This post was originally published in ParentMap on May 14, 2015.
Every time there is news of someone joining the ranks of the grieving, I grieve for them. It is such a difficult road, and yet, it is an experience we will all have at some time in our lives. If that person is a parent, then I have a special place in my heart for them. The sudden and tragic recent death of Sheryl Sandberg’s husband Dave Goldberg at the prime of his life, is another such story. A power couple in the tech world, parents of two children, they seemed to have the world at their feet. And now life has gone sideways for them all. These stories are hard to hear. They are a stark reminder of what we all have to lose.
It’s often heard among the widowed set that there are people who “get grief,” and then there is everybody else. Before my husband died, I was definitely in the “everyone else” camp. Had I been confronted with a friend who was grieving, I wouldn’t have had a clue what to say or do. I had no frame of reference. No one close to me had ever died. Chances are good that you know or will know a family whose lives have been turned upside-down by loss. Here are some tips for how become one of those who “get” grief.
1. Show up
To the grieving, it often seems as if friends disappear just when you need them most. People sometimes fail to show up because they fear they will say the wrong thing, or be too emotional, or make the grieving person cry, but in grief there are no right words, and everything is emotional. Simply showing up and listening is all that’s required.
2. Listen …
The number one way to supporting a grieving person is to listen to their stories. They need to talk about the details of their trauma because the loss they’ve experienced is massive and talking through such loss is often how one begins to make sense of it. They will also need to talk about their loved one. Many people mistakenly assume that they shouldn’t mention the deceased person because it will be upsetting to the bereaved, but in reality, talking about their loved one is all a grieving person wants to do. They want to remember, they want to keep that person alive by talking about them. Let them talk. Even if you’ve heard the “death story” over and over or know the “how they met” story inside out, and it feels like they are “stuck” or are just rehashing the same things over and over, just keep listening. Grief is a process and talking about it is the way through.
3. … but don’t give advice
While you are listening, you may be tempted to offer advice. Only offer it if the griever has asked for it. Remember, your job is to listen, to commiserate, but not to fix things which is what you are doing when you offer your advice.
4. You can’t fix things
Avoid making pat comments: you’ll feel better soon; they’re in a better place now; you’re young, I’m sure you’ll find love again; you’re strong, you’ll get through it. Grief is not a solvable condition. In a word, “grief sucks,” and there is no way to circumvent the experience. You just have to get through grief, and it’s very hard work. No matter what you do, you will not be able to take the pain away. Be prepared instead to hold a hand through incredibly intense emotions. This will likely be one of the most difficult things you’ve ever done, but it is humbling to realize that you are trusted enough to handle whatever comes.
5. Each person’s grief is unique
Sometimes people will not want to talk about their grief at all and that’s OK too. Everyone grieves differently and there is no “right” way to go about it. There is no set timetable either. Some people may seem to recover quickly while others seem to languish in grief. Be careful not to judge a person’s grief. There is no playbook for this process.
6. Remove yourself from the process
I had many people show up at the door who would hug me and then burst into tears, leaving me to do the comforting. Feeling emotional is understandable, but try and remember that you are there to be the supporter and not the supportee. Emotions will be heightened, and your friend will not be able to contribute much to your friendship during this time. Try to be patient and understand that the grieving isn’t about you, so don’t take the yo-yo emotions of the griever personally. This isn’t to say that you should hide your emotions from your grieving friend. Be honest about what you are feeling, but don’t expect your friend to be able to comfort you in the way you might be used to.
7. Anticipate needs
I can’t tell you how many people said to me, “if you need anything, please call.” I never once called those people. It was the people who showed up at my door at 10 p.m. on a Tuesday night with a pint of ice cream who were the people I treasured. Or they would call and offer to take the kids to the park, or the dog for a walk. I had one neighbor who simply mowed my lawn every week. These were the people who were invaluable to me. It wouldn’t have occurred to me at the time that the lawn even needed mowing. That said, be careful when trying to help out. Washing and putting away a deceased loved one’s clothes might seem helpful, but it may be the last thing that still smelled of the person and washing it would be extremely upsetting to the grieving person. Ask before moving things or cleaning up.
8. Set up a meal train
A meal train is a way of providing meals for the grieving family and there a couple of great online resources. Mealtrain.com is one. Set up a page for the family being sure to ask them about dietary restrictions, favorite foods, etc. Then you can share the link to the page via email or social media so that friends and family can sign up to provide meals. If you have people ask what they can do to help, then you can just direct them to the meal train. Most people are relieved to be given a chance to help out.
9. Keep the invitations coming
It’s very alienating becoming widowed. Suddenly invitations to things you did as a couple dry up. People think you are still too sad to enjoy an evening out. Or they are unsure of how to include you, now a single person in a group of couples. Often after about the six-month to a year mark, you stop hearing from people altogether. Widowed people will often tell you that the second year is the hardest. Friends and family have made the mental assumption that the bereaved are “done” grieving and that they no longer need their support, or they might think they are being invasive if they reach out. This is often the time a grieving person needs you the most. The numbness of the first few months has worn off and the real grieving begins.
Grieving often felt to me as if I had run a marathon every day for six months. I’d fall into bed at the end of the day aching. The same thing will happen to a person who is supporting a grieving person. Take care of your body. Get plenty of sleep, drink fluids, eat well and exercise. Get the grieving person to take a walk with you. Or go to the gym. Or take them for a massage. Grief has a way of getting deep into muscles and can be debilitating. Taking care of your body will make a world of difference.
11. The airplane analogy
Something I heard in my earliest days as a grieving mom was that, like in an airplane safety pamphlet, a parent must put their own air mask on before they help the children put on theirs. This idea, that I needed to take care of myself in order to be able to take care of my children stuck with me. Although this applies to helping a child through grief, this same idea works in the relationship between a grief supporter and a griever. To help a grieving person takes a lot of strength. You need to provide sustenance to yourself before you can provide it to another.