Responding to Others’ Grief

I made my return to the blogosphere around the same time some of my friends were starting new blogs. While their topics ranged, one stuck out with me greatly. A good friend, in preparing to write a book on pregnancy loss, decided to start sorting through all the complexities of the issue through a blog, Love in What Remains. What’s even more amazing about this friend in regards to her perspective is that besides experiencing pregnancy loss herself, she also tragically and suddenly lost her father when she was a senior in high school. 

It is in her experiences with grief that got me thinking about how we respond to others’ grief. There are many resources on the grieving process, well documented studies and materials on the phases of grief, on how it’s different for everyone, how grieving isn’t just about death though that is often the most extreme cause of grief, and how there is no true time table for how long a person can grieve, and no real prediction or expectation for how one should feel during grieving. Grief can be something you carry with you for a short time, or grief can be a long term experience. 

There are also resources available to guide those that have the potential to be a support network for the grieving. Advice such as don’t just say ‘sorry for your loss.’ Name the deceased. Don’t just offer help. Anticipate needs and follow through. Spend 80% of the time listening and 20% talking. Stay present and don’t say he/she is in a better place. 

But really and truly, since everyone grieves differently, because you can’t ever truly know what the loss meant to a person, you are at the mercy of the mourner who may not be able to communicate what he/she needs. So you ask yourself with each griever, with each loss, how does he/she need to be supported? What’s the right thing to say, if anything? Does the person want space to grieve in private, or does the person want to talk about what this loss means to him/her? You so badly want to make things better. How do you do that? You may feel lost or helpless knowing you can’t change things. It’s even more confusing these days, when news is discovered through social media, when condolences are sent via text. 

And while grief is something we all will experience in life, you can never truly understand what another person is feeling. And if you have yet to experience such a colossal loss, your support skills may be even more lacking. 

I believe I fall into that category. While I’ve had some truly grief-worthy times, most of those who have passed that I know were either not extremely close to me or were extremely close to someone else in my family, therefore I had to stay strong for them instead of focusing on my own grieving. I never knew my grandfather – he died before I was born. My dad still gets choked up talking about him and all that he missed. My 3 remaining grandparents all passed in quick succession before I turned 12. When my aunt passed a couple years ago, it was time to be strong for my family again. I’ve had close friends who lost siblings and cousins and babies and parents. I lost classmates and casual friends, but not a close friend. 

So when it comes to supporting friends in grieving, I’ve always been a bit awkward. What do I say? What do I do? I’m used to being a supportive friend when it comes to  quandaries with relationships, work, money, and even family, but I’m never sure what to do about loss. 

When the news is broken online, maybe I send a quick note offering condolences, maybe a text. When it’s been a friend lost, I try to keep their memory alive though social memorials, sharing photos, etc. I’ve attended a ton of wakes. I’ve checked in after the initial loss. I’ve donated to causes started in memory of loved ones.

But I’ve also said the wrong thing, done the wrong thing. I’ve ignored those online notifications, unsure what to say beyond a sad face emoji. I’ve tried to empathize but have used examples that just can’t match the weight of the loss for the griever. 

Maybe it’s because I haven’t experienced such extreme loss in recent years. I know I personally have a tendency to block out emotion and memories during trauma. My dad likes to tell the story of how, when he had a heart attack, I was the one who took care of everything. At the age of 14, I brought everything he requested to the hospital when my mother couldn’t collect herself. I have no memory of this. 

I like to think I’m good at reading people. But maybe my lack of experience in this department makes it hard for me to read grievers. 

But maybe it’s not just that. With all I’ve read, there’s this suggestion that you should take cues from the griever. When I delivered my son prematurely, I wasn’t making any sense. My friends had to figure out what happened before they could even figure out what I needed. Then, they showed up. They brought food. They cleaned my house. They just hung out with me.

I imagine grief can cause this same confusion and fog, that people who are introverts might just completely shut friends out. So how do you break through? Or do you just wait it out? I know they say time gives perspective, time in grieving allows grievers to go through the motions. 

I don’t think there’s one answer to this, but if I have learned anything it’s that I’m not alone in my awkwardness. Reactions vary and people mean well, but sometimes the griever just won’t take it that way, and that’s understandable. But as I aim to do in all aspects of my life, when I do go through extreme loss, I will do my best to assume positive intent of my loved ones in their attempts in supporting me, and I will do my best to provide the support my friends need when they are grieving.

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Check out my friend’s blog

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