“You have definitely challenged and opened my eyes through sharing your experience, and it’s made me look at loss and grief differently, so I appreciate that. Because I don’t always think people rawly and honestly express and share what you have. So thank you.” – a friend said this to me around Father’s Day
After the devastating loss of my father four months ago today – which was heavily related to Covid-19 restrictions – many friends wrote to me and said:
“I don’t know what to say.”
“There are no words.”
“I have no words.”
This could be true. It conveys the feeling of overwhelm at experiencing such a loss. Likely because they have not experienced this form of loss, and are unclear on how to navigate it, support it – I truly get it. Please know, that in fact, you can still be supportive. I wrote this article to speak to this. I sincerely hope that you may find it helpful. I am writing this to support the grievers and the supporters of grievers. I am also writing this to bring loss, death, and grief out in the open more – because most often grief/loss/death are avoided, hidden, and/or shamed in our society. Misunderstood, judged, and/or dismissed. This article is written from the perspective of four months after loss.
To put it plainly, as a culture – we simply don’t know how to hold death, loss, and grief well. We are not skilled at it. And the opportunity to develop this skill is not offered openly and freely in our society. Conversely, what is offered is how to forget. Forget that death is coming one fine day. For everyone. Loss is coming. For everyone. Grief is already here in a myriad of forms. And there’s more coming. Although nothing can ever really prepare anyone for loss, some practices can certainly support the journey of loss. Just like the journey of life. If I know how to take care of myself (re: also known as self care, self love), if I am totally committed to it and sincerely make that time, giving myself that loving attention – it will help immensely along my path when “shit hits the fan.” Because as we very well know, it does, and it will. This dimension demands the constant navigation of the ebb and flow of life. If we have some tools and resources, we can be more prepared, and the journey can be just a little softer in places.
Here is a little of what I learned within the last five years, after both my mother and father left their bodies. These were my very first two experiences of loss, and they were massive. So close to home…
If you haven’t experienced a similar loss, it doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t be supportive to your loved one. Empathy is gold. Imagine the closest person to you dying – then you will have some understanding, even though you may think and/or convey you don’t understand. But to be totally clear, the feeling of loss is not something your imagination can conjure up. And no two losses are ever the same. Yet cultivating the skill of empathy is one that humanity can benefit from greatly as a whole. Not just a few words here or there in passing, but really, sincerely empathizing. It was Ram Dass who said, “We are all just walking each other home.”
Here’s a powerful three-minute video by Brené Brown on empathy to get you started:
“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries.
Without them, humanity cannot survive.” – Dalai Lama
Simply validate their experience. Don’t run to “fix it.” Our culture is so conditioned to want to help, but the deepest support you can offer someone who is grieving, is to just listen/witness/hold space. Jumping to “fix it” only dismisses and discredits their experience. Validating their experience is extremely helpful. In truth, a broken heart is a broken heart. It will mend, to some degree, on its own time. And leave a scar.
If you want to help, perhaps ask: how can I support you? What do you need? That is incredibly helpful.
Please don’t tell them how to feel. Or convey that their feelings may be inaccurate. Nobody wants to hear this at the best of times, let alone at the most devastating time of their lives. Just focus on listening, reflecting back, and making your loved one feel seen and heard.
Support your loved one’s tears. Please don’t try to suppress them because they make you uncomfortable. Tears are healthy. Help them feel because it helps them process, and essentially – grieve. We have to feel to heal.
Thinking of them everyday and praying for them daily is wonderful. Please tell them that, every little bit of support helps. Because grief is alienating in a culture that is not only busy, but also uneducated on loss. It’s so supportive to know that you are doing that. Not sharing it with them makes them feel less supported. Telling them makes them feel less alone.
Grievers need lots of hugs. Long ones. This is deep heart medicine. (Especially if the loss happened during a pandemic when hugs were/are discouraged – and pretty much outlawed.) Please don’t tell the griever you are available for that, and then not be available. As a result, the griever can feel abandoned.
Take time to note the special days when your loved one will feel the loss more profoundly. Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, the departed one’s birthday, your loved one’s birthday, the holidays, the death anniversary. Reach out to them with love in some form, they will appreciate your support so much.
Please be aware that good intentions are not supportive. What is supportive is direct support. Follow through on your intentions and show up. “Let me know if you need anything,” can be unhelpful, as most often the griever is so overwhelmed that they don’t even know what they need, or they’re too exhausted to ask.
Please don’t change the subject. When your loved one is sharing their experience with you, stay with them and practice deep listening. That is so powerful. (You don’t even have to say anything!)
The griever’s heart is very raw and vulnerable in the early months of loss, so please be conscious of what subject matter you raise in conversations (violence and trauma best be avoided, for example).
If the reflection of the griever is too much because it brings up your own stuff, say so, don’t just abandoned them without any explanation. It’s better to be honest, the griever will likely appreciate this.
A few months after the loss – when you ask the griever how things are now – please ensure you respond. Because after they pour their heart out to you, and you don’t respond – it leaves their experience unacknowledged. And what grievers need most is be to witnessed, heard, and have their experienced validated. Please don’t leave them hanging. Take a few minutes to reply to the text, answer the voice mail, etc.
Check in with your loved one weekly at minimum for the first couple of months after their loss, and then every two to three weeks after a few months. And then monthly, for the first six months following the loss. This is the time they need lots of support. It’s the time everyone has moved on, except they are left with the “reality” of life without that one who departed. They are trying to pick up the pieces, make sense of it all, and navigate how to move forward. The shock may have worn off, and the new “reality” is vying for position. We live in a culture where death, loss and grief are expected to be over in a month, and then it tells us: “onwards and upwards!” But it just doesn’t work that way. Time shifts and changes the process, but ultimately, the grief never goes away. It just becomes different over time.
If you’re too busy or overwhelmed in your life to visit, call them. Or at least leave a voice mail. Texts and e-mails are helpful in the first couple of tender months, and then, they can become stale. Because most often by then what the griever is needing is more authentic, heart connection. The world has moved on, but they are still neck deep in navigating their present reality, and perhaps the haunting circumstances of the loss (if applicable). Their system may even still be in shock.
If calling or leaving a voice mail is too much, consider sending them a card or self care gift, or drop one off at their doorstep. This can help them know that they are being cared for and supported in a time when their world has been ripped apart, and they are dazed, in incubation, and reconfiguring. It is a slow process. Not simply a flick of a switch. It requires time and energy.
When they distance from you, don’t take it personally. They are in overwhelm and just daily functioning, self care, and keeping up with domestics is more than they can handle in the beginning. And it is still a challenge a few months later, because they are still in grief. Grief affects the brain in the form of brain fog. They forget things, forget what their saying mid-sentence, and they get overwhelmed with too much information coming in at once, as their cognitive function is blurred, and their energy levels are not what they use to be. Grief is so very exhausting, starting from the cells – it literally leaves you parched on all levels. Just experiencing all of that is overwhelming. Furthermore, their neuro pathways are reconfiguring according to the way “reality” is now, and that is layered on top of the grief experience just outlined. It’s a lot to hold, it’s a lot to carry.
Make sure you are in a space to hold their experience. Please don’t show up burnt out or unprepared. They require your groundedness, your presence, your love – to help them navigate their reality. If you are not in the space, reschedule the meeting, call and/or note. Please ensure you reschedule and follow up with it. Otherwise they may feel abandoned.
Please don’t reach out and offer support and/or your ongoing availability, and then when the griever reaches out to you – you are simply not available. It makes the griever feel ghosted, and even more abandoned.
In early grief, if you want to relate about your own experience of loss, please ask if it’s ok first. Because without that ask, you may be minimizing the griever’s experience.
Do not send a ‘no separation’/spiritual bypassing condolence. It is not helpful and simply dismisses and discredits the griever’s embodied experience.
In early grief, if the griever conveys they are not available to meet up, please respect that. Please don’t just show up anyway and expect them to interact with you. They are most often barely holding it together, and require lots of space in the early stages of grief. Any extra output is simply not there. Please don’t take it personally. Just send or drop off whatever you wish to offer at the doorstep with a note and leave quietly. They will no doubt very much appreciate your offering, but simply do not have the energy to thank you in person. Because they are barely functioning. Most often, there will likely be a message thanking you at some point. But sometimes there may not be, depending on the depth of grief unfolding in the griever, and/or the circumstances of the loss.
Please pay attention to the griever’s previous message if you’re in a thread of ongoing communication by text with them. Please don’t respond with the same questions that have already been answered earlier in the thread. It tells the griever that you’re actually not so present with their experience. As a result, they may distance from you until they get to a space when they have more output available.
If there was a major global event that had an impact on the death of their loved one and/or the grieving process of the family/the practical post-death logistics – please be mindful of that. In the case of Covid-19 for example, they have been isolated since the beginning with restrictions on the funeral, grieving alone due to lock down, and continuing to grieve alone due to the aftermath of the lock down (re: collective mental health/grief of the planet, continued stringent social distancing measures others are continuing to adhere to, etc.).
Related to the above, please do not send them videos, articles, and/or posts related to the correlating global event to “educate” them and/or drum up support. Their sensitivity level may still be acute, and subsequently, their intake may be limited for that type of information, considering how heavily it has impacted their family’s grief process and continues to. Again, please be mindful.
Grief comes in waves. These waves come out of nowhere. They can suck you up, have their way with you, and then – spit you out. The griever then comes up for air, dazed. Until the next one. It is beyond the mind – and a full-body experience. In the early months of grief, these waves can be rapid. And then after a few months, there can be more space between them.
Every “human” needs to consider taking this in deeply, because every “human” is going to experience grief – and it is so important to prepare. And not put things off just because you don’t want to deal with it. Because you think, later – you have time. The reality is, you don’t. Death can come out of nowhere. And it can swallow you whole. So cultivating the skill and resource in you to navigate yours and your loved one’s departures, will only support both you and them immeasurably, when the time comes. Because it’s coming – and it’s the biggest elephant in the room, amid our most often numbed out, armoured up, busy, “fix it,” band aid solution culture. So how about being a part of bringing awareness to what’s coming one day down the road for all of us, so we can all better support each other in a way that is mindful, empathetic, compassionate, and deeply loving?
P.S. If you found this article helpful, please share (and tag me).
2 thoughts on “What to Say or Do When You Don’t Know What to Say or Do: Supporting A Loved One Who Is Experiencing Loss ”
Wonderful post, thank you.
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You’re very welcome Caroline.