How To Support Someone Who Is Grieving
You have a friend who’s mother just died. You want to support her, be there for her, but it’s a little awkward, and you’re not sure what to say. “I’m sorry” seems so inadequate. I get it. I’ve been there. In this post I am going to share some wisdom from grieving folks, themselves, on how to support someone who is grieving.
In the wake of Kate Spade’s tragic death, I hope her husband and daughter are finding the support they need, now, and in the future. What a rough road they have ahead of them, trying to make sense of such devastation, and the loss of a beautiful life. Her death underscores the fact that there are people everywhere whose sense of loss and sadness is profound, but hidden. Many are putting on a brave face, suffering in silence, without the needed support and comfort that could make all the difference.
How we learn to be with the broken-hearted says a lot about our own journey of faith, enlightenment and healing. Grief isn’t something to get over, it’s something we learn to live with, something we absorb and adjust to – a new normal. An it comes in waves. This is a protective measure as it wouldn’t be possible to absorb the horrible reality all at once. We move in and out of our own terrifying realities.
Grief Takes Many Forms
Grief takes many forms: loss of a spouse, loss of a child, parent, or sibling, suicide, divorce, accidents, a cancer diagnosis, chronic health conditions, infertility, financial loss, mental illness, depression, loss of self, and addiction. And don’t forget the sadness that comes with lost dreams and heavy disappointments – and isn’t life replete with these? It’s good to learn the language of grief – an effective way to communicate it times of distress and sadness that none of us will escape.
There are many ways for loss to manifest, and everyone grieves on his or her own timetable. It can’t be rushed or abbreviated. It’s best to allow the bereaved to traverse this rocky road at their own pace, and on their own timetable. Any other way doesn’t lead to healing. Progress doesn’t follow a neat little line that leads to healing in a few days. More likely, it will be one step forward, and two steps back. The road is treacherous and winding.
Raw grief is all-encompassing. Confidence wanes, isolation sets in, and grief becomes a constant companion. It permeates the air. It’s almost palpable.
It’s common to avoid uncomfortable topics so many of us default to not saying anything at all. We’ve all done it at one time or another. It’s awkward to know the right thing to say, and it’s as if we think we’ll remind the person of their loss if we do. But, of course, they don’t need to be reminded, as their crushing grief is unrelenting and all-consuming. In my opinion, it’s a lot more awkward if the subject isn’t broached as it then becomes the elephant in the room.
The Five Stages Of Grief And Loss
The Kubler-Ross model, or the five stages of grief, details how emotional states progress in those experiencing the death of a loved one, or those facing a terminal illness, and their own mortality. Here they are:
1. Denial – those in this stage are in disbelief and are numb emotionally – time stands still
2. Anger – underneath anger is pain, the feeling of being deserted and abandoned
3. Bargaining – the person will do anything to wake up from their nightmare
4. Depression – emptiness, withdrawal, and the futility of life characterize this stage
5. Acceptance – acceptance doesn’t connote being okay, it’s about recognizing reality
When consoling a grieving soul, it’s helpful to have an idea of what stage they are in. Someone in complete denial requires a different form of communication than someone who has progressed through the stages, and is now in acceptance.
What To Say When Someone Is Grieving
It’s important to not offer platitudes like “You’ll feel better soon,” “Everything happens for a reason,” “I know how you feel” or “Time heals all wounds.” Those facing the unimaginable may know this on an intellectual level, and will eventually come to their own conclusions, in their own time, but it could take months or years.
Refrain from giving advice. That’s more for you than the bereaved. It doesn’t comfort. Respect the journey the grief-stricken person is encountering and learning to navigate. A mother mourning the loss of a newborn baby, intellectually knows, she’ll bear other children in the future. She doesn’t need that brought to her attention. She needs to grieve the loss of the baby she just carried for nine months.
Just Be There
Here are some comforting things to say to someone in the fog of despair and adversity. Simple and heartfelt phrases like: “I’m so very sorry for your loss” or I don’t know how your feel, but I’m here for you.” When someone is in this thick fog of sadness, a warm hug conveys concern and care. Or just be with the person without words. If they start talking about their loved one, encourage them to share their memories. They need to feel the essence of the one they’re grieving, and to honor them. And if the time is right, share a special memory you remember about that person that will bring comfort. Ease the overwhelming heartache, if just a tiny bit, by simply letting them know you’re praying for them.
Loss is so crippling and devastating that just being with someone in the silence is , sometimes, all you can do. Holding their hand and looking into their eyes, without speaking, gives them an opening if they do want to talk. Don’t try to fill the silence. It’s okay to sit in silence even if it’s uncomfortable.
Make It Simple But Significant
Bereft people are numb. They don’t think clearly. It’s impossible to have good cognitive function when overwhelmed by raw emotion. Don’t expect anything from them – like an answer to a question. Their despair may be too heavy to make formulating an answer possible.
Sheryl Sandberg, the author of Lean In and Option B, is changing how the grieving process is viewed, and the conversation around adversity. Her message is: “Just show up.” She tells the story of a supportive friend offering love and comfort after Sheryl’s husband’s untimely death. Rather than calling Sheryl and asking if she wanted a hamburger, her friend called from the lobby, declaring she had two hamburgers – one with pickles on it and one without, and which one did she want. I love that. Most of us make things too complicated when confronting someone’s pain.
If you’re concerned about a friend’s isolation, text them and say you’ve got tickets to a movie, and would they like to catch the evening show or the matinee? If you ask: “How are you, is there anything you need me to do?”- most people will likely say: “Nothing, I’m doing okay.” It’s all in the approach.
How To Support A Grieving Friend
In one of my favorite books, A Hidden Wholeness, author Parker Palmer describes his journey into and out of clinical depression. The following quote underscores the power of presence. Really, not that much is required of the person doing the consoling. Communication may not even be necessary at times. Consistency and showing up are key. Offer yourself. Don’t over complicate things. Palmer says:
“Blessedly, there were several people, family and friends, who had the courage to stand with me in a simple and healing way. One of them was a friend named Bill who, having asked my permission to do so, stopped by my home every afternoon, sat me down in a chair, knelt in front of me, removed my shoes and socks, and for half an hour simply massaged my feet. He found the one place in my body where I could still experience feeling – and feel somewhat reconnected with the human race.
Bill rarely spoke a word. When he did, he never gave advice but simply mirrored my condition. He would say: “I can sense your struggle today,” or “It feels like you are getting stronger.” I could not always respond, but his words were deeply helpful; they assured me that I could still be seen by someone – life-giving knowledge in the midst of an experience that makes one feel annihilated and invisible. It is impossible to put into words what my friend’s ministry meant to me. Perhaps it is enough to say that I now have deep appreciation for the bibilcal stories of Jesus and the washing of feet.
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke says, “love ….. consists in this, that two solitudes protect and border and salute each other.” That is the kind of love my friend Bill offered. He never tried to invade my awful inwardness with false comfort or advice; he simply stood on its boundaries, modeling the respect for me and my journey – and the courage to let it be – that I myself needed if I were to endure.”
Keep it simple, protect, validate, protect, minister, be an agent for healing. Really see the person.
Offer Support Long Term
I have heard many times from those grieving how they received support from family and friends for a couple of weeks or even a couple of months, and, then – nothing. It seems to be a common thread in those experiencing loss. It shouldn’t be this way – we need to be in it for the long haul. A call, an invitation, a card, a quick text – it doesn’t take that much to stay in contact with someone, and develop a ongoing connection. Grief is long term, so long-term support is necessary.
People can and do fall into devastating depressions after an overwhelming loss, especially if they don’t have the support they need. Stick with your friends and family who are in the perilous void of despair until they gain a measure of resiliency, and reach somewhat of a new normal.
Be cautious of the stiff upper lip many grievers wear, particularly, those who aren’t used to asking for help. Virtually every person experiencing heartbreak needs support and care. We can’t do it on our own. Be there for your people.
How To Support Yourself
And don’t forget about yourself. Be there for you when you’re suffering. Learn to nourish yourself in times of upheaval and unraveling. I love this quote and have referred to it over the years. I don’t know who coined these beautiful words or I’d give them credit. It does not diminish suffering, but acknowledges it. Place your hands over your heart when you say:
“This is a moment of suffering.
Suffering is a part of life.
May I be kind to myself in this moment.
May I give myself the compassion I need.”
My Final Thoughts
Grieving is part of life. Learning how to authentically nourish a loved one in need is an essential skill that should be given more credence in this society. Let’s all be a little kinder, gentler, and more aware of the individuals sliding under the radar. It can be dangerous.
What helped you through a time of grief or crisis? Can you offer additional tips? Please leave a comment below so we can get this important conversation started.