There is not a single human being who will escape loss. Whether a beloved animal, a job, a life change or a health diagnosis, all of these will cause us to have symptoms of grieving. The scope and depth of that grief, of course, will depend on the loss you have suffered. And every loss is different, and every griever is different.
There is no way one can compare the loss of a pet to the loss of a child, or the loss of your home due to foreclosure to a natural disaster. And what may be devastating for one person may be less so for another. And what helps one person may make things worse for someone else. And some people have more resources than others. And some folks have more resilience than others. And on and on….
It makes it tough to find a formula for supporting a loved one who is suffering. Even if you know someone well, the mechanics of what to do say or do is a very complicated equation. But here are three simple ways that folks may differ and how to address them.
Venting vs. Avoiding
When a loved one has died, there is often an avalanche of emotion and a numbness that sets in. It can get very difficult to form thoughts, much less coherent sentences. In that very disorienting frame of mind, one must answer 50 million questions, and tell the story of What Happened over and over and over again. Don’t force someone to relive it if they are exhausted or overwhelmed – rather get the info from someone else, or ask if they mind repeating it and be generous and compassionate if they don’t feel like talking about it.
Likewise, later on, people want to tell their loved one’s stories and share memories, even if they are sad or funny. It keeps the deceased in the world and alive in people’s minds. But on the other hand, sometimes the departed is not beloved, or has left a complicated legacy of anger, guilt and resentment behind. Those stories are okay, too – but are not required if they cause too much emotional discomfort.
I have also found that I can reach a kind of battle fatigue, where the loss has taken up so much time and energy that I simply don’t want to talk about it anymore. Asking a specific question, “do you want to talk about it, or would you rather talk about anything other than what has happened?” Give people an out so they do not feel obligated to discuss it – it can be a welcome relief.
Touch vs. Space
When I was supporting my client who was losing her beloved partner of 31 years in 2015, the hospital’s Bereavement Support Counselor came to visit us in the ICU. She was talkative, but rather distant – I could tell that my client was not connecting to her…. But when the counselor was done chatting she said, “can I give you a hug?” My client said sure…but I watched her whole body stiffen. She did NOT want a hug! But the way the question was posed, it would have forced her to say No, and that is very tough for some people to do.
I understand the instinct to touch and to comfort. But there are so many reasons to refrain from doing so. If this is a stranger, you don’t know their history or boundaries, coping skills or emotional mindset. Even someone you know well, under those circumstances may just not want to be hugged. It can feel like a violation, or they may be feeling very fragile - like they might shatter into a million pieces if they are touched. I know for me, there are certainly times when I feel like I will have an emotional meltdown because touch can be so intimate – it may awaken emotions that you are trying to keep a tight rein on.
Perhaps a question to ask could be, “do you need some space right now, or would a hug help?” That puts the Space option first and allows them to gracefully decline without directly refusing your offer.
Short Term vs. Long Term
Two misconceptions do a lot of damage to grief healing: that Time Heals All Wounds and that grieving takes a specific amount of time. After, say, a year, we expect people to have “moved on” or “gotten over it.” But a broken heart is not attached to a stopwatch. There are indeed, people who will be able to function well while working on their loss, cleaning out the house, getting rid of belongings, building a memorial – but others may seem to be stuck in quicksand.
The best way to help someone who is stuck is not to suggest that they Move On – in fact, I believe that can be downright cruel. Rather, make specific suggestions of how you could help – clean out a drawer – get them out of the house – a day of pampering – or help them plan a memorial, or plant a tree or have a gathering of friends. There are many active things that help make the griever feel like they are doing something. All of that will help them process the loss. Don’t forget that months after your life has continued, their heart is still broken – pick up the phone and reach out…
If you find someone is angry or in a severe depression and not getting any better, do suggest they seek a trained grief counselor or coach. Grief is to be managed, not fixed. And we all need help with that. But that help may look different person to person, and even with the best of intentions, we can make the journey harder. How about making it easier instead?