What we have to realize is that the people we love — after experiencing some major bout of loss — are different now. They aren’t the same. And they never will be. This experience is going to change them forever. And that’s okay.
If we want to be in their lives, then it is our job as the friends, family, and even acquaintances of people in deep grief to step up and be present for them. To love them whether they are ready to be loved or not. To do things with care. To create space for them to feel, grieve, talk, cry, whatever.
So many of us fear to go into these deep and dark places with others. It’s a shame. Because as a friend of a griever, these are the worst things you can do:
- Say nothing. People often say nothing because they are afraid of reminding the person of their pain or saying the wrong thing.
- Do nothing. Supporting friends and family through tough times is like anything in life, you have to back up your words with actions to show people you really care.
- Say the right thing at the wrong time. Don’t tell someone that you don’t believe in an afterlife after their child just died. Don’t urge someone to find meaning in their pain 5 minutes after their brother gets shot. Don’t tell someone who just lost a parent that you lost your cat once. Save that for a later time when he/she will be more open to the moral of your story. Saying the right thing requires the right timing.
- Feel rejected. This person that you love, that is experiencing grief, probably has only enough energy to get out of bed in the morning. If that’s the case, he or she probably doesn’t have the energy to bend to your wants and needs. Don’t take it personally. It’s just a grief thing.
The ability to support people through grief is often seen as one that’s limited to therapists and clinical psychologists. But the truth is, so many of us will experience grief either firsthand or secondhand in life. It is part of our role as loving people in the world to learn how to best approach friends, family, acquaintances, and strangers in pain.
The tips below are in no way exhaustive. In fact, this is a very short list. But if you are reading this, I know you’re reading it for a reason. And I want you to feel supported in taking some action today — in saying or doing something for someone you love that’s in pain.
If you can just act on one thing in this article, he or she and you will be better for it.
Because when you take that leap of faith, when you dive into those uncomfortable moments with the people you love — your bond is strengthened irrevocably. And you begin to connect with the essence of what it means to be who you are— loving unconditionally.
With that, here are a few things you can say (and do) that will show you love and support someone in grief:
“I did X thing I thought you might need.”
This is 100x better than the words, “let me know if you need anything.” While those words have a beautiful intention behind them, they actually put the onus on the person in pain. They require that person to (a) think about what they need, and (b) swallow their pride and communicate it to you.
With these barriers, someone who is in deep pain is likely not going to reach out and ask for help. It’s your job, in the supporting role, to find things you can do that don’t require input from the griever at all.
Take some action. You aren’t going to do the wrong thing. There is no wrong thing. Unless you’re trying to force your friend or family member to do something — like go clubbin’ after a wake. But who knows, maybe that’s what they need.
Here are some good examples:
- When my mom died, our next door neighbors and family showed up with shovels and a truckload of mulch to redo our front landscaping. My uncle scrubbed our bathroom (gross). My friends brought me to get my ear pierced in memory of her.
- When my house burned down, a person (who was previously a stranger) started a GoFundMe that took off. A person called me and offered to do all the new landscaping for free. Numerous people offered their homes to us.
Whatever you can do — do it. Don’t ask, just do it. Grievers don’t have time to think about what they need. They are too busy, overwhelmed, and…upset.
“I am sitting here, waiting for you in X place for the next hour ready for a hug if you are.”
I stole this from Option B. It was my favorite story shared in the book. I thought it was brilliant.
Sometimes all we can do is offer our presence in very specific ways. Just show up at someone’s house and sit in the driveway. Spend three hours at someone’s place of work hoping you may be able to get lunch. Make that extremely loving gesture that you’ve been thinking of.
In these moments, it’s important to know your intent and be completely open to rejection. Don’t take it personally if the person doesn’t take you up on that hug. They just can’t yet. Or they just can’t right now.
“Here’s a pizza.”
[Or insert some other very comforting food item.]
Food is the #1 thing that people like to give when someone dies, and with good reason. It’s comforting. Just realize that everyone has a different relationship with food in grief. Some overeat like crazy — they just can’t stop. Others don’t eat hardly at all. They lose 20 pounds in two weeks (like someone I know intimately, cough me).
So don’t feel rejected if they didn’t eat your world-famous cheesy fries. Just know they love you for dropping them off.
[Tip: Pizza, or something similar, is something that can be eaten NOW. You can leave it out on the counter and people coming in and out of the house can just eat it. You don’t feel compelled to find a place in the fridge for it like all those lasagnas. That’s SUPER helpful when the fridge is full.]
“I just wanted to call and say I love you.”
This shows that you care. And while you may not fully understand what this person is going through or how much pain they are really in, you are affirming that you are still here and still loving them.
You may get a voicemail box one hundred times. You may not get a call back right away or ever. But asserting yourself as a person that gives a shit about your friend or family member is more important than I can even tell you… EVEN if that person is incredibly guarded and private (which I have been known to be). I owe a lot to the friends and family that looked past that and showed up anyways.
“How are you doing with everything today?”
Emphasis placed on “everything.”
Acknowledging the elephant in the room is a really powerful act of service you can do for a person in pain. Someone who is grieving likely has a fear that he or she will bring everyone else down by talking about it all the time. He or she may also not want to talk about it at all.
But if you open the door and give him or her the opportunity to be truly honest with you about their experiences, you are doing a major act of service. Give that space for a person to be truly honest and you have a friend for life.
Go on with regular conversation all the time and you have an acquaintance that thinks you’re acting a bit selfish.
“Tell me something about your [insert title/name of lost loved one]” or “Here’s something you probably didn’t know about your [insert title/name of lost loved one]”
Again, grief is this ever-present, background force for a person in pain, especially in the beginning stages. By posing these statements, you are just acknowledging what the other person is already thinking about — their lost loved one. That’s beautiful.
By offering up a story or asking for one, you are helping the person reconnect with the energy and essence of the person that is no longer physically here. There is something really beautiful about these moments.
“_____ would be proud of you” or “Wow, you just reminded me of _____.”
Whether we loved or hated-to-love the person that’s died, we still want to feel connected with them. Part of the way to stay connected is to see the good pieces of him/her inside of ourselves. The other part is projecting what they would think of us now.
When another person (like YOU) acknowledges that connection between us and our deceased loved ones, it’s like a gift sent from God.
There is something so warm and sweet about knowing you are like your parents or friends that are gone or that they would appreciate who you are becoming. It’s as if they haven’t died, but are being carried on through us.
Whether you’ve experienced grief yourself or not, it’s really important to educate yourself on how people process the emotions that come with it.
Some people won’t want to talk. Others won’t want to stop talking. Some will want to distract themselves with business as usual. Others will need a sabbatical from basically all things.
Have patience. Have faith. And just love unconditionally.
Because while there is no real preparing we can do for loss, or even to support people through loss, we can learn how to love unconditionally.
And we begin to love unconditionally through practice.
So… Ask lots of questions. Do small acts of service over and over until you know that the other person knows you love them. Do the thankless tasks. Work behind-the-scenes to make your loved ones’ lives easier in times of pain.Be present with them in their process. Sit by, unquestioning of their spiritual beliefs. Completely and totally support them — however, they choose to grieve (or avoid grieving).