"I want to support you during this time but, I don't know what to do or say."
Do’s and Don’ts of Supporting Others During Grief
One of the best things you can do is to simply sit, listen and be quiet.
It is normal for friends, co-workers, and family to want to support grievers during seasons of loss. Unfortunately, it is also during this time that well intended people struggle with what to do or, say. Most of the time we like to "fix" whatever is wrong and move on. However, when you lose a loved one, there is no quick fix to offer or, a wise word to soothe the pain. Sometimes, friends and family become frustrated with trying to figure out how to help so they often isolate or disconnect completely.
When my pre-term daughter died at 32 weeks, many well-intended people disconnected because they did not know what to do or say. Of course, we do not connect death and babies which creates its own unique set of challenges for all involved. In most cases, friends and family have not established an emotional connection although, they are happy for you. But, as parents, we are connected from the very beginning.
Through my many seasons of death and loss, I understand the confusion that grief supporters experience due to their desire to help. Therefore, here are a few tips on what I learned as a griever:
Understand the family’s social media stance before posting anything: This can fall under the do’s and don’ts policy. Before posting the death of a person, please confirm acceptance from the family. In the world of social media, there are many friends and mutual friends which lends itself to the news getting out before all the appropriate family has been notified. It’s very hurtful to receive this news on a media outlet. You can’t always prevent it from happening but extend the courtesy to the family.
Listen and be quiet: This is the one of the hardest things to do when trying to support hurting people. However, it is probably the most effective. In many instances, grievers simply want to talk about where they are at that moment. Sometimes it’s ok to say:
o I don’t have any words.
o I’m sorry for your loss.
o I’m praying for you.
They aren’t looking for a solution to a problem because there isn’t a remedy to mend their broken heart.
Show up: As friends and family we often isolate ourselves from grievers because we don’t know what to say. In this moment, you are a companion, the role looks different but it’s a necessary support function. It’s ok that you don’t know what to say or do. The goal is to be in the present, express your own discomfort with how to help and simply remain in the moment. I promise it’s important and noticed by the griever.
Share memories: Talking about the death of a loved one is natural when you’re grieving. The conversation is often lead by the griever. However, don’t be afraid to share your experiences and fond memories with the griever. Sharing stories may allow the griever to gain insight, and/or appreciate something they didn’t know about prior to hearing your story.
Recommend or encourage the use of Resources when the griever is ready: There will be times when resources are needed. However, understand where the griever is sitting mentally and emotionally before proceeding. You’ll need to ask if the griever is looking for answers or, a plan.
Stop with the Clichés and Compliments: When you experience the death of a loved one, there isn’t a magical pill that you can take to ease the pain and hurt that you experience. Additionally, although well intended, the words that people use to convey support doesn’t feel very supportive. In many instances they cause more pain. On a side note, now is not the time to remind them of their intellectual skills, their external beauty, their resiliency or how strong they are as a person.
In speaking with many grievers and through my own experience here’s a short list of clichés that aren’t effective when supporting grievers:
o This experience will make you stronger.
o He/She is in a better place.
o Everything happens for a reason.
When you’re experiencing the death of a loved one, emotionally, the resolve is simply to have them back in your presence. When death happens after a lengthy illness or suddenly, no one is ready to receive or process the above possibilities. Death and loss is not a choice, it’s something that we will all face at some point. The experience may not make us stronger but, it does widen our perspective lens of ourselves and those experiencing loss and human suffering.
Avoid comparison, it’s not about you right now: This is hard when you have experienced a loss that “appears” to be the same because both of you have experienced the death of your mother. It’s tempting to offer advice and confess that you know how the other person feels. Honestly, you don’t know, and we process and grieve differently. Grief is universal but the relationship and the love that you have for each person is unique. Therefore, avoid comparing to connect. It’s never the same.
Respect the griever’s religious beliefs. Religion and spirituality serve as an important component during grief seasons. However, it is important to know the griever’s religious beliefs before inserting your religious beliefs. Death and other losses often impact our faith and how we believe. Therefore, the griever may not be receptive to scriptures or anything related to their religious practices. Remember, you can pray or demonstrate religious practices without consent or participation from the griever. The goal is to respect where they are right now and allow them to express their next.
Don’t problem solve or take it personal: Compassion, listening and being present with grievers is effective from a support perspective. Remember words aren’t able to fix anything. Therefore, don’t force them into situations where they aren’t effective. The goal is to stand, sit and be present alongside them. In the meantime, there may be times when grievers don’t want to talk or engage. Don’t take it personal, remember, each day is different and presents its own set of challenges.
This list isn’t presented as an all-inclusive list of do’s and don’ts to help grievers. However, it is meant to serve as information to consider as you support family and friends during seasons of grief. We all need options when it comes to supporting others during grief. I hope this helps to soothe some of the uneasiness associated with supporting people during their grief journey.