What to do when someone you care about is grieving. Advice for helping them get through this difficult time with love and grace.
Over the last few months, so many people I care about have lost someone they love. Children, husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, siblings. Most of these people were incredibly young, it seemed like there was so much more in store for them. In most cases, they were gone without warning. One minute they were doing life with the people they love, and the next, they were gone forever.
Since I have been married, we have lost many friends. Wes and I have suffered through two plane crashes and lost friends that felt like family. The pain never really goes away. We think of them often, if not daily. My husband literally wears his grief on his sleeve, he has the tail number tattooed onto his upper arm. We lost my father-in-law long before he had a chance to see all of his grandchildren be born. My biological father died at the age that I am now. My youngest son is named for my nephew that passed before he even took his first breath. I’m not telling you this for sympathy or pity, I’m just telling you this because I’ve been there.
Losing anyone is hard. Losing a young person is hard to wrap your head around and come to terms with. While losing someone that has lived a long life is obviously sad and they are missed, it isn’t the same as losing someone whose life wasn’t near finished. It makes you question so many things. It makes you angry, and really can turn your life upside down. And that is just how it makes me feel, I can’t even comprehend what it does to the bereaved. I can’t fathom what the day-to-day is like for them.
I’ve been close to grief, but not as close as some of my friends and family have. Watching them go through it from the sidelines is almost unbearable. You want to fix it, make it better, make it go away – do just about anything. In the end, there is nothing that you can do to change it.
What can you do?
I think that the most important thing to remember is that when dealing with someone’s grief – it isn’t about you, it is about them.
Their experience is unique to them and so raw and tender. Everyone will deal with grief differently and in their own way. People have such good intentions and truly try to be kind. Let’s be honest, talking to a bereaved person can be socially awkward. We normally don’t know what to say, so we just say the first thing that pops into our head, or what we think we are supposed to say. To the one grieving, it can come across as placating, dismissive, or insensitive. I don’t want to be that person, and I’m guessing you don’t want to be that person either.
I had an eye-opening conversation recently with someone that is freshly dealing with grief. Her words and advice were so helpful to me. I want to be a good friend, but don’t really know how. I asked her what was (and is still) helpful and I am indebted to her for her honesty. I thought it might be helpful to share it with you.
The best thing to say is the truth. “I don’t even know what to say to you. I’m so sorry for your loss. I want to take this on with you and be there for you, but we don’t know what that looks like yet. We’re going to figure it out together. We’re going to get through this together.”
Or, “I’ll never pretend to know what it feels like to lose (insert name here) but I am here for you anytime.”
Not helpful – Comparing your experience with theirs. Yes, I’m sure that you have experienced grief at some point in your life. I’m sure it was painful and you were sad. It just isn’t the time.
This one might ruffle some feathers, but saying that it is God’s plan. I do believe that it is God’s plan, but to the person that just lost their loved one, it is probably too fresh to see it that way. Why would a loving God take their husband or child from them? Later they might see it that way, but right now – maybe not?
You can pray for their peace, you can send love and light their way, you can fast, whatever you do spiritually is going to be received with love. Just think about how you would like to be talked to if the shoe was on the other foot. Would that statement make you feel a sense of peace or anger?
There isn’t a handbook for dealing with death. When someone dies unexpectedly, especially when they are young, you don’t think that anything like this would ever happen. You most definitely don’t plan on it, so there might not be a plan to be had. I would guess that they never thought about dying, so there are a lot of things up in the air. Maybe they didn’t have the big conversations with people about their wishes? Maybe they did? There are a lot of things to decide. And when the reality hits, they are in shock and bewilderment. So many things are happening at once. It’s confusing and 1000% overwhelming.
Give them a minute to catch their breath.
For us, we want to act. We want to DO something. We feel for them, we hurt for them. We want to help, we want to use our hands, make a donation, send some food. Something. Anything. Give me something to do. But remember, it isn’t about us, it’s about them.
Give them some time to get their whits about them and think about what they really do want and need. Maybe they need child care, or things printed? Pictures scanned, slideshows made? Errands run, food picked up? There are things to do, but they just don’t know what yet. Let them decide where they want their donations to go. (Usually, it is printed in the obituary. My personal rule of thumb is to not do anything but send a message or card until I read what the family would like done.) Don’t take their control away from them. It might be the only thing that they have keeping them together at that moment.
Something else helpful she told me. No one wants their loved one to be identified as “someone that died too soon.” She felt it was comforting to see the person viewed as someone that was impactful in such a short amount of time. Share how the person affected your life. Send the family a picture. Write a story or memory down and send it to them later. Funerals and viewings are emotional, gut wrenching and draining. The families are most likely talking to hundreds of people in the span of a few hours. They might not remember talking to you, but they will remember reading a card with a memory about their loved one in the comfort of their own home.
Encourage the person hurting to do things that are helpful for themselves. They need to take care of their own needs. It isn’t the time for them to be concerned with comforting others, it isn’t going to be helpful for their healing in the long run. It’s the airplane mask analogy – put the mask on yourself before you help others. It isn’t them being selfish, it is self-preservation.
Try to get them to rest. They will feel tired and drained in a way that they have never experienced before. Maybe buy them a cozy blanket and attach a note to try to get some well-deserved sleep.
Allow your friends to say no to things. If they don’t want to celebrate birthdays and holidays they don’t have to. The reality is – no one has to do anything if they don’t want to. Don’t force them to do anything. When a family member dies, the whole family dynamic changes. They need to figure out what life is going to look like for them. They need to find their new normal. They need the freedom and space to do that.
Encourage them to talk to someone. Therapy can be a tool to help navigate this weird and horrific time in their lives.
When things start to die down, the funerals and memorials are over, our lives begin to return to normal. For them their life is taking on a whole new meaning. Grief is a bitch. It’s exhausting and depleting. It’s all-consuming. This is when your friend really needs your love and support. It’s also when the meals stop, the friends aren’t checking in, people have stopped watching their kids, and life has moved on for everyone else around them.
Send a text, check in, write a note, send flowers, make sure that they know you are there for them. If your texts and calls go unanswered, don’t take it personally. But continue to do it and don’t stop supporting them.
Lastly, remind your friend that their loved one will never be forgotten. Their life and legacy will live on forever and that you will continue to celebrate their life and memory for as long as you live yours.