Allowing a grieving family member or friend to speak their truth is a gift. Our own hesitancy and discomfort can make this simple act seem overwhelming, but all it takes is to open the space with words of love, “I love you. I don’t know what to say, but I’m here for you.” Acknowledging grief is awkward, and we don’t like sitting in discomfort, so we shouldn’t try to make it something it’s not.
Amy Cotter is Director of Bereavement Services for our Lady of Peace. She says, “One of the most important things a grieving person needs is simply acknowledgment of their grief. And when supporters speak the truth of their apprehension, it opens the door for the grieving person to walk through and speak the truth of what they’re feeling. Two ears and a heart are essential components to supporting someone in grief.”
David Kessler is a grief expert that Amy turns to for wisdom. David believes that as a culture, we are grief illiterate, and uncomfortable with any discomfort. He says, “We tend to think about grief as something that lives only in the sense of a loved one dying, but grief is really about change and usually a change we did not want.”
After years of providing grief support, Amy knows that death is no longer an everyday part of life like it used to be. “There is much discomfort around death and grief in our culture. We tend not to be comfortable with the discomfort & pain of others. We tend toward “fixing”, but grief isn’t something that needs to be fixed, nothing is broken. Grief is a perfectly normal & necessary response (& process) to loss.” Amy says, “Grief is different for everyone, but there are some universal aspects, such as the need to tell one’s story, sometimes over and over again, until one day, they just don’t need to tell it anymore. So please be patient, listen and understand that there is no set time in which grieving should be completed and it is not a linear process.”
Here are some tips to help make things a little easier:
The “Dos” of Grief Support:
- Be present
It’s so simple, basic, and easy. Grief is a pain that must be experienced, so be patient, listen, and don’t judge. Meet people where they are. They may need to cry or they may need to take a break from sadness, and talk about something else.
- Be vulnerable
Be honest and say you don’t have the words, you can’t fix it, but you’re here for them.
- Offer a non-verbal presence
Offer a hand on the shoulder, a pat on the back, a hug, or holding a hand. It depends on your relationship with the griever, but it’s a way to speak without words
- Have a non-judgmental attitude
Grief is non-linear and there is no time frame, so follow their lead, and let go of any timetable.
The “Don’ts” of Grief Support
- Don’t try to fix it
The person isn’t broken, so there’s nothing to fix. You can’t fix the pain; you can only witness it. Death and grief are a normal part of life, and loving. Grief is what love looks like after loss. It’s real and necessary.
- Don’t “bright-side,” or minimize the death
Don’t say things like, “They had a long life,” or “They’re not in pain anymore.” And don’t rationalize or try to explain the loss. Don’t say, “It was their time.”
- Don’t hurry the process
Don’t say, “I’m surprised you’re still sad,” or “You need to move on because this isn’t healthy.” Just allow for ample time together.
- Don’t bring your own death experiences into this process
It’s okay to say, “I’ve lost a spouse, or a child, so I feel like I understand,” but don’t talk about it beyond that.
- Don’t worry about upsetting the griever
Don’t worry about bringing something up because it will make them cry. You’re just showing that you are a safe support amid their grief and you’re opening the door to companion them. Tears are holy water. They water our souls and are an expression of love. They’re cathartic.
- Don’t ask what you can do to help
A grieving person can’t always identify what they need, so just do whatever you think you should do to be supportive. Bring a meal to their home, offer to pick up their child at an activity, or mow their lawn. Simply be present and meet their needs.
Don’t be afraid to hold space for a grieving loved one or friend, and let them speak their truth, while also speaking yours. It’s healing.