“When someone is going through a storm, your silent presence is more powerful than a million, empty words.” Dr. Therma Davis
Grief is not pretty. It can be raw, painful, messy, and awkward. We know it as a normal and natural response to the loss of a loved one. We will all experience it at some point in our lives, yet despite its universality, we are not always well equipped to deal with it or know how to best offer support to those going through it.
Imagine you have just learned that someone you deeply care about has lost a loved one. Maybe it is their spouse, their young child, or an aging parent who has battled a chronic illness for many challenging months. You want to share empathy and show support, but it can be hard to know what to say – or perhaps more importantly, what not to say to them during their time of loss. Your intentions are good, and your heart knows that your loved one needs your care and support, yet you stumble to find the right words or right actions to comfort them. Sometimes we fear saying or doing the wrong thing, so we withdraw and do nothing, leaving our loved ones to face formidable challenges alone and without support.
The truth is that we as humans need to share the everyday experience of grief with others. Those experiencing loss need the gentle comfort and availability of friends and loved ones, not just for the immediate days following the loss, but often for months and years to come. We know it can be hard to find just the right words, so here are four tried and true ways to support a loved one who is grieving in their time of need.
Let Them Be Sad: Our natural response to feeling sad is to try and cheer them up and make them feel happy. We often try and distract or minimize their pain associated with grief. We may encourage our loved ones to reengage with daily living and move quickly past their sorrow. Remember, though, that an essential part of healthy grieving is experiencing the pain and suffering associated with loss head-on courageously. Despite good intentions, we need to recognize that being sad, angry, mad exhausted or moody are natural responses to loss. They are a necessary part of processing and healing. No matter how difficult, put aside your feelings of discomfort, and take the time to validate your loved one’s emotions. Let them know that you feel sad too. Please help them to express their pain and sorrow. Hold them when they need to cry. Scream with them when they are angry and say that life can be cruel and unfair. Let them know that there is no time limit to their grieving and that you will be there with them through the hard times, for as long as it takes.
Give Love, Not Advice: Remember that grief belongs to the griever, and it is not about you. This is their unique experience and journey, and you are there to support them. The words that you say do matter, so try and choose them carefully and with intent. Be an active listener to show support and be wary of offering unsolicited advice. Active listening involves being focused and letting your body language show that you are open to what they are saying. Sit close to your loved one, maintain good eye contact, and reach out and hold them when needed. The power of touch can be very healing to the griever. Try to avoid sayings that minimize their pain, such as “your loved- one’s suffering is over, and they are in a better place” or “you are so young, you will be able to move on and can always remarry.” Avoid comparing stories of grief. Remember that part of healing can be sharing beautiful memories about the lost loved one. Encourage your loved one to mention the deceased by name and when they want to share, listen openly to stories about their lives and even more difficult and painful aspects of their death.
Remember Big Dates and Little Dates: Time will move on, seasons will change, and there will be specific personal dates and calendar reminders that will trigger emotions for your friend or loved one throughout the year. Remembering significant dates and little dates can be incredibly supportive and appreciated as your loved one grieves. Try and make what might be difficult dates a little bit easier for your loved one. Set yourself reminders of birthdays, anniversaries, and other essential days into your calendar. Reach out to your loved one on those important dates and let them know that you remember and that you are thinking about them and available to listen. When holidays approach, extend an open invitation for your loved one to join your family for dinner or other events so that they are not alone.
**Remain Available: ** All too often, the funeral ends, and friends and loved ones will move on with their own lives, leaving the mourner to grieve alone. Remember that the pain and trials your loved ones are facing are just beginning. Grieving is a long process, filled with many peaks and valleys. Instead of asking your loved ones to let them know what you can help with, be specific in how you will help. Remember that your loved one might be hesitant to ask for help, or she may be so overwhelmed that she does not know what she needs. Offer your time to them by saying, “I am available on Monday, and I will come over to walk your dogs or do your grocery shopping.” Offer to do a load of laundry or some cleaning while you are visiting. Organizing a community meal train with friends can also help take some of the stress off of completing daily chores. As the months pass, continue to check-in. Take the time to call to share a beautiful thought or memory that reminded you of their lost loved one. Send a handwritten card or note to let them know that you are thinking of them.
Your loved one might fear that the person who died will be too soon forgotten, but it is equally as important to let them know that as the days turn to weeks and then to months that YOU are standing by their side and have not forgotten about them.