One of life’s most challenging situations is being needed when someone you love loses someone they love. The truth is many of us don’t know how to help someone grieving.
We don’t realise it, but that extreme discomfort we feel when another human falls apart due to grief right in front of us, is not ‘innate’. It’s years of training in prioritising ‘busyness’. Training to forget what it means to be a person sitting with another person feeling all the feels. Being told ‘sensitivity’ is a failure and that we shouldn’t let ’emotions’ get in the way of… whatever it is they apparently get in the way of.
What does this then mean when we are faced with ‘being there’ for someone who has lost someone else? When everything we’ve ‘learned’ goes out to window in the face of raw deep wild crazy confusing messy heart-wrenching loss? We may find judgement creeping in as we feel annoyed- why can’t they just get over it? Deal with it? And yet… the day will come when it is you in their place.
Something I hear regularly from the bereaved is that other people’s reactions are one of the things that make losing someone so hard. Typical reactions to the news of a death can range from ‘so-formal-it-is-meaningless’ to ‘sobbing-uncontrollably-as-though-it-was-your-loss-and-not-ours’.
Let’s be honest with each other. That’s just not really good enough is it?
Because it is CERTAIN that one day it will be you struggling to cope with a death. In fact, there is nothing more certain. You’ll notice all these things other people say about what was hard for them.
You’ll feel alone and stuck and wish someone knew what to do.
What if that person was YOU?! Now. Today. Knowing what to do when someone you love loses someone they love.
As a counsellor talking with people who have been deeply irrevocably rocked by a significant death, it strikes me if we did this dying thing better, we could all have a better experience of losing someone.
Here are some things YOU can do to help ease someone’s struggles in grief:
1. When you send a card, do not write ‘i’m sorry for your loss’
Share a memory of the person. If you didn’t know them but you know the mourners, write something about them and how the dead person would have been proud of such-and-such (something unique and specific, not generic)
2. If you offer to help, tell the person what you are offering to do
We ALL say ‘if there’s anything I can do…’ but most people in shock don’t know what they want or need. Recall times when you’ve needed support (or someone you know has) and offer that. Cook a meal and bring it over; do a load of laundry; pay for a cleaner for a month; drop off some paperwork for them; book in to go for a walk on a set day/week; take the kids to school or pick them up; stay in their spare bed for a few nights and binge some teev together or clear out a cupboard; arrange to text every second day (and then DO IT. Do not forget. Even if they don’t write back. Even if it’s just a dumb gif or a distraction or a ‘hope you’re okish today, but if not I have a free texting hand’).
3. If you say ‘how are you feeling today?’ make sure you are prepared to listen
Just listen, without judgment or fixing. If it’s not really your bag you don’t need to get all emotional and touch the person when they’re talking, you can just listen and offer reflections or ask thoughtful questions. Let them process it themselves.
4. If you ask a stranger a seemingly innocuous question (such as ‘do you have children?’) and the person responds with something *ahem ‘confronting’ (such as ‘yes but she died two years ago at age 6’) then you sure as hell better be prepared to stay and have that conversation
Be mindful that ANY ‘innocuous’ question can be painful for some people. Similar to asking anyone ‘how are you?’… It’s perfectly ok to ask but don’t be shocked or frustrated or look for the escape button if the answer isn’t what you’d expected. Listen, provide care, don’t immediately talk about yourself and be ‘kindly curious’ about the person’s experience. If you find yourself tearing up that’s fine, you’re sharing in their pain, so long as your fear/sadness doesn’t take away from the person who has experienced the death.
5. Don’t compare your losses to theirs
Especially if they have nothing in common with one another (your dearly loved Grandpa and their dearly loved six year old have nothing to do with each other, I promise, even if you feel they do). There will come a time when you can talk about your losses but this is not it. If you have something genuinely useful to offer from your own experience, wait for the right time and share it, but don’t be surprised if the person doesn’t immediately feel better or ‘fixes’ their pain (like on TV). If it helps them feel seen and less alone that’s often the best outcome.
6. Do ask and talk about the dead
Not just at the funeral but at other times. Everybody stops asking after the first couple of weeks, or they may avoid the mourners if it’s an especially ‘shocking’ loss. You don’t need to go on about it, but don’t pretend as though nothing has happened. You can open with something like ‘I was thinking about Toby today…’ and see if the person picks up your invite. Don’t freeze like a rabbit in headlights if they bring up the dead either, let the name come out into the space between you and see what stories and feelings grow there.
7. Try to have ZERO expectations about how the person ‘should’ feel
Some people have mixed feelings about a dead person- they may have even hated them. Or loved and hated them at the same time. Or they are angry at them. If someone you love loses someone they love (and hate and everything in between), sorting through all of those feelings is crucial in grieving. Yet folks often feel guilty if they don’t feel the ‘correct’ thing and so they don’t talk about it. Or worse, they get told off when they do. Relationships are complicated. Not everyone had a loving mother or a safe environment or a family member who had a ‘good death’, so try not to put your own experiences onto others.
8. Have your own boundaries
If you feel as though someone is leaning on you too heavily or taking the piss then it’s ok to say ‘hey, i’ll be thinking of you, but I have a lot going on this week in my family. How about we arrange Joseph to drop in/call/text/do that thing?’ You don’t have to make a big drama out of lightening your own load.
9. Research counsellors for the person if things seem to be deeply painfully stuck and it’s ongoing
Or even if they aren’t. Grief-stricken folks can easily be taken advantage of by such shysters as fake psychics, and counselling can help enormously. There are good professionals out there- you don’t have to support someone all on your own.
When someone you love loses someone they love, what is most required of you is to be present with them and not expect them to be anywhere or anyone else.
It’s scary but it’s actually not that hard. It doesn’t cost any money, it doesn’t mean you have to know ‘what to say’, you are not required to fix it or make them feel better.
It’s just you, being a person, sitting with another person who is going through something we all go through. Every single one of us.
If you’re looking for a counsellor or just want to ask me a question, you are more than welcome to connect with me here.
Main image by Külli Kittus on Unsplash