How can you support someone who is trying to navigate death, loss and grief?
Does it sometimes surprise you the things people say to comfort someone who is navigating illness, accident, death, or grief for themselves or someone they love? I truly believe that most people have good intentions, and mean well, but I think there should be a list of things not to say. Some people are uncomfortable with death and dying, therefore they struggle with the right words. This was my experience recently.
When my brother was in the ICU, about 40% of the people who reached out asked if it was COVID related. I understand the assumption, but really? Would it matter? Would it change your reaction if it was? Would you then ask, “was he vaccinated?” I don’t think you need to know the why, perhaps that can be discussed at a later date, or better yet, at the discretion of the person you are wanting to support. My advice would be that you do not ask for the specifics, and instead just be present for them.
Many people have said, “he is in a better place.” I understand where this comes from, however, when I hear that, my first internal reaction, is to scream out loud, “He is not in a better place. He wanted to live. His idea of a better place would be with the people he loves. He went too soon, and he was too young to die.” People who have a strong faith practice believe this, as well as that he will be in God’s hands. I love their commitment and even envy the comfort they receive from it, but sometimes, at least for me, these comments are not helpful, nor comforting. I think people need to be careful what they say and when they say it, and to whom it is being said, understanding that the needs of each person differ, and their beliefs might not be the same as yours. I also think that if said at a different time, and not when emotions are high and wounds are raw, perhaps these statements would be better and more graciously received. I know that these words are coming from a kind and compassionate place, I just think that timing is key.
While I am not religious, I do find comfort when someone tells me they have prayed for him and for me. I believe in the power of prayer, I welcome it, and I derive comfort from it. Now having said that, I think we should try harder to not project our beliefs or opinions relative to religion on someone who is trying to navigate loss and grief. Trust me when I tell you that your being there, checking in, and offering comfort and support is perfect, and it is enough. If prayer and faith are something you have in common, then I would say the door is open to include that in the support you offer.
I have also found that people, while trying to be supportive, tend to compare their own experiences with yours, for instance: “when my aunt died…” and then go on and on about their personal experience, how they felt and what worked for them. People have a habit of making your situation about them. I had someone reach out to me to see how I was doing, and then went on and on about how my situation is triggering their own emotions, and how difficult this is for them. I found myself feeling irritated and annoyed, and maybe even a little offended, because at that moment, what I really needed, was for that person to be there for me.
Social media can be helpful, and the overwhelming amount of support is lovely. Our family waited a week before putting anything on social media when he first went into the ICU. And we waited a day after he died to announce it. I think as a family, it is important to take a moment to pause, before allowing everyone to know what you are going through. Number one rule should always be… do not put anything on social media until the family has. This is not your news to share. Ever. But once YOU have put it out there, it really is a free-for-all, and if someone spins things differently, makes it about them, or takes it on a whole new journey… that is out of your control. If you don’t want people to know, if you don’t want to see everyone talking about it, gossiping about it, or crying a river of tears over your personal loss… do not put it on social media.
Speaking from my own experience, if you are wondering what to say to your friend who is hurting, make it simple; “Hi Gabby, I heard about your brother, is there anything I can do?” and if they are (for instance) in the ICU, day after day sitting at the bedside uncertain of which way things might go, check in with them, often. Let them know you are there. If there is a death, saying “I am so sorry for your loss,” really is enough. Wait for the invitation to take it further. You can ask how they are holding up, you can ask if they want to talk about it, and you can ask if there is anything they need; these questions are relatively easy to answer and remind someone that they are not alone.
Everyone deals with death, loss, and grief differently, but if we each practice a little more decorum, we would be far more helpful to those who are having a tough time. Be there for them, listen with the intention of hearing, hold space for them, and never make this about you. And please keep checking in, even if they don’t respond right away, the messages have been received. Read the room, and if it feels like they need a little space, it’s not personal, because remember, this is not about you. And how you deal with grief and loss is not the same as someone else, we all do it differently. And that is okay.
At least for me, I may not always answer the phone, but it sure feels good when it rings.
I am thankful my phone is ringing, I am also thankful my tribe gives me the space to answer it or not. I think that is what people need.
And remember... grief does not go away. Weeks, months, and years after someone dies, those who love them continue to grieve this loss. Please keep checking in... never stop reaching out. The truth is... I think they need you just as much years later, as they did the day after.