What to say and do when you don't know what to say and do.
I’ve thought about writing this post for years. Truth is, I don’t know that there is enough space on the entire internet to talk about the best ways to support someone who is grieving. In life, we grieve lots of things that aren’t death (breakups, job loss, experiences, places, etc.) For this particular blog post, I’d like to talk about grief that is caused by the death of a loved one because that is the type of grief that has impacted me the most.
When my father died in 2011, I noticed that the people in my life automatically split into two different groups: those who had experienced loss and those who hadn’t. This blog post is mostly meant for the latter group but it’s also a reminder for those who have experienced loss that not everyone grieves the same way and the most important thing to remember is that when someone close to you loses a loved one, the ways you go about supporting them should be about their specific needs, not the things that you needed when you experienced loss.
In the years since 2011, I’ve learned a lot about grief. I’ve learned that people who haven’t experienced loss don’t like to talk about loss. It’s one of those taboo topics that we’re not supposed to bring up. I think part of the reason is that grief is not something to be fixed and we, as a society, don’t know what to do when we can’t fix a problem. We are uncomfortable sitting with other people’s pain so we tend to try to push it away. Grief doesn’t go away though; it’s always with you no matter how much time has passed. People who haven’t experienced loss cannot fathom it. They simply can’t empathize and that makes them say and do things that are well-intentioned but often make a grieving person feel even more alone.
Because there is such a stigma around talking about death and loss, it’s hard to tell people in the moment that what they are saying or doing (or not saying or not doing) is actually causing more pain. When a grieving person feels like you don’t get it or don’t care, they’re likely to stop talking about their loss and might even push you away. It becomes easier to not bring up their loss in conversation and this is part of the reason why after months and years go by, you think that your person is “over it” when the truth is, they just stopped talking to you about it because they didn’t feel like they could.
This post is about grief but this also goes for talking to someone who struggles with mental illness, too. If people were better educated and felt less awkward around both of these topics, I think that would help bridge the divide and make people in pain feel less like outsiders and more like humans experiencing normal human experiences.
So, while I don’t speak for all grieving people, I thought it might be helpful to outline the things that people say and do that have and have not been helpful over the last nine years without my father. As I've already mentioned, everyone grieves differently so things that bother me might not bother someone else but for the most part, these are things that have come up again and again in conversations I have with people who have lost loved ones.
The most important thing to know about supporting a grieving person is that it’s a deeply personal experience and what matters most is being there for their specific needs. If you go about it the right way, your person will feel comfortable opening up about how to best support them.
Reach Out Gently
In the time immediately after my father’s death, I was bombarded with phone calls from friends and family trying to share their sympathy, asking what happened, and what I needed. To say it was overwhelming is an understatement. Oftentimes when people called I’d let it go to voicemail or make Jeff answer the phone. I didn’t have the energy to talk.
For me, the best support came in the way of messages that said things like: “please don’t feel like you have to respond to this right away. I just want to let you know I’m here, thinking about you, and sending so much love.” This type of message acknowledged my loss and gave me space at the same time.
Figure Out Ways to Help Without Asking the Person Who Is Grieving
If you haven’t experienced loss you probably don’t know that decision making and delegating tasks is nearly impossible in those first few days, weeks, months. I didn’t know what I needed or wanted and I didn’t know what I could tell you to do or bring me. That didn’t mean that I didn’t need support though.
The best support for me was not someone asking if I wanted tea or what kind of tea I wanted but just bringing me some. It was the people who had food delivered to our house without requiring that we talk to or see them. It was the friends who asked Jeff how they could help instead of coming directly to me.
Choose Your Words Carefully
There are so many things that people say when they learn about a loss that are well-meaning but actually contribute to a grieving person’s pain and make them feel very alone.
For me, some of the things that hurt the most to hear were “I can’t even imagine” or “I don’t know what I would do if I lost my father.” Saying these things draws a line right between the two groups of people I mentioned at the beginning of this post: those who have experienced loss and those who haven’t. Not only are you making a grieving person confront the fact that this horrible, unimaginable thing did, in fact, happen to them but you are also making the loss about you and how you would feel. Meanwhile, that person is feeling it right now. They can imagine it because they are literally living it.
It’s also important to remember that not everyone shares the same beliefs as you do. I’m not religious so it was never helpful or comforting to hear “they’re in a better place now.” Similarly, way too many people said, “everything happens for a reason.” Nine years later, I still haven’t found the reason I had to lose my father. It’s alway best to stay away from comments that try to make a grieving person feel OK that their loved one is gone because it’s not OK and it’s not your job to make it better.
Keep the Focus on Them
When your loved one decides to open up and talk to you about their loss, one of the absolute worst things you can do is pivot to a loss you’ve experienced. I know you’re just trying to empathize. You might think it’s helpful to bring up how you know exactly how it feels because you lost your father so many years ago, but grieving is a deeply personal experience and by turning the conversation to you and your loss, you aren’t letting the person convey how their loss has affected them. I can’t explain this any better than Megan Devine does in her video about Grief Hijacking, so please watch it below.
Keep Checking In
Grief doesn’t end when the funeral is over but the amount of support tends to fade substantially. When I hear that a friend has lost a loved one, I make a note to check back in after a few weeks and then a few months because I know from experience that that’s when the loss becomes real; it’s also when most people move on with their lives and assume that since x number of days have gone by, you’re probably OK by now. In the first few days and weeks, I was in shock and distracted by the number of people who were there for me all at once. After about a month, reality set in but most people had stopped reaching out. The fact that the world keeps spinning is one of the most isolating things about grieving.
The pain of losing my father is just as palpable now as it was the night it happened. From talking to others who have lost loved ones, I know I’m not alone in this feeling. The difference is the lack of support from the people who called me nonstop the first few weeks and then decided that they’d done their part in “fixing” my grief.
Find Out the Important Dates and Put Them on Your Calendar
It’s been nine years since my father died and one of the hardest things about the anniversary of his death this year was how few of my friends and family members remembered to say anything at all. For me, the silence served as an all-day reminder that my father has been gone for so long that people don’t think his absence in my life is important anymore.
Everyone is different and dates that matter to me might not matter to you. For me, the hardest days of my year are the anniversary of my father’s death (October 28), the anniversary of his funeral (October 31), and his birthday (March 5). Other days like father’s day and holidays don’t bother me as much. My best friend, who lost her son in the NICU, has a harder time with the anniversary of his birth than of his death.
Find out the days that matter and remember them. It takes very little effort to put a reminder on your phone to reach out to let someone know that you know it’s a hard day for them and it means more than you can imagine.
Don’t Dwell on Saying/Doing the Wrong Thing
You’re going to react the wrong way and say the wrong thing. That’s a guarantee. What you do after that is the more important thing. Resist the urge to make a big deal out of making a mistake. This advice applies to interacting with a grieving person but also with anyone you are trying to support for any reason.
I encounter this a lot when I meet people for the first time and they ask about my parents. Because I’m so used to having to comfort other people, I’ve learned to preface any talk of my father’s death with “I’m OK, please don’t feel bad, but…” Still, I can always sense the shift. The person immediately feels like they’ve done something wrong by asking and instead of saying something like “I’m so sorry to hear that” and making the conversation about my loss, they tense up, apologize profusely for even bringing it up, and make me awkwardly assure them that it’s OK.
When you accidentally mess up by say, referring to the person who has died in the present tense, the worst thing you can do is draw attention to how bad you feel about your mistake. Doing so only takes the attention off of the person who is grieving and makes them have to comfort you. Quickly correct yourself, apologize, and move on.
Let Them Know You’re OK With Talking About Their Loss
Recently, a friend asked me about my father’s death. He asked how old I was when he died. I was caught off guard because so many people avoid talking to me about it at all. I was so appreciative that he asked though because I felt like he had given me permission to talk about my father on a regular day in regular conversation.
Death is a part of life yet so many people avoid conversations about it because it makes them uncomfortable. All I want to do sometimes is talk about the time surrounding my father’s death but I don’t because I don’t want to “ruin the mood” or make anybody feel uneasy.
The feeling that it’s not OK to talk about my father causes me to internalize my grief and makes it harder to process. When people are only open to hearing about loss when it first happens, it perpetuates the idea that the death of a loved one is something we move on from. People who are grieving don’t move on from loss; they carry it with them. Every day, people walk around with stories of loss they feel they aren’t allowed to tell.
All That Said
Everyone grieves differently. What’s helpful to me might not be helpful to the person in your life who has experienced loss, which is why it’s so important to get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable.
Be OK with having hard conversations about things that happen every day to real people. The more we talk about these things, the less stigmatized they become and the easier it is for people who are suffering to get the support they need.
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As always, thank you for reading!