One of the first pieces of advice I recall getting from my minister after Charlie died was,” Rebecca, go ahead and forgive all of your family and friends who are going to say really stupid stuff about your grief.” My response to him was, “I’ll think about it.” And here I am, still thinking.
Extreme grief is fortunately not something I had ever experienced prior to Charlie’s death. I had felt loss before of a pet, grandparent, family friend—Grief that could be rationalized with old age and sickness. Never this kind of grief—loss without understanding. This is a different kind of grief. I have known of people who had lost a loved-one this way but never been close to anyone in the situation. I am sure I had the same crazy ideas and thoughts about how I would interact with someone in this position, the position I am now and I know I would have had it all wrong.
Here is a list of do’s and don’ts from MY interactions of people attempting to support me and my grief.
- Don’t try to fix it.
I have had many people tell me that everything is going to be ok. Some of the sayings include, “You will move on from this.” “God needed another angel.” “ He is in a much better place.” “He is free from pain and suffering.”— and so on and so forth. First, if you are experiencing extreme grief the way I am, all I can think about is how Charlie didn’t experience the pain and suffering of this world. He was happy and joyful. How could there be a better place for him than with his parents whom love and cherish him? These sayings will not fix my grief, no saying will… So speak from the heart as if you were experiencing the same loss as the person you are trying to console. Tell a grieving person the truth— “This sucks, I can only imagine how hard this is for you. This totally not right or fair. It can imagine if feels like. You were robbed.” All the thoughts that you are feeling. That is what you tell someone who is grieving. Don’t try to fix it. Try to empathize.
- Do say something. Saying nothing is not an option.
Our therapist likes to tell the story of a grieving man in the supermarket. The man is walking down the aisles and meets three different people who knew his wife that he tragically lost. The first person pretends not to see him at all. The second person pats his back as she walks by and says, “ How are you?” continuing to push her grocery cart past so quickly that the man is not even able to respond. Finally, the third person sees the man, stops and embraces him saying, “We miss her so much. I am so glad to see you.” and proceeds to have a real conversation with the man. We have had all three of those situations to occur. A grieving person is not dumb. They know when you are avoiding them because of your discomfort. I tell people all the time that I want to be treated like a woman in the 8th month of her pregnancy. You can’t pretend that she isn’t pregnant with her belly staring at you in the face. Don’t pretend like everything is OK when you see a friend who is grieving, acknowledge it and be authentic.
- Don’t ask “How are you?”
I know, I know, you are thinking this lady (me) is crazy! You just told me not to avoid someone who is grieving but acknowledge them and talk about their grief but now you say, “don’t ask how they are??” I have found that being asked how I am was too broad and hard to answer. Many times I didn’t and still don’t know how I am. If you asked me how am I feeling in this moment, I would tell you I am OK. But if you asked me how I was last night, I would say I was falling apart. I was so overcome with grief I could barely breathe. You see, grief unfortunately is cyclic, not linear… you can be OK one minute and in the next minute unhinged. I truly have appreciated those friends and family who are specific in asking how I am. I encourage you as you support someone who is grieving to ask specific questions, “ How are you feeling today about going to work? How are you feeling about Christmas without him? How was the going to school and seeing his friends playing without him?” These are questions that can help a person in grief process what they are feeling and help you to understand and support where they are.
- Do be specific in your support.
I am so thankful for the outpouring of support we have received in the months after Charlie’s death. I will tell you, people don’t survive extreme grief without the support of other people. It truly takes a village. Friends and family have brought meals, mowed our lawn, taken care of our daughter when we just needed to cry and so on. However, I have often felt helpless when approached by others and asked “ let me know how I can help.” Many times, I don’t know what I need because I was concerned with remembering to do the things that were previously automatic, like getting dressed, eating, and picking up our daughter from school. I was too much to consider anything past that. I was so helpful when a neighbor would say, “ I want to bring you dinner, is Thursday OK?” or “ Let me help you with your laundry, can I come down and get it at 2pm?” When friends and family are specific in their support it allowed me to let go of something that was to hard for me to think about at the time while still giving me the ability to have ownership to simply say yes or no. It made me feel supported but still in control.
- Don’t assume, ask.
Everyone deals with grief in their own way. It’s a very personal journey. We have been very open in our grief. Talking about Charlie, our feelings and where we are in our grief has been therapeutic for us. My advice to you as a supporter is not to make assumptions. Many people assume that someone who is grieving does not want to talk about their loved one or hear memories that others have about him or her, as it would “hurt” them or make them more upset. It most cases this is simply not true. For example, a dear friend of mine said to me at one point when I was talking about Charlie, “ Oh Rebecca, Michael talks about Charlie all the time. The other day he said to me ‘Mom, can I send a Birthday invitation to my party to heaven for Charlie?” She went on to say, that she thought about telling me what her son had said, but assumed it would hurt me to hear it. I explained to her that hearing people talk about Charlie or knowing when they think of him gives me comfort. Ask a person who is grieving what is comforting and what is not, do not assume. Most likely your assumptions are wrong.
- Do “hold the space.”
“What the hell does this mean?” is probably what you are thinking. Holding the space is truly the most important thing to consider when supporting a bereaved person. Holding the space means allowing a person to just be in the state of mind they are right then and honoring that. I often become tearful and upset in less than ideal circumstances and when that happens, inevitably the someone will grab a box of tissues and quickly hand them to me, almost as if they are trying to stop to flow of sadness dripping from my face. Tears of sadness, smiles in remembrance and screaming in anger are all a part grief and when they surface cannot be predicted. When I think of holding the space for someone, I think of the tissues being given to me as I cry. Sitting beside a person, embracing them, without immediately “grabbing the tissues”- ie: changing the subject, trying to divert their thoughts or ignoring what is happening, is “holding the space.” It gives the bereaved person permission to feel they way they feel while being supported by those around them. Holding the space gives power to those who in many cases feel powerless.
Clearly, my list of dos and don’ts is not exhaustive. This has just been the result of my grief so far. I’m sure at some point, this list might be altered or added-to. The major take away from this post, is not be fearful of someone who is experiencing extreme grief, but walk with them in it. For every discomfort or worry you have about whether or not you are doing or saying the right things, remember the person you are supporting is facing discomfort and worry that far outweighs yours as they take this unthinkable journey.
This is the best bereavement card I have ever received… because I bought myself! It makes me laugh and cry all at the same time. I framed it and it sits in our entryway as a reminder to us, and all those who walk through our door, that grief is complex and no one simple phrase or saying is going to change that.