What has been your experience with grief? Have you gone through the process yourself? Do you feel overwhelmed when others experience loss? Working in the perinatal field, I am surrounded by parents who have survived loss. These experiences vary vastly from the endless cycles of hope and loss during IVF treatment, to processing a miscarriage, or coming to terms with the dissolution of marriages. Grief can be isolating, and I hear repeatedly how much these parents yearn for understanding from their friends and family members. This post is for those who would like to help a grieving friend or loved one. I hope the following strategies will give you an idea of what you can do in these times of need.
8 Things to Consider when Supporting a Grieving Loved one:
1) Know that your job is to listen
Listen to what your friend is sharing and how he or she is feeling. Focus on maintaining a safe and nonjudgmental space for him or her to experience emotions openly. Respect boundaries if this individual is not ready to talk.
Supporting a grieving individual involves being genuinely present. This involves actively listening, reflecting back, asking questions, showing interest, validation, and providing compassion. There is no need to fix things or make it better because this is not possible. We often worry about being effective support persons, but I encourage you to consider what “effective” truly means in this context. You are not able to bring back the person or experience that has been lost. The best way to support is to be available and present if or when the grieving party is ready to talk or have company.
2) Show that you care
There are lots of ways to show you care from visiting, calling, dropping off food, offering practical help, or giving a hug. If you’re not sure that you’re properly supporting the other person, just ask. We sometimes worry about being a nuisance. Trust that the other person will tell you if they do not want this type of support.
Sometimes our own uncertainties get in the way. We question how often we should stop by, or whether we’re making much of a difference. In these scenarios, listen to your own capacity. Burning yourself out in the process of helping someone’s grief will not work well for anyone at the end of the day. Offer as much as you can comfortably manage.
Again, remember that the goal does not involve the other person necessarily “feeling better”. Sometimes we look for reinforcement that we are doing the right thing because the other person responds back, smiles, offers reassurance, and so forth. Depending on the intensity and recency of the grief, your loved one may not be able to offer this feedback.
3) Stop giving advice
A lot of bereaved individuals are provided support through advice giving. They hear endless phrases like:
- “You should talk about it more“
- “It’s important to let it go“
- “Make sure to take some time to do the things you enjoy“
- “You can always try again“
- “Count your blessings“
- “Think of your other children“
These phrases are not meant to be malicious and the speaker has good intentions. However, it’s important to recognize that in these remarks are subtle messages informing the bereaved that they are grieving incorrectly. They are being told to feel or act differently from how they are currently experiencing their loss. Recognize that your role in this scenario is not be an advice giver, but to be a friend. Let the person feel how they feel, and trust that this is their way of processing.
4) There is no set time for when a person is done grieving
Some people come to terms with loss within a few months, whereas for others, it will take years. There’s really no set timing when it comes to grief. As far as the support role, the difficulty comes with being patient when the other person’s grief continues despite a lengthy time. I get that you want the other person to feel better, but be cautious of how this comes across. So long as the person is safe and not a danger to themselves (e.g. suicidal intent), step back. As worried as you may be that they are stuck, continue to let them know you are available, and let go of the pressure for them to “move forward” until they are ready.
5) Pay attention to your own discomforts
The pressure we feel to make the other person feel better comes from our own agendas. It comes from our own discomfort in seeing a loved one in pain. Of course, you want the other person to feel better. This is your spouse, your sibling, a dear friend, and you would never wish this type of sadness on them. However, it’s important that, in the grief process, the focus is not about you, but about the other person. We can easily shift into noticing our own systems feeling uncomfortable with intense emotions and wanting to help the other person shut down these feelings. This can be incredibly invalidating, and reinforces a sense of isolation for the grieving individual.
It is helpful to reflect on your own experiences with grief and intense emotions. How have you been supported during times of distress? Were you forced to manage on your own? Did your family members display big emotions? Were feelings welcome, or were you taught to bury your emotions? Did you witness your parents experience big emotions and start to fear them?
Understandably, we can have avoidant parts of our system that shy away from intense emotions based on childhood experiences. We want our caregivers to show us that the world is safe and that they can keep us protected. We need our caregivers to provide a safe environment for us to feel and process our emotions. When parents continue to present in dysregulated manners (e.g. intense grief, shaming us for experiencing distress), children have a hard time coming to terms with these emotions. They may learn to fear strong feelings as unbearable or a problem that must be resolved.
6) Try not to personalize.
If a loved one is grieving, chances are their emotional capacity can feel incredibly restricted. They may not have the space or awareness to consider how their remarks or feedback is landing on others, and you may bear witness to significant mood swings. It is normal to have ups and downs during grief. As a support person, this does not mean you tolerate becoming the emotional punching bag. You are always encouraged to set boundaries if someone is treating you poorly. However, in situations where the other person turns down spending time together, presents as moodier, is not emotionally available, or appears uninterested in your updates, try not to personalize. They are not doing this to be intentionally unkind, but are caught in their own feelings of loss.
7) Don’t be afraid to bring up the loss.
Grief can be a taboo topic, and we are cautious about triggering the other person by avoiding bringing up the circumstances. Simply avoiding the topic does not mean the other person is not thinking about their loss. They are well aware of what’s changed in their life, and need the opportunity to talk about it. Rather than avoid, acknowledge the grief. Comment on milestones, anniversaries, birthdays, and other important dates. As time goes on, your loved one will appreciate that you are not forgetting their loss, and use the opportunity to talk, if it’s needed.
8) Be genuine.
If you truly understand the other person’s pain and have been through a similar experience, let them know. Otherwise, avoid saying phrases like “I understand” or “I know how you feel.” While these types of phrases are meant to offer comfort, they can unfortunately feel really invalidating. Pay attention to whether you use platitudes. While you may find comfort in trying to find the silver lining, the other person may not be ready or wanting to these hear these comments. Again, try not to personalize this, but work with the reality that this is not the way that this person processes grief.
Whether you feel overwhelmed by witnessing grief, or if you feel your loved one can benefit from additional support, therapy can provide a safe space to process these emotions. It helps to have a neutral party to discuss intense feelings without fear of repercussion, needing to stay strong, or concern about overwhelming others. It takes a lot of courage to seek out for help; reach out when it feels right for you.