As we have another Memorial Day I have been thinking about what it is actually about. While Veteran’s Day is a day to honor all who have served in our armed forces, Memorial Day is designated to remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, their lives, while serving in our armed forces. Sometimes the meaning gets lost when we get distracted with Memorial Day sales and a 3-day weekend to cook out and celebrate the coming of summer. While those things are all fine and good, I think it reflects how we, as humans, tend to do our best to distract ourselves from grief and loss and avoid the reality of death.
I just ran across an article in Time about Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO, whose husband died tragically and unexpectedly while celebrating his 50th birthday at a Mexican resort in 2015. Read the full article here. While the article shares her experiences in grief and how she has had to accept the full reality of her loss and her changed life, there is a point that I think is particularly important for us all to remember, particularly those who are not in the throes of grief currently. Death is not an anomaly. It is only one of a very few things we are all guaranteed to experience. We are all going to die and some people we love are going to die before us. Though these are universal truths, people who are grieving are so often avoided and treated as though they have experienced something strange and scandalous. This compounds the experience of loss.
Here are 5 things to remember when you want to be a support to someone who is grieving:
- Be Present. When someone is mourning, they need community, not isolation. And it is very easy to become isolated. It can be difficult to reach out to others when in a place of grief, so be the one that reaches out. Be willing to be there amidst the uncertainty and despair. This is reality, this place of devastation, and things will be difficult for a long while. Just being present, just being there, without any expectations, can be a great source of support for a person grieving.
- Listen. Allow the person grieving to say what they need to say in whatever way they need to say it. And if they don’t need to say anything, you don’t have to fill up the space with words. Remember, just be present. Sometimes there is a need when we’re uncomfortable with another person’s grief and loss that we feel the need to “fix it” somehow. That’s an impossible feat, so give yourself permission to listen more than talk.
- Consider Your Words. Related to listening, when you do say something avoid using phrases that begin “At least,” “You can always,” “I know how you feel,” “she/he is in a better place,” etc. It is unnecessary to try to rationalize or explain the loss to the person grieving. And these kinds of messages can minimize the loss experience. Recognize the loss, admit you can’t make it better, allow the discussion of feelings.
- Be Helpful. Consider ways that you might be helpful without having to be asked. We tend to say, “let me know what you need” with good intentions, but a person grieving might not be able to assess what they need or may not even think to ask. Mundane tasks can be quite overwhelming for a person who is mourning a loss. It’s helpful to offer concrete means of support and follow-up on what you offer.
- Be There for the Long Haul. Grief is a long journey. Many people are there in the beginning during the initial stages of the loss. But this is a long process and the loneliness and despair can really worsen after the shock wears off and the reality of the loss is more present. This is the time when people who have been a support tend to move on. Don’t give a timetable for people to grieve. Remember this difficulty lasts a long time and anniversary dates and holidays can be particularly challenging.
It is not an easy reality to accept but we will all die and we will all lose loved ones. Be mindful of your own difficulty with this truth and how that might make you avoid a person grieving. We must accept rather than resist painful experiences. And grief and loss is one of the most painful experiences we will ever have. But a solid support system can make a huge difference in healing from loss. Be that for someone and perhaps they’ll be that for you one day.