One of the easiest and hardest things you will ever do is support someone you love with the loss of someone or something that they love. Losing a beloved human, pet, house, or job; are all profound and experienced differently by everyone. Grieving the loss of a beloved can bring an unsuspecting person to a crumpled pile on the floor. It often redefines the idea of devastation for the people experiencing it. Being a grief counselor and working with those who are grieving has taught me a lot about how people grieve differently but having lost vital loved ones, friends, and lovers at every stage of my life by everything from cancer to murder has made me an expert. Theorizing about what you think it would feel like does not compare to experiencing it. For this reason, I’ve put together a list of the top do’s and don’ts. Relationships can be made or broken at this fragile time of grieving and mourning, and not everyone is comfortable with the process. I have created this list for your consideration.
Don’t Say Anything if You are Not Sure Say What to
The best thing to do if you’re not sure what to say to someone who is grieving a loss is to say, “I am not sure what to say here.” For the grieving, sometimes there are no words, and often no words are better than wrong words. Hello, I love you, and I am sorry, are all good minimalist strategies when you want to acknowledge someone and their loss but aren’t sure what to say.
Friendships are made and lost in times of grief, so if you care about someone who is grieving do anything you can to show up for them even if you are uncomfortable and don’t know what to do. Everyone knows how to wash a dish, sweep a floor, or make a cup of coffee. Not everyone knows how to emotionally comfort another person in times of trouble so it is best to stick to what you know. Bring whatever you do best into the situation, just being there can make a world of difference for a grieving person.
Whatever you do; do not compare your situation or experience to theirs. Telling them that you understand what they are going through really isn’t helpful because just possibly you don’t. Nothing makes a grieving person feel more isolated than feeling like no one understands, however that very sense of isolation is a part of the grief experience and there is nothing you can do to change that until the person is ready to align with those who have had similar experiences. Sometimes speaking up with the, “I completely understand” elicits an angered response if you’ve not taken the time to understand what experience they are having.
I’ve always been that person who finds a little wisdom in all things, but for our purposes here, there are definitely things that you should not say. For the short list; “Keep your chin up”. “She’s in a better place”, “They had a good long life”, are all absolutely ones to take off the list. It may be true that the grieving one should keep their chin up, or that the one they lost is in a better place but honestly, it’s not for you to say. I have found that in grieving losses, there is always something that you do not know about the situation or relationship that the person experiencing the loss knows. It is called complicated grief. For example, if a husband beats a wife and then he dies unexpectedly, the wife is left to grieve not only her loss but the unresolved relationship she has to him, herself, and then to the people in her life that didn’t know what was going on. Her time of grief is not the time for you to talk about how great your relationship is and how lucky you are to still have your husband… being mindful and present to what others are feeling is most important.
Be of Service
Often times grieving makes regular mundane daily activities incredibly difficult, so bringing food, cleaning the house, or tending to the garden will all be helpful. When my mom died, my step dad didn’t really know what was going on with all the bills because my mother had always handled them. He was so thankful when my sister offered to sit down with him every month to get it all organized and make sure everything was paid and nothing got over looked. It is best to always ask what is needed before taking action. Whatever you do, if you make an offer, follow through with it.
Find a Way to Process your Own Grief
I know a lady who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. In a state of shock she made her way over to her best friend’s house. The response she received from her friend, was a wail, a moan, and then a hail of tears exclaiming, “Oh My God, this is the worst day of my life!” After consoling her friend for quite some time, telling her everything would be alright; she got the girl her Vicodin, put her to bed, and made a b-line for the door. Shutting it behind her, she shook her head saying what the hell just happened?! If you know someone who is grieving, please don’t try to work through your own grief with them; choose someone in your own circle, therapist, or outside party to help. Remember, this is their time for attention and support from you.
If They Offend You, Get Over It
There is no better time in a person’s life, other than possibly a woman in child birth, to receive a tremendous amount of latitude, then when they are grieving a profound loss. It is not uncommon for someone to say things that they don’t mean and at times don’t even remember, than when they are grieving. Especially the day of the loss or the funeral. So do your best to roll with the punches. That is not to say that you can’t set loving boundaries, it’s just best not to hold grudges.
Stages of Grief
In the 70’s we learned the 5 stages of grief; denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. While a grieving person may experience all of these dynamics they don’t always follow in this order and are not experienced by everyone. There is no rhyme or reason to grief, at times just pure unadulterated emotion begging to be expressed. At times the slightest interaction with a grieving person can elicit an extreme grief response; i.e., screaming, crying, wailing, moaning, and occasionally an anxiety attack. So if you are witness; stay present, don’t react, encourage them to breathe, and if it’s appropriate…give a hug. The emotion will quickly pass. Also keep in mind that some folks are more comfortable being stoic or the funny guy when it comes to grief. All of these are appropriate ways of grieving. Please don’t ever accuse a person of not feeling grief because you don’t witness it, and the only time to intervene is if a grief response becomes life threatening. Like playing with guns or drinking and driving.
Social media is not the place to announce your grief response, period. Deal with your feelings first and comment later. First of all, not everything on the internet is true, and you cannot undo the pain or humuliation of incorrect or pre-mature information. Secondly, if the family of a loved one wants your input publicly they will offer a clear opportunity; i.e., a page to welcome such comments and acknowledgements. Please don’t tag them in the grief response you post on your own page. Even if you feel you know someone well and think it is being supportive, it’s best to wait on the public memoriums until you have a clear sign from the grieving that they welcome public input.
People don’t just grieve at funerals so bringing your open hearted lovingness, any opportunity that you get, to a person who is grieving is appreciated and will long be remembered. All during my mother’s illness and then after she died, my friend Dawn called me almost every day. I rarely picked up the phone but even so she would leave me long messages singing me silly songs, telling stories, or just saying hello. Often, I received a letter with photos and other stuff. Those letters and calls became the respite from my pain, but what meant the most to me is that she didn’t need or expect anything in return.
Finding a way to accept what life brings is a powerful challenge anyway, but even more so in the face of loss. The ways in which people have stepped up for me in times of loss are forever etched on my heart, whether it was a trip to the airport, a phone call, a meal, or helping me take care of my own responsibilities, nothing makes a person more aware of connection to other people than when they feel debilitated because of loss. Giving them the gift of presence, love, and service is the glue that will hold them together.
I just heard that song from the 70’s,”Sad Eyes”, by Robert John. Part of the lyric in a nutshell is a dude who is having an affair with another woman before his wife comes home from where ever and he’s telling her he can’t see her any more, and he says…”sad eyes…look the other way…I don’t want to see you cry”. Whew, it made me sad. I won’t even get started on the actual crappy situation I will keep my commentary strictly to the, to cry or not to cry part.
Bridging the Gap
Of course it stirred the pot in me. I know there are quite a few of our brothers and sisters on the planet that have a difficult time watching someone cry, so I would like to be of service if I can. I would like to bridge the gap between those of us that cry at everything or at least important things and those of you who have a really uncomfortable time with it. I would like to give a quick tutorial on what to do if someone breaks down in tears in front of you. First of all, let’s discuss the different kinds of criers. In general profoundly empathetic and sensitive people have an enormous amount of compassion. Of course not in every case but for the most part. Usually there is at least one in every family and they have a very important role in their family and on the planet. Highly sensitive people often feel the grief of the planet. There are folks who will help to carry your grief or the grief of other family members. Sometimes there are those who feel the weight of the world on their shoulders. Take the events of 9/11 for example. There were a lot of us that sat around for days after that, immersed in crying and sadness, and then there were others who kept the flow of the community going. Not taking the time to express that kind of emotion.
Emotion Takes Electricity and Gas
Emotion takes an enormous amount of energy and stamina. It also takes the right philosophy to accompany it. Many people don’t cry because they associate it with shame and weakness, others feel that if they give in to it they may never dig themselves out. The truth is if you or someone you know is experiencing grief and sadness but unable to express it, that energy goes somewhere. Most likely to the closest family member or friend who is willing to feel it. Or even someone like me who feels every ones grief. Now that we know; the who, what, and how; let’s organize the options for how to support these highly sensitive compassionate people.
- Always look them in the eye. Ignoring them or showing them your discomfort can never help and usually supports the idea that somehow they are broken.
- If you don’t know what to do, ask. It is okay with most criers if you admit that you’re not sure what to do and ask. Ultimately it makes them feel better to be acknowledged rather than judged.
- Never yell and scream at someone who is experiencing extreme emotion. Not only will it escalate the situation but it will make both of you feel worse.
- Hugs are good for some and not for others, but always a good idea. Just ask if it will bring comfort to the one who is grieving. Just a little disclaimer: Usually the crying one will cry harder when hugged.
- Sometimes just sitting in silence with a friend is the best medicine.
- Always remember that grief is temporary. What you feel now you won’t feel later. So focus on getting through the moment. If you do, it will process more quickly.
A Loving Job
In the times in my life when my grief was the worst, somehow the people around me provided the least comfort, and it always seemed that it shouldn’t be that way. Living in New York City certainly made me durable, but there was a lot of grief. During those times it was often the homeless people on the street that were the only ones who would look me straight in the eye, and ask if I was ok. I always said that I was, and felt great relief and comfort because someone had the courage to look at me and ask. Ultimately someone who suffers doesn’t want you to take their suffering, they just want you to be nice, kind, and honest, and they definitely don’t want to have to help you deal with the fact that they suffer. That is your job…and a loving one should you decide to embrace it.
Right now it is a uniquely emotional time for all of us in some way. The holidays can have their own difficulties attached so when you’re going to your dysfunctional family gathering, seeing those long lost friends, or are maybe spending this year alone. Here are a few little spiritual tidbits to chew on for the season. Now, hold on to your boot straps and go forth!
What You Put In, Is What You Get Out
Remember that the energy and thoughts you put into the season is exactly what you will take away from it. If you’ve decided to host this year and secretly feel like you always give too much; this doesn’t bode well for you. Consider writing down a positive affirmation;
“Giving brings me joy, and I am thankful to be surrounded by people to receive”.
Self Pity-Not Good
If you find yourself alone this year or aren’t interested in any of the invitations you’ve received, DON’T give in to self-pity. Remember, these days are what you make of them. Take this opportunity to reflect on what really brings you joy. Make a list of 10 of them, and then choose one to make happen. One of my favorite things is a sacred ritual. Something that you do to show your commitment and discipline towards what you want. There is an old Guatemalan ritual for traveling more in the New Year. Take a suitcase and walk around your block on the first of January. The size of the suitcase and the length of the walk is said to determine how much you will travel. At the end of the walk I was laughing so hard I didn’t care where I went, and I certainly no longer felt stuck. Incidentally, I did travel more that year.
Rome Wasn’t Built In a Day
Consider that you won’t be able to undo a life time of ancestral conflict over just one turkey, so let yourself off the hook just for this month. Save your deeply honest comments for another time and focus on kindness. Sometimes the kindest thing you can do is just say hello.
A Little Honey Goes a Long Way
Sit down 24 hours before your family gathering and write out three nice things about everyone attending. Even if all you can come up with is, “Aunt Agatha’s bellowing voice deserves to be on Broadway.” Now of course if you’ve got 100 people coming, just do this for the people who render the highest irritation quotient for you every year.
Moderation: All it’s Cracked Up To Be
Everything in moderation is the name of the game. Nothing adds insult to emotional injury like over indulging in liquor and food. If you drink too much you’ll say something you mean, and eating too much always precipitates rudeness.
Always Another Day To Talk Politics
Everyone knows it’s best not to discuss politics and religion, while trying to make new friends or keeping the peace, but if you know that Uncle Ben just lost his favorite dog, please don’t bring it up at the dinner table. Take him for a spin around the block after dinner or catch him on his way to the bathroom, and offer him your condolences in a swift and gentle manner. If he decides he is comfortable with a full conversation, he’ll let you know.
Ace in Your Pocket
Now here is the Ace in the hole; this is what you keep in your pocket and refer to when the going at the family gathering gets rough. This is meant to be used in extreme cases only, and is definitely not one size fits all. If you are showing up to the same dinner every year that your father gets drunk and tells you what a disappointment you are, be prepared this year. Bring one item of irreverence. To keep in your pocket, hide in your purse, or even put in your shoe; to remind you that the power a person or situation has over you is the power you give it. In this case I might get a small rock and write a note to wrap around it that says, “Those who live in glass houses should not cast the first stone.”One year I put a slice of bologna in my shoe, to remind me that nothing is really as it seems.
Most of all, take deep breathes, keep your humor, and tell yourself you are loved, peaceful, powerful, and gosh darn it…people like you, because you are and somewhere someone does. Happy Holidays!
Today, I claim forgiveness. I claim forgiveness for myself and my heart to all those who could not be who I wanted them to be. To those who have shown me anger and unkindness. To those who could not understand me or extend compassion. To those who have shown me malicious violent intent and action or indifference. To all those who could have no understanding of the impact of their actions. For this, I send them back their spirit with love and gratitude for having had the opportunity to know them in such an intimate way, for to see someone’s deepest vulnerability and fear is the path to their heart. I also claim forgiveness for anyone who may still be holding a piece of bitterness for the same from me. I ask for it to be surrendered immediately and the space in which it lived to be filled with gentleness, as it is our gentleness that transforms all things. In this forgiveness I embrace my own responsibility and empowerment to accept people as they are and to accept those parts of myself that cannot change. I own the power to change anything within me that does not allow for this acceptance. I understand that there can be no blame in forgiveness. I claim forgiveness.
Zechariah 3:9, “I will remove the iniquity of that land in one day.”
Photo by Faith Miller