“Life isn’t about surviving the storm. It’s about learning to dance in the rain.” ~Vivian Greene
Compassion is one of humanity’s greatest gifts. During times of suffering, such as following the death of a loved one, sufferers rely on the empathy of others to survive their ordeal. Yet, too often when someone is grieving, we do little more than offer an “I am sorry for your loss” because we are fearful of accidentally increasing their pain.
Speaking as someone who lost her husband unexpectedly after just over three years of marriage—and who has counseled many people who have lost loved ones—I understand both personally and professionally how it feels to grieve deeply.
All grievers appreciate the compassion offered them, but there are some expressions of sympathy that are more helpful than others. Here are five don’ts (and dos) for people wanting to comfort grievers.
DO talk about the person lost, don’t assume bringing up their name or stories about them will make the sadness worse.
What hurts me most is when people do not talk about my husband Jim. There were a lot of people who thought bringing him up in conversation would hurt me or intensify my sadness. The opposite was the case.
I would tell them that I love talking about Jim and I always will because that is how I keep him alive and with me. I enjoy hearing a funny story about him or a memory of him that someone is eager to relive.
Many people wanted to be there for me—even to reminisce about Jim—but since they did not know what was appropriate, they did nothing. As I suffered through the pain and shock of losing him, the last thing on my mind was who I had not spoken to recently or who might be available for a fifteen-minute talk.
Grievers are not in a psychological state of mind to reach out to anyone, so please reach out to them. We need all the support we can get.
DO ask questions, just don’t ask open-ended questions.
One of the most common things you hear while grieving is “Do you need anything?” Or “How can I help?” These are the most stressful questions you can ask a sufferer. They’re heartfelt and have the best of intentions behind them, but for someone who is already overwhelmed with grief, shock, anxiety, etc., making decisions is very difficult.
For example, food is one of the most stressful things when you are grieving. Sounds ridiculous, but it is true. Every client I work with who has lost a loved one says that food elicits the same stress with them.
One of my clients is blessed with a family member who makes peanut butter protein balls so that my client will satisfy her nutritional needs without having to cook herself.
My life was made so much easier by friends and family who brought me food already prepared. All I needed to do it was put it in the refrigerator until I wanted it. It was one less thing to worry about.
So if you are going to ask a griever if they need anything, make it a simple choice: “Do you want soup or salad?” Or give them a multiple-choice question—A, B, or C. They will still need to make a choice, but it will not be based on open-ended options.
DO offer to get together, but don’t assume the person suffering will want to do the same things they have done in the past.
Meet the sufferer where they are and not where they once were.
Jim and I loved road trips to football games and live band performances. Today I can only enjoy those things with people whom I feel very safe.
Many people just assumed that because I enjoyed it previously that I would naturally fall back into it again. It doesn’t work that way. Joy is a difficult emotion after grieving because you almost feel guilty to be happy. Maybe some people cope with their grieving that way, but the vast majority I have encountered do not.
I would much rather spend the day outdoors in nature quietly, or have friends phone me and say, “How about we come over and watch a movie? You don’t have to entertain us or get dressed. Stay in your pajamas.”
DO leave the small things out of conversations, don’t bother the griever with trivialities.
Grieving or not, if a friend or family member is facing a major problem in life, you want to help them, regardless of whether you are suffering. Life is about helping one another whenever it is needed. That is, when it is a legitimate problem.
For example, I no longer have any patience for pettiness. I do not care about the traffic or the weather, or about the rude checkout lady at the supermarket. Jim died two and a half years ago, and it is still a struggle climbing out of bed and getting through the day. With that kind of daily battle, I have no tolerance for those mundane conversations anymore. And I guarantee you I am not alone.
Do yourself and the griever a favor—if your problem is nothing more than an irritant, speak to someone else about it.
DO be open and patient with outbursts and breakdowns and don’t judge.
Just because a griever looks better after a few weeks or months does not mean he or she is no longer suffering. It simply means they are getting better at improving their appearance. The suffering on the inside continues, and the daily struggles remain even though they are unseen by the public.
Little stresses can derail us. For example, due to a rain delay, the Michigan-Michigan State game was running late, and living in Colorado, the local channel switched to the Colorado game. You would have thought I lost my dog. I called my brother (hysterically) and he took care of the issue in five minutes.
You feel as if you have overcome so many challenges already that the frustration at not understanding what is going on around you sends you spiraling. It’s why you can only approach life one day at a time. So resist the urge to judge another’s progress or choices. Sufferers really are doing the best we can.
In closing, it is so important that you remain who you are. Don’t try to change how you act or interact in fear of how you will make the person grieving feel. Just be who you are for them and remember that normalcy is not a goal let alone a destination. Their lives will never be the same again, but your consistent presence and authentic support will make the grieving process just a little less overwhelming for them.