I know I may sound like a broken record, but loss happens. It is an inevitable part of existing. Disappointment, grief, hurt, angst…all of it. It is also an inevitable reality that sometimes people get a more crummy deal than others. That is just a fact. There is no disputing it. Sometimes people lose everyone they know in a year. Sometimes people lose one person of substantiality in decades. Grief is different for each person, but there are also some threads of similarity that can be drawn upon to make sense of things.
One thing that is really common (and crucial to talk about) is that when someone we love or care about is grieving, we are often paralyzed and have no idea what to do or how to help. On top of the compassion fatigue that can come from loving a person who is in acute grief, there is also a secondary loss that takes place for friends and loved ones.
If the person who is grieving has suffered a seriously tragic loss (like losing a child or losing someone to suicide or murder or an accident), the person who is experiencing the direct loss often becomes a shell of who they used to be. Their perspective on life changes; depression, withdrawal, and anger kick in. The fun them that used to be is no longer and that also directly impacts friends and family. What happens in this situation is that those who loved the person experiencing the primary grief are experiencing a sort of secondary grief, where the connection they shared with the person is no longer the same. That can leave friends and families often turning away from the bereaved (and turning away when the person experiencing the original loss needs them most).
It can be really hard to love someone who is grieving. To feel you have not only lost them to their grief, but also that you don’t have the tools or emotional capacity to withstand all of the roadblocks and barriers the person might be putting up. (Even when you do try to help in ways that make sense to you.)
Loving someone who is hurting isn’t easy, but there are definitely ways you can make the experience less painful and more palatable to both your loved one and yourself.
This week’s blog is dedicated to anyone who has ever or who currently (or ever will) love another person who is grieving.
Three Ways to Support Your Friend (Or Loved One) Who is Grieving
1. Lean in Closer Instead of Walking Away
The idea that one should move towards a person who is in pain seems very logical, but if it were common, I wouldn’t be including it as the first suggestion in a blog about how to support your loved ones who are in pain. A lot of what I know about life, I have learned through the courageous work of my clients. And one of the things I have learned very clearly over the last 14 plus years is that the MAJORITY of people around the person who is in acute grief walk away.
Yes that is correct. The MAJORITY of the people who were once fully involved in the bereaved’s life literally turn their backs and walk away when someone is in pain.
That is such a scary reality to contemplate. All of us would like to believe we are beyond that…we are better than that…and that if a friend of ours called us up in horrific pain because their son completed suicide that we would run to their house, hold their hand and be there for endless hours of support. But most people wouldn’t and won’t.
I once had a client a very long time ago who lost a child in a most horrific way. This person had a whole community of people to whom she thought she was deeply connected. A few weeks after the accident, she was in a public place and saw one of the people she thought was among her best friends. This woman looked at the client and literally turned her feet and walked in the opposite direction. She was so afraid of another person’s pain that she literally turned her back on her friend. Needless to say, the client was traumatized (and understandably so).
This is one example of hundreds I could give.
Now, it would be easy to say that everyone who walks away from someone who is traumatized is bad, but that is absolutely just not true. I mean, I’m sure there are a few bad people in the mix, but in reality the vast majority of those people who walk away are scared. That woman who turned away from a friend in need most likely wasn’t evil or bad or mean. She was terrified.
Many people are scared of pain. They are scared of their own unresolved hurts. They are scared that if they show up for someone who has something unspeakable happen that it could mean it would happen to them. They are scared of losing who they thought the person was, and the list goes on…
Fear, unfortunately, is the root of most hurts in life.
If you want to do one thing that will distinguish you from 99.9 percent of the population, then when someone is hurting, move closer to them, ask them about it, make an effort to talk to them even when it sucks to listen to, and you will see just that one thing can make all the difference.
2. Do NOT Use Colloquialisms
Please just don’t. When someone lost the love of their life to Cancer or their sister to being hit by a drunk driver, what they do NOT want to hear are things like, “At least she isn’t suffering anymore,” or “It is just God’s will,” or “The universe needed another angel.” They just don’t.
It doesn’t matter who you are, or how spiritual you perceive yourself to be, if something like this happens to you, or has happened to you, you will know what I mean by this suggestion.
I’m sure colloquialisms have a place in our culture. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t exist. But the place they do not fit in is in trying to tie up into a neat little bow someone else’s pain for your own comfort (or to appease your own discomfort).
If you are a person who, until now, has used a colloquialism to appease someone in pain, you aren’t a bad person. You have done the best you can. You were trying your best. You just didn’t know any better. Now you do. Now that you know better, go out and do better.
3. Accept That You Can’t Fix It (Nor Should You Try)
Some hurts are just unfixable. Nobody ever gets over losing a child or seeing their husband have a heart attack in front of them. They don’t. They learn to make meaning of the pain and they learn to live with a new reality that includes a partially broken heart.
If it is hard to wrap your head around that, compare it to someone who gets in a serious accident and becomes permanently paralyzed. Nobody is going to yell at the person who is paralyzed that they need to just GET OVER it and walk already. They CAN’T. They just can’t walk anymore. And to yell at them or get mad at them or get impatient with them because they literally can’t walk would not be the right thing to do. It would be unfair.
In much the same way, a person who has inside scars can’t get over the hurt they have endured, nor is it kind or fair for you to demand or want them to.
Now, I am not suggesting that people who have grief don’t grow, create meaning out of their pain, and live full and abundant lives. Because that isn’t true. People who face their grief often go on to be some of the most empathic, giving and involved members of society. But no matter how much they smile or how much they live life again, don’t delude yourself into thinking those scars won’t always in some way temper who they have become.
As a person who loves someone who is grieving, it is your job to just show up. That’s it. Let them rant and rage and cry and fall apart. Accept that you aren’t God. You didn’t cause this crisis and you certainly cannot fix it.
You can’t stop it. Nor are your responsible for stopping it. While you may be a person who gets nervous when others cry or rant or rage, you can handle it. You can show up. You can stand still when someone else falls apart. You really can. Watching a person in pain may scare you, but it definitely won’t kill you. And besides, it is simply the right thing to do.
All of these suggestions may sound basic, but again, if they were commonly done, I wouldn’t be writing about them today. If you want to really be a person who understands grief and how to approach your friend or loved one who is in pain, these three suggestions will get you well on your way to being a much better support for those in need.
Bonus Tip: If you are going to be a true love warrior and show up for friends in need, then also remember that your own self-care is paramount. Make sure you are eating, sleeping, getting alone time, relaxing, playing and so on; all for yourself. Because you letting your life fall apart to help someone else is NOT truly supporting the other person, it is just running away from your own life. And let’s face it…your life also needs you to go on!
If you are looking for a professional, confidential, empowering and safe space in which to process your own grief story, I would be honored to help. For a complimentary, 30-minute phone consultation, contact me and refer to this blog.