtesy seem unimportant and on top of that, you’re struggling with being angry that someone you loved is gone. The anger is not just being angry at the loss but can impact everything you do. Maybe you notice that the co-worker who just returned to work after her partner passed is being a “crab” or your neighbor who’s been dealing with the loss of a family member also seems to be in a rush and doesn’t even wave. Whatever the impact to you, please remember that the person’s grief may be displaced onto you or those or things around that person. This is where forgiveness comes into the play.
In some ways, I’ve needed to forgive myself for the anger that I displaced onto others around me after my father died. I was just so angry and there was no way to fix it---it just needed to run its course. I was young and was experiencing emotions I hadn’t before. I’m not saying that this is the case for everyone, but I’ve experienced it to be true often, and therefore being forgiving of those experiencing grief has made my list of things to consider. That said---dealing with a loss does not give someone the right to just be mean for an unidentified amount of time. If you’re observing someone close to you grieving and being angry or sad I would encourage you to talk with them about meeting with a therapist so they can actively work through their grief in a productive way. Their grief may have evolved into depression. If they’re not open to talking with someone, just continue to be supportive and encouraging and maybe they’ll be ready to talk with someone at a different time.
Generally speaking, saying something is better than saying nothing. Instead of thinking that you need to have all the answers, or tell them something very profound, understand that there is nothing you are going to say that will take away their grief. Your purpose as someone who cares for them is instead to allow them to feel what they are feeling and provide comfort through listening and validating those feelings. Everyone grieves differently and sometimes what that person needs can change from day to day. Allow them to communicate what it is they may need from you, or better yet offer a few things to them and allow them to choose what they’d like from you. Below is a list of things to say as well as things not to say.
What to say:
1. I am so sorry for your loss.
2. I wish I had the right words, just know I care.
3. I don’t know how you feel, but I am here to help in any way I can.
4. You and your loved one will be in my thoughts and prayers.
5. My favorite memory of your loved one is…
6. I am always just a phone call away
7. Give a hug instead of saying something
8. We all need help at times like this and I am here for you
9. I am usually up early or late, if you need anything
10. Saying nothing, just be with the person
What not to say:
1. At least she lived a long life, many people die young
2. He is in a better place
3. She brought this on herself
4. There is a reason for everything
5. Aren’t you over him, yet he has been dead for awhile now
6. You can have another child still
7. She was such a good person--God wanted her to be with him
8. I know how you feel
9. She did what she came here to do and it was her time to go
10. Be strong
Despite the fast paced time we live in, grief does not have a timeline. While a year may seem like a long time to someone who hasn’t experienced grief, for those who have, a year is simple a blink of an eye. While others have moved on, and oftentimes don’t even think about someone’s loss the previous year, that person is likely very much still in their grief. Depending on the significance of the loss, it can take several years for the intensity of that loss to dissipate and for someone to begin finding meaning and acceptance of their loss. That said, even years later the anniversary of their death, holidays, birthdays, or other personally significant days can often trigger grief reactions as if it had just happened.
To both clients who I have worked with as well as loved ones, the idea that there is not a “normal timeline” of grief comes as a surprise. People’s expectations of when they should be feeling better are often skewed. They believe that in a matter of weeks they should be feeling better. This can often lead to secondary stress related to feeling like something is wrong with them---that they’re not over the loss and doing better than they may be only a few weeks later after a loss. Time does allow us the opportunity to heal but there is no specific time assigned to grief. The complexities of the relationship and the person grieving, the circumstances in which the person died, and the current stage of life the person grieving is in, all influence their process of grief. When my father died, I had just finished my sophomore year of college. My relationship with my father was complex, and there was a lot to sort through after he passed. I had family members that were also grieving and because of that, had to navigate through grief on my own. It took me years to find myself on the other end of grief and then I got pregnant with my first son and the grief wave hit me again. I had to reprocess my father’s death all over again. That said, it didn’t take me nearly as long and at that point, I had the awareness to know that I needed help doing so. A few therapy sessions later, I had come back to a place of acceptance. While the frequency of emotions may reduce over time, the intensity of the grief does not alter and may be triggered by circumstances out of our control or awareness.
I hope that this post serves as a practical guide to help you navigate through being a support to someone experiencing grief in your life. If you have any comments, concerns, or are looking for therapeutic support of your own to help you navigate through the grief you may be experiencing, please do not hesitate to call us to schedule an appointment today at (630) 570-0050 or email us at contact.OH@oakheartcenter.com.