But grief…I know a lot about that. It’s a shitty thing on which to be an expert, but that doesn’t mean I should let that expertise go to waste, right?
Right. And since my own grieving husband is coming home tonight, I have the topic on my mind.
So, here it is: everything I know about supporting a person who is grieving.
Grief and loss suck major ass. Our natural instinct is to run away from ass-sucking things. We don’t want to be uncomfortable; we don’t want to feel our own pain; we’re afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing and making it worse. Some grief (especially if it’s the kind that comes from a sudden, violent death or the death of someone very young) is overwhelming, even terrifying, to witness.
And still, do something. Show up. To compound the loss of death with abandonment by the living is unspeakably cruel.
Leave the platitudes at home. Preferably locked up tight. Consider burning them.
We are afraid of pain, and the bigger the pain we’re witnessing, the more afraid we are. The more afraid we are, the more frantic we become to make the pain stop.
Platitudes are phrases that are meant to stop the expression of pain. They are stale, airless, ugly things that help no one except, perhaps, the person who says them.
God needed her in heaven.
He’s in a better place.
Be grateful that…he didn’t suffer/you have (or can have) other children/you had X number of years together/her pain is over.
In fact, we want our loved ones here on earth, with us. That’s why we grieve. If you don’t know what to say, just say, “I’m so sorry,” or “I miss her.”
Grief isn’t just about sadness.
Loss causes us to feel sad. That’s pretty universal, but depending on the circumstances of the death, a person who is grieving may also feel fear, anger, guilt, and a host of other feelings. No feelings are bad or wrong. Let the feelings happen as if they were a force of nature that you are powerless to stop, because they are.
Dump the expectations.
Grief is not a uniform set of behaviors. Some people scream and some people cry quietly. Some people want to be surrounded by those who love them and some want to be with just one or two friends or family members. Some people are absolutely knocked off balance by grief; others continue to function mostly as usual even under the weight of their pain. Most people experience grief very differently at different times. No way of grieving is right or wrong.
Grief is powerful, and it will have its way. Our expectations about how big or small the grief over a particular loss “should” be don’t matter a bit. Honor the grief of the person in front of you, even if you think it “should” be smaller or bigger, quieter or noisier, longer or shorter.
Skip the religious sentiments unless you know you share a common tradition.
We don’t all believe in God, or the same God. We don’t all believe in heaven, or the same heaven. We don’t all believe in prayer. Just like with the platitudes, if you don’t know what to say, just say, “I’m so sorry.”
It will last longer than you think it will.
In the immediate aftermath of a loss, the whole world slows down for a little while to observe someone’s passing. We have rituals. We send flowers and casseroles. After awhile, we return to our lives.
For those closest to the person who has died, though, grief is a tenacious bitch. Be the person who continues to be willing to bear witness to grief. Be the one who comes over when you get a tearful late-night call six months, two years, five years, ten years, or even longer after the loss. Be the person who understands that our cultural expectations about how long grief “should” last are at best silly, and at worst profoundly destructive.
Grief will ebb and flow. It usually weakens across time, but it doesn’t go away. Be the person who gets that.
You can’t fix it, so get in it.
Loss is a part of life. We are all going to lose people we love, and we will all have occasion to help someone travel through a valley of grief. We can’t make that not happen; we can’t make the pain better. What we can do is be present.
That being present, the sitting with and holding hands may not seem like much. It may seem pale and small, but in fact it is vast and powerful and vibrant.