This was supposed to be a brief post while I have some key thoughts fresh on my mind (spoiler alert: It’s not as brief as I planned). Some of you will be aware of my history with grief and loss. For those of you who are not yet, I will one day get around to sharing more of my personal story in this space somewhere. Needless to say, I have a particularly sensitive heart towards those who are grieving or travelling through a significant loss.
Every few months I find myself being contacted by friends through social media and the like to ask me for any advise or tips on helping a friend who is travelling through the loss of a baby or a child. I find it an incredible privilege to be asked this question, and I am so thankful to those of you have honoured me in this way. It is a humbling expression of Redemptive Grace at work in my life. Every time I answer one of these messages I tell myself that I should write this down somewhere.
So, here we are. My experience and my research have largely centred around the grief of bereaved parents. However, pain is pain. We will all experience it in one form or another eventually and I think that much of what I have learned about grieving applies to many other kinds of grief and loss. This is a post from my heart to yours. Take from it whatever is helpful. I’m sure you will be able to add to this list many things that you will learn as you journey with a friend through loss. Much of this stems from my own personal experiences and conversations over the last five years since my entire world was completely shattered.
This is not an exhaustive list, but these are a few thoughts off the top of my head that I think could be helpful if you are wanting to support a loved one who is travelling through a significant loss.
1 It’s going to be messy. Grief is always a messy experience and there is no ‘user manual’ for how to make sense of it. It will be different for each person. Husbands and wives will grieve in different ways over the loss of their child. Siblings will grieve differently at the loss of a parent. The ripple affect of a diagnosis will trigger different grief responses in every person it touches. Relationship breakdown, job loss, disability and even unmet dreams and expectations are all significant losses that can cause a person to experience the darkness and hopelessness of grief. When we are touched by grief of any kind we are all going to have a mixed array of responses. Some will be rational, and some will be irrational. Let it be messy. When someone goes through a significant loss their entire world becomes booby-trapped with grief explosions that could go off at any given moment. Sometimes you will be able to see them coming – in counselling we call this identifying triggers. Sometimes these triggers can be managed with strategies and coping mechanisms. However, there will be times when something completely random and unconnected will trigger a grief explosion. These are particularly messy but they are totally normal. Learn to roll with the punches, the rawness of these grief explosions does diminish over time. Don’t be afraid to get messy and sit with your friend in their mess and don’t feel like you need to fix it. Some messes cannot be fixed, and that is okay.
2 The 4-Month Fog. There is a weird phenomenon that I have observed where the first 3-4 months after a significant loss the bereaved seems to exist in this strange kind of haze. Emotions are still very real, but there is a kind of numbness that comes from the shock of loss. People who are in this phase are still able to think with a degree of rationality about what has happened, but the rawness of emotion has not quite kicked into full swing yet. In some ways this is a kind of grace, because there are lots and lots of decisions that need to be made in the weeks immediately following significant loss and this numbness can be helpful for allowing that to happen. Making decisions when you are experiencing raw emotion is very very difficult. However, the down side is that by the time this numbness wears off, most people have moved on with their lives. Friends and family have returned home and are back at work. The griever may even fall into a false sense of feeling like they’re coping pretty well. This makes the fall so much harder. At the 3-4 month mark suddenly the fog lifts and the gravity of what has happened kicks in and completely turns the world up-side-down. This is when the rawness of grief and the hopelessness of the situation becomes almost unbearable. Friends, make sure you make extra effort to stay connected during this time. Drop by with some meals to put in their freezer. Do a load of laundry or arrange to have some groceries delivered so that they don’t need to leave the house. Also, there is never too much chocolate.
3 Stupid things are going to be said… Part of the mess is going to be created by you, precious friend. You don’t know what you’re doing. And you shouldn’t either. This isn’t the way you expected things to go for your loved one and your have been caught completely off guard by this situation. You’re going to stuff it up at some point and probably say something dumb. And that is okay. Be prepared to apologise and ask for forgiveness when it is needed. Sometimes it can be helpful to give a preemptive apology. Perhaps something along the line of,
“Hey, I don’t know how to do this grief thing, and I’m probably going to stuff it up at some point. I’m really sorry for when I do that. But I love you and I want to journey with you through this. So, please let me know when I do stuff up and help me understand what I could have done or said to be more helpful.”
Also, they are not going to be easy people to deal with at times – grief makes people messy. They will also likely say some dumb things along the way. Be prepared to extend forgiveness, even when it isn’t asked for or acknowledged. Unfortunately, I do need to tell you that if you are not the bereaved person, your feelings and experiences need to take a back seat. That can be hard, but a person in the thick of grief is not able to compartmentalise their experiences or ‘turn off’ their grief for a while so that they can be a better friend. Grief is an all consuming experience, and it is difficult to fully comprehend it until you experience it for yourself.
4 There has been a Fundamental Change. Your friend is not ever going to be the same person ever again. Things won’t go back to the way they were before the loss. That’s not to say that they will be sad forever (although they will be sad for a long time), but one of hardest things about grief is that it really messes with your sense of identity. In the past I have explained it like this. Imagine becoming an amputee. When a person loses a limb we don’t expect them to just ‘get over it’ and ‘move on with their lives’. An amputee has been through something traumatic that has caused a fundamental change in the way they live and experience life. We can understand that it is going to take some time for them to learn how to adjust to life with a key part themselves missing. And if they happen to get a prosthetic limb, we understand that it is not the same as having the limb they lost. The loss of a loved one is a lot like what I imagine it would be like to become an amputee. It creates fundamental changes in the way you live and experience the world. Loss of a loved one is not something people should ever just ‘get over’. But it is something that, in time, a person can learn to live with. It takes time to adjust to a new normal, don’t rush it. Also, having another child after loss, or a widow remarrying will never replace the loved one who has been lost. As support people we must be very careful not to diminish the loss by suggesting such things. A good rule of thumb might be, if you wouldn’t say this to an amputee, don’t say it to a grieving friend.
5 Don’t ask, just do. Sometimes we feel so confused about how to support a grieving friend that we fear causing more harm than good. I get it, it’s a thing – grieving people can be fragile. But for a grieving person all of life is overwhelming. It is common to say things like, “Let me know if there is anything I can do”, or, “If you need anything, don’t hesitate to ask”. The sentiment behind this beautiful. And I know that most people genuinely mean this when they say it. The thing is, after I lost my son, there were days when I would put my shoes away in the fridge and the milk away in the laundry cupboard. Grieving people do not have the ability to think. So don’t ask them questions about what they need. They likely wont know what they need, and if they do, they wont feel like calling you up to ask. If you perceive a need just jump on in and fill it. It will likely go unacknowledged in the moment, but it will be deeply appreciated and remembered in the long run. If you’re really struggling, here is a short list of ideas.
- Washing laundry, Ironing and washing dishes.
- Organise a meal roster with a group of friends so they don’t need to cook for a few weeks.
- Child-minding so they can nap, or bathe or read a book, or just sit and stare at the wall for a while.
- Cleaning floors and basic house work and yard work.
- Get groceries delivered
- Run children to school and other activities.
- Shout them a massage.
- Wash their car.
- Walk the dog.
- Do something meaningful in honour of their loved one.
- Also, there is never too much chocolate.
This is a very basic overview of grief support. I hope that this is helpful for those of you who are desperately trying to figure out how to best love someone through loss. If you are one of these friends, let me say thank you. Thank you so much for your compassionate heart. I know that you are hurting as well. It is hard to watch someone you care about live with so much pain. And the last thing you want to do is mess it up because you don’t know how to make the circumstance more bearable. But the fact that you are pressing in and searching for ways to support them means that you are already doing the right thing. Having a person who simply comes and sits with you in your mess is not necessarily going to make it easier to cope, but it does make it less frightening, and that is a significant help.