As a grief counselor I am often asked, “What can I do to help someone after a terrible loss? I don’t know what to do.” And the truth is this: there is nothing you can do about the circumstances, but there are ways as a friend or loved one that you can be present for that person. By accepting that there is nothing you can do to make the outcome any different, you are able to recognize the ways in which being there for someone might just make a difference in their daily life.
When someone has lost a child, spouse or any person they love dearly, there is nothing you can do to make things okay in their life at that time. It’s something I remind myself every time I meet a new client for counselling. I am not able to bring back the one they love who has died, and by living with that reality, I can best support the client. I can surrender to the powerlessness I have, and make a decision to simply be present with them in their pain and loss. It is human nature to want to fix things or take on a role as organizer in that person’s life in hopes that you are making things easier for them. While those steps are wonderful, the greatest gift of all is simply to be able to sit with them in the pain, from a place of love, brokenness and humility. This can allow them to say and experience every insane and crazy thought and emotion they are feeling without judgment. Simply said, the first step to supporting someone in loss on a deep level is to drop all expectations, all need to fix things, and just be with them. Sit with them in their pain.
Holding space for someone with a horrible loss is one of the hardest things to do. It requires complete unselfishness and an intention to show up for them from the purest place of love. For me, before I meet with someone who has experienced loss, I find it most helpful to engage in quiet meditation or prayer where I call upon the soul who has left us. I ask this soul to guide me so that I can show up for their loved one. I ask for strength to set aside my own thoughts and immerse myself in their grief so that I can be the safe, quiet space they need to feel comfortable and share their deepest feelings. When someone is heavily grieving, not only do they often feel sad, anxious and despondent, they may feel intensely afraid as well.
As author C. S. Lewis said, “No one told me that grief felt so like fear.” This fear stems from the unknown; how will they go on without the one they loved? How will they ever be able to find joy again? How will they simply be able to survive? As a friend or loved one, once we are really able to grasp and respect the fear they are experiencing, we quickly learn that statements like, “you will get through this,” or “everything will get better with time,” are not helpful, and instead can often be harmful, often causing the grieving person to feel unsafe around the person saying them. Imagine a life situation in which you are experiencing deep fear. In that moment, what would you need from another person? Most likely you would want to be held, both literally and figuratively; to feel like you are being listened to; and to know that you are in a safe place, free of judgment, with people who don’t feel the need to cover up the silence with words.
When I am in a session with a client, it is their time to share their story, rage, sadness and angst. I am trusting that they can handle this immense pain, even when they are not sure if they can. What I know, or choose to believe, is that the deep love they feel for their loved one is the very thing holding them together. While they may not know what to do without that person present in their daily life or where they are going to put all of the love they have for that person, I let them know that I am there for them. It is incumbent on me to help them find ways to bring forward the profound love they carry for that person. I try to show them how love and honor can be the only thing in their life that they can trust at that moment. Once my client understands that they are not alone and that I hear them, they come to realize that I am there to provide a safe place for them to share their emotions. They realize that I am committed to honoring their loved one, and the place in their heart that grieves so deeply. They will truly know that I am holding a space for them.
The second part in helping someone cope with loss is realizing that you can and will find ways to love and support your friend or loved one. Once you can hold a space, then you can find your own unique and special ways of showing up for them. There are many different ways to show your support. For instance, after the funeral when things have seemingly begun to calm down, I encourage people to text to check in. This way, if the person wants to talk they can, but there is no obligation. Close friends will often take on responsibilities such as setting up meals, cleaning the house, grocery shopping, caring for pets or other chores, giving the grieving person the freedom to temporarily let go of such responsibility. Another beautiful way to reach out is to send a card with heartfelt memories of the one they lost. In a world of emails and cell phones, receiving something tangible such as a card or a special memento can be meaningful. Remember – it’s not really about how you help or show you care; the intention behind what you do means the most.
When someone is grieving, even the most basic activities and interactions with others can become challenging. For example, many women who have lost a child or spouse absolutely dread going to the grocery store. Kadi Kuhlenberg of Basalt shared her experience:
“One of the most terrifying moments in my early grief was heading to City Market without another adult who could shield me from unwanted conversations. I was so scared to see people who would ask me things or bring up my loss. Of course, I saw four people that day. I hid in aisles and avoided eye contact. It would’ve been so much easier if we had simply made that connection quietly … eye contact or a quick wave … and then moved on. I wasn’t in the right space to be aware of that, and it would’ve been amazing if they had taken the initiative to do just that. Instead, I felt like I was running and hiding so I wouldn’t break down in the checkout lane.”
Offer to grocery shop for grieving friends. Or, if you run into someone who has recently experienced a loss, simply say “I’m thinking of you.” This opens the door for conversation without overstepping or creating an uncomfortable situation for them.
The work place is another area where those experiencing grief can often struggle. Kadi shared: “Someone came to me but then broke down in tears. I was put in the place of supporter, and I didn’t have enough in my tank to support myself and those around me. It really took a toll. I wish they would’ve come to me and expressed their remorse in a way that didn’t put any expectation on me. The one person who did it just right quietly let me know she’d been thinking of me and was there for whatever I may need, then left it at that. It gave me permission to go to her if I needed, but didn’t make me feel uncomfortable or bring me back into my grief at all.”
For some people, going back to work is a way to maintain a semblance of normalcy; they would rather not talk about the loss. Others may become disappointed with co-workers who avoid the subject. When in doubt, open the lines of communication, even if it means leaving your comfort zone.
It is important to recognize that the person who is grieving needs things to be on their own terms. Whether it is talking, crying, or raging, the grief is theirs. When we honor this, we honor them. Many people just don’t know what to do with death, so they freeze. Even if you don’t know what to do, it is better to let yourself be vulnerable and admit your helplessness. Being direct and asking how you can best support them is much better than doing nothing at all.
“When you experience loss it can be hard to think clearly and communicate what you want and need,” Allysa Shenk Genshaft of Snowmass Village offered. “I appreciated the friends and family that didn’t ask what they could do and instead just did what they could to be helpful. Whether it was filling my refrigerator with food, sending over a housekeeper or getting me out of the house to go on a walk, every effort was appreciated and made a difference in my grief journey.”
What a griever needs one day may change the next. There are multiple factors involved, such as your relationship with the person who is grieving, their religious beliefs, and the circumstances surrounding the death. Grief is often messy, complicated and mercurial. The purest thing you can do is to come from an authentic place of love and service towards the one who is grieving. If we reach out from a true place of humility and our own vulnerability, most likely whatever gesture we make will be supportive.
For grief support or to get involved with Pathfinders, please contact Allison Daily at 970-925-1226 or www.PathfindersForYou.org