Conversations in Grief Blog: Helping Your Grieving Friend
In the midst of grieving for their loved one, the bereaved find themselves in a place that they never expected, alone and misunderstood.
This blog is written on behalf of the bereaved to the people in their lives who want to help. No question; we do want to help. Yet, unfortunately, the bereaved have taught me that what we intend to be helpful, they experience as harmful and hurtful. A good place to begin: be aware of our own discomfort and uncertainty about how to help and be aware of our desire to take away our friend’s pain while also accepting that taking away their pain is impossible.
Supporting a grieving friend doesn’t look like…
1) People stop checking in. There is a certain point after a loved one’s death when the casseroles, visits, and phone call check-ins fade to an end. For the bereaved, nothing has changed. Their person is still gone. The emptiness that the death has left has now grown larger because our support has also disappeared. They will grieve for their person for the rest of their lives and that is also how long they will need our support.
2) Their pain is dismissed or they are encouraged to “get over it” or meaningless platitudes are offered (God needed them more, everything happens for a reason, etc.) We don’t get to tell them how to feel or how not to feel. When we communicate this, the grieving person ends up feeling not heard. Think about that for a moment. What is it like when we are trying to get someone’s attention or explain our perspective, and our words or ideas are rejected out of hand or misunderstood? Did anyone hear a word I just said? We are rendered impotent, left with a sense of insignificance. We want to give up. In the same way, our grieving friend feels shut down. In her book, It’s Okay That You’re Not Okay, Megan Devine advises us to do no more than acknowledge their pain. She explains, “Notice your impulse to make things better, and then – don’t act on it…Acknowledgment of the reality of pain is usually a far better response than trying to fix it…let them have their pain.” Join them in their darkness. Sit there with them. Listen. Ask a question that communicates you want to hear more about their pain. Then listen some more. While listening, we acknowledge our own pain and how difficult it is to witness our friend’s pain.
3) The griever is told they are doing it wrong. Crying too much or not enough. Talking about the story of their loved one’s death over and over or being too quiet. Visiting the cemetery too often or not at all. Holding on to their loved one’s possessions for too long or getting rid of them too soon. Grievers instinctively know how to grieve, based on their relationship with their person and their own personality; they are good at grieving.
Supporting a grieving friend looks like…
1) We stay present and available. We communicate our presence with regular check-ins and concrete offers of help.
2) We listen and acknowledge their pain.
3) We support their choice to grieve in the way that is best for them.
4) We talk about their person and share our stories and memories of their person.
My grieving friend explained it best, “We’re broken in a way that doesn’t need to be fixed. We are beautifully broken.” What the bereaved need most is our compassionate presence, bearing witness to their beautiful brokenness.