by Peter Mangiola, RN~ Death (and the grief it causes) spares none. Everyone who lives long enough experiences the death of a loved one, be it a grandparent, best friend, or even a child. Every culture in the world has developed its own version of ‘normal grief’, and it’s critical to recognize that everyone experiences loss through the lens of their own cultural and family traditions.
The most important thing for someone who is supporting a grieving person is to remember that there is no ‘right’ way(and correspondingly, no wrong way) to mourn or grieve. The number one rule for offering support to a mourning friend is ‘don’t judge’; imposing your ideas, expectations, or beliefs on the grieving is exactly the wrong thing to do.
People in grief often have heightened emotions and rapidly-moving thoughts; it can be very hard to communicate anything to them. But as someone supporting a person in mourning, your job isn’t to communicate anything to them. Rather, it’s to allow them the space and time to allow communication to come from them, when they’re prepared. Being present and listening are your two most powerful tools.
Here are a few suggestions for those who are trying to support a grieving loved one:
• Acknowledge their feelings: Don’t judge them. Don’t even go out of your way to accept them. Just acknowledge that they have those feelings and that those feelings are natural. In particular, don’t judge them on their coping skills.
• Accept their decisions, however unusual: Remember, different cultures — even at the level of one family to another — have different attitudes toward death and dying. They may decide, for example, that it’s inappropriate to allow their children at a funeral, and you’re just going to have to accept that, even if you disagree.
• Recognize that nothing will be ‘the same’: It may be that the person you’re trying to support won’t ever be able to get back to ‘normal’. Depending on how close they were to the deceased, they may not be able to engage in previous everyday activities. The best you can do is try to help them find an activity they can enjoy engaging in, and help them engage.
• Be in it for the long haul: Your loved one will need your presence and your support for weeks, possibly months or even years. Most of the other people in their life will have withdrawn, especially if their grief is profound. Just keep listening, and keep making offers like, “Let’s go to the zoo on Sunday,” or, “Why don’t we go to the library?” Expect to be turned down, but be ready to jump up and go if your offer is accepted. Speaking of which…
• Be clear and specific in your offers: If you’re going to offer help with housework, meals, or other daily activities, make sure that your offer is for a specific event or timeframe. “I’ll bring lunch on Wednesday, how many people should I expect?” is much better than a long-standing generic offer for food ‘when you need it’. Not only will they feel more comfortable accepting, but you won’t feel like you’ve made a commitment you’re unwilling to keep.
• Keep holidays and special dates in mind: There are several events that can magnify a loss; Christmas, anniversaries, birthdays, and so on are all potentially much worse for a grieving loved one. If you know someone in mourning who may have to spend one of those special days alone, go out of your way to offer your presence. Just don’t be surprised or upset if they turn you down.
• Even small things can mean the world: Whether it’s offering to pick up the kids from school, refill prescriptions, or get the car washed, just giving a grieving person a few minutes’ break from the daily grind can mean a lot to them. Don’t think you have to do something huge in order to have a meaningful impact.
Supporting someone who is in the throes of grief is a difficult job. People in mourning can seem irascible, irrational, and irritable; all the while, secretly loving you for your effort. The keys are persistence and withholding judgment. If you can do that, you can be the person they need you most to be.