“The only source of knowledge is experience.” – Albert Einstein
“Is there anyone so wise as to learn by the experience of others?” – Voltaire
“Experience is the teacher of all things.” – Julius Caesar
These greats were 100% correct. Sometimes we must fully experience something before we can fully understand it.
I did not understand grieving until I went through it. No one understands it until they go through it. It’s unlike any other emotional time in life.
Suppose your best friend’s mother passes away. What do you do? You offer your condolences, tell them to call you if they need anything, you attend the funeral (if you can), repeat your condolences as you hug them and then go home. It’s over for you.
For your best friend, that funeral is the beginning – not the end – of a painful, dark and life-changing journey that is one of the hardest things they will ever have to deal with.
As the weeks and months pass by after the funeral, you notice changes in your best friend. You might not see them as much as you did previously. You might not see their presence online as much. You might not get as many – if any – texts as was normal. You might notice that their emotions – if you get to see them – are more than just sadness. On the contrary, you might notice that when you’re around them, they always seem to be smiling and insisting that they’re okay.
They’re not okay – they’re grieving.
You realize that you have no idea what to say to them because you’ve never grieved before. You know it’s more complicated than them just being ‘sad’, but what do you do?? You can’t ignore them because you know they’re hurting, but you have absolutely no idea what to do to help them.
Most people choose to do nothing because they think that they’re ‘giving them time’ and feel like that’s the ‘safer’ course of action.
It isn’t. Read on.
Having been on the side of not knowing what to do AND having been on the side of grieving over the loss of my mother the last year or so, I decided to write this blog in the hopes that it would help those who are grieving get the emotional support that they need AND that it would help those that haven’t grieved to be able to give the emotional support to their loved ones that need it so desperately.
Understand that everyone is different – so everyone will grieve differently. It’s not an exact science; this blog only serves as a guideline. Adjust as necessary for your loved one.
Let’s look at what grieving is first. Grieving is not just sadness or depression (as commonly thought), but sadness and depression are part of grieving. Grieving is a process that happens over time; it could be a few months, or it could take a few years. The easiest way to explain it is like the Space Mountain ride at Disney – you’re in the dark, have no idea which (emotional) twist or turn is coming next and are just along for the ride until it ends. Grief can hit at any time, too; you can be going along your days, thinking everything is fine, and then BAM – you’re down for the count for days, crying and useless.
Wikipedia, oddly enough, has a great explanation: “Grief is a multifaceted response to loss, particularly to the loss of someone or something, that has passed away, to which a bond or affection was formed. Although conventionally focused on the emotional response to loss, it also has physical, cognitive, behavioral, social, spiritual, and philosophical dimensions. While the terms are often used interchangeably, bereavement refers to the state of loss, and grief is the reaction to loss, along with saudade.”
(Saudade – pronounced ‘sew dahd’ or ‘sew dahgy’ – is a Portuguese term that doesn’t have an English equivalent, but roughly translated, it means a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves. This is something that can last forever.)
BuzzFeed posted a great article about depression that completely applies to grieving, as well. Read more here.
It’s not just the sadness and depression that you experience. There’s anger, guilt, confusion, fear; just to name a few. Your self-esteem and self-confidence can be affected. Your sleeping patterns and appetite can suffer. You question your own mortality. It’s a downward spiral of thoughts and feelings, and not a very pretty one. Until you have ridden the roller coaster of grief, you have no idea of just how dark your days can be; you have no idea the maelstrom of destructive emotions that will course through your veins – and mind – and burn you from the inside. I know I didn’t.
You also have other family members to deal with who are grieving as well, and often times, you see sides of them during the process that you don’t particularly like because it’s a side of them that you’ve never seen before – and they’ve never seen it, either, more than likely. Bills, possessions, wills, properties, heirs – all sorts of legal things have to be dealt with, and often, not everyone agrees on how/when to do it. I’ve learned that death changes people, and usually not for the better. People will behave in ways that you never imagined that they could. Grief is the biggest part of what causes such severe personality changes. And the less someone deals with their grief, the worse their behavior becomes.
It’s truly one of THE hardest things to experience. The person you are when you go in is not the person you are when you come out.
After you’ve gone through it personally, you usually have an idea of what to say to someone or how to treat those that are going through the same. For those of you that have not experienced grieving, it creates an awkwardness that usually leads to silence. You know your friend or family member is hurting, and the last thing you want to do is say something that is going to hurt them more or sound insensitive or cliché, so you do the safest thing – you say nothing. You might think of them often, you might even pray or send out positive energies for them, but if you never tell them, they never know. To them, it’s like you did nothing.
The one who is grieving is typically incapable of telling you what they need. They are too lost in their pain and downward spirals of turbulent emotions to be able to articulate the kind of support that they need to help them feel better or help them feel loved and thought of. Grieving is a lonely process to go through, and you often feel isolated from everyone. (Read my other blog The Island of Grief for more about this.) It just makes an already awful situation even more awful.
I lost both of my grandfathers when I was six…I lost a cousin when I was twelve…I lost my grandmother when I was fifteen…but I had never grieved until I lost my mother. I’ve always been on the other side – that feeling awkward-not knowing what to say-just remaining quiet – side. I never knew what to say when someone was grieving, so after the preliminary “I’m sorry for your loss” bit, I didn’t say or do anything else. I thought bringing it up again would be painful, so I didn’t. I assumed that maybe they didn’t want me to or that I wasn’t supposed to. I never checked to see if they were doing all right later. I never let them know that I was thinking about them. I didn’t do anything because I didn’t know WHAT to do, so I thought it was better to do NOTHING.
Now I know that that was wrong.
The last year and a half since losing Mom has been a very bad, very dark place for me. It’s been THE worst time of my life; let’s just say it like it is. I have also never felt more UNloved or UNthought of in my life. Does that mean that my friends and family don’t love me or hadn’t thought of me during this horrible time? Of course not! They thought of me often, and periodically when I’d post on Facebook about being in this awful mindset, they would leave a comment in response and support.
But that’s not what I needed. And I know I’m not alone with my needs. I’m just one of thousands.
I needed those that cared about me to REACH OUT to me on their own without being prompted. I needed a ‘thinking of you’ card to show up in the mail. I needed a text message saying ‘hey, just letting you know I’m wondering how you are’. I needed a voicemail that said ‘you don’t have to call me back if you don’t feel like it, but I know you’re hurting and I hope you’re ok’. I needed an email that said ‘if you feel like talking, I feel like listening’. I can’t tell you what those sorts of things would have meant to me. They probably would have made me cry, to be honest. I’m sure I speak for hundreds of others in this way.
So why didn’t I get any of that? Why don’t any of us in that situation get what we need? Because not only can the one grieving not tell you what they need or how much they’re hurting, most of us don’t know what to say or how to treat someone grieving (if we even know they are), so we say or do nothing – it really is just that simple.
After sending out a survey to ask others about their experience grieving and what they’d like others to know, I’ve compiled all the responses and made a list of 5 do’s and 5 don’ts that come ‘straight from the horse’s mouth’…a grieving one, that is. With each of these, please consider the specific person that is grieving and adjust if necessary to better fit their personality. This is a ‘one size fits most’ – not a ‘one size fits all’ – list.
- DO send ‘thinking of you’ cards, letters, texts, etc and more than once, if you can. Even if your loved one doesn’t respond, know that reaching out to them DID make a difference and that it DID touch them to know that someone was thinking of them. It tells them that they’re loved when they’re feeling very unloved. It doesn’t matter if it’s two weeks after the funeral or two years, send those messages of support – your loved one will tell you when they’re feeling better (and basically when you don’t need to send anymore).
- DO offer to listen if your loved one wants to talk about their deceased family member/friend. Tell them that specifically; don’t wait for them to mention it. Sometimes the ones grieving think that no one wants to hear about the past, that no one wants to listen to them relive memories, because it’ll be sad. (And, of course, that’s not true.) You could say “I just want you to know that if you ever want to talk about ______, I want to listen”. Your loved one will either tell you that they’re not ready, but that they will be in the future, or they’ll take you up on it immediately. Most that have not experienced grieving think that those of us who are don’t want to talk about the one causing us the pain, but this is usually not true. If you have any special memories and/or pictures of their loved one, by all means, show them (or give them a copy of) the pictures and share those memories with them. It might make them cry, but that’s okay. It helps in their healing. It’s a happy cry, as strange as that sounds.
- DO offer to take them out for coffee, dessert, lunch, dinner, etc. They might say no a few times, but keep asking periodically. One day, they will surprise you, and they will say yes. The one grieving often doesn’t have the ability to do the inviting, even if they’re feeling slightly better, and they are much more likely to say yes to someone asking than to gather up the energy to do the asking. They need love, support and encouragement, but they usually can not ask for it. If you’re very close to the one grieving, like a sibling or best friend, instead of asking if you can do something for them, just do it. Cook a couple of their favorite dishes or make their favorite dessert and take it to them after calling to let them know you’re on the way. If you ask if you can do something, you’ll always be told no. If you just do it, it’ll always be accepted and appreciated.
- DO hug your hurting loved one when you see them and give them a big smile. Often those who haven’t grieved almost feel guilty for being happy around someone who is. This is not true. If you are happy, share that happiness. Don’t be afraid to talk about positive things that might be happening if your life. It will help ease the pain of your loved one. You will be a brief ray of sunshine in a stormy world, and it will be appreciated. Just because they are sad doesn’t mean they expect you to be.
- DO have an initial, direct conversation with the one grieving. Pretending that someone hasn’t died and that everything is normal won’t work. Your loved one’s life has been forever changed, and they will not be themselves for months and possibly even years. It will require extreme patience from you, and it will also require a “proactiveness” on your part that you’ve not been accustomed to. A few weeks after the funeral (because they’re in shock until at least two or three months after; sometimes longer), call them and tell them that you want to support them but that you’re not sure of how. Don’t worry about saying the ‘right thing’ – there is no right thing to say. Tell them that you will periodically check on them (in whatever way is comfortable for you), and encourage them to not be afraid to tell you if they need more support from you or less. It will change as the weeks and months pass, too, as they work through the different stages, so you might need to have another direct conversation. The one grieving will welcome the opportunity to talk to you about where they’re at emotionally and what they need from you.
- DON’T use clichés ever. They are empty sentiments and mean nothing to the person that you’re saying them to. You know the kind; “hang in there”, “be strong”, “let me know if I can do anything”, “I’ll be here if you need me” and the like (don’t misunderstand – some people truly do mean the last two, but more often than not, the statements are said with little meaning behind them). If you don’t know what to say, tell your hurting loved one just that. Tell them that you know they feel awful and that you wished you could do something to make them feel better. Tell them you want to be there but that they will need to tell you when and how. Tell them that you’ll check on them in a few days/weeks/months. Tell them that you have no idea what to do; that’s okay, too. Just be honest and mean whatever you do say. The honesty will be truly appreciated, even if you feel like you said nothing of value.
- DON’T ignore them. I know all of us get busy with ‘life’; sometimes it’s all we can do just to tend to our own issues. BUT, even if you only send a card or text twice in a number of months, while seemingly insignificant to you, it can make the entire day or week of someone grieving. What doesn’t seem like much to you is momentous to someone in pain. You might think of them often and hope they’re doing better and other niceties, but if they aren’t told, it’s the same to them as if you hadn’t thought of them at all. And the worst thing for someone grieving to feel – along with the other awful things they’re feeling – is forgotten. It’s debilitating.
- DON’T suggest for your loved one to seek grief counseling. Now, don’t get me wrong here – grief counseling is a good thing, and it often does need to happen to help some people work through their grief. BUT unless you are super close to that person (sibling, best friend, child, etc), making that suggestion, especially too soon, tells them that they’re ‘too’ depressed or ‘too’ upset, and it will close them up from you. It will make them feel like they ‘should’ be happier around you or that they ‘should’ be over their grieving quicker. It makes them feel like what they’re going through and how they’re handling it is wrong – which, of course, is not what you intended at all. You have to remember that your loved one’s emotions are raw and that they are easily hurt and/or offended. They truly might need it, but if you suggest it only a few weeks or months in to their grief, they might not contact you for some time only because they’ll feel like they’re being judged; like something’s wrong with them or that they should be ‘over it’ already.
- DON’T assume that your loved one wants to be left alone. Those that are grieving do need some time to themselves, of course, to cry and be angry and all sorts of other messy, emotionally draining things, but don’t assume that they don’t want to hear from you or that they’ll call you when they’re feeling better. There are some that truly do want to be left alone, and those are the ones that will tell you in no uncertain terms that they’ll contact you when they’re ready. But most people grieving are not going to tell you that. Unless someone has firmly stated so, don’t wait for them to contact you. They want space, yes, but they don’t want to be forgotten.
- DON’T pretend like nothing has happened. There are some folks that think the best way to handle someone grieving is to essentially act like nothing bad happened; to treat the person in the same manner as they had previously and to expect that person to behave the same as they had previously. That is a disaster waiting to happen, and it happens more with work and acquaintance type relationships more so than with close friendships and family ties. I worked in purchasing when Mom passed, and so I placed orders with and took orders from the same people month after month. I emailed one lady in particular and explained that I had been out of the office so much because my mother had passed, and she absolutely ignored me. She never offered condolences, she never acknowledged my loss and she went so far as to make ridiculous comments like “the sun is shining in ____” (whatever city she was in), and I just wanted to reach through the screen and strangle her. I wasn’t looking for a shoulder to cry on given our work relationship, but we’re still human. Loss will affect someone harshly, regardless of the relationship, and to ignore it in any situation will cause resentment and breed contempt.
There are more that could be added to each of these lists, but this gives you a very good idea of just how to handle that grieving loved one. This blog gives you a little glimpse into their minds as to what they need and want from you. Overall, the most important thing that I can stress is to COMMUNICATE with them along the way of their painful journey. You will be a tremendous help to their healing if you do.
Have other suggestions? Feel free to post them below so that others can see.