There are few situations more emotionally complicated than finding out someone has died. If you’ve never lost someone close to you, odds are you know someone who has.
If we’re honest with ourselves, we recognize the aftermath of grief and loss is incredibly uncomfortable and really awkward. If you’re not the one at the center of the loss, you may not know how to connect with the people who are.
What if you’ve just met a person who is still inside the grieving process? The important thing to remember is that you’re not alone in this, and sometimes, just being there means the world to a person who's grieving. Here are five things you can do to be present with someone who lost a loved one:
1. Accept that you can’t relate, and it’s okay.
No matter who you are in relation to the person grieving, if you haven’t been there yourself, it is not your job to know EXACTLY what he or she is going through.
When my mother died, out of nowhere, I was surrounded by people who knew what I was going through. However, my best friend, who has not experienced any major deaths just yet, took a step back. For the first time in the decade she’s known me, she couldn’t relate and she didn’t know how to tell me that.
I didn’t care about that part; I couldn’t expect her to relate. While she took a step back from the guidance part, she was still very much there for me, and that’s the most important thing.
2. If it just happened, help be his or her guide back to the outside world.
The hardest thing the affected person deals with isn’t the death itself, it’s getting back to “normal” afterwards.
I used quotation marks there because normal means something completely different after a parent, sibling or close friend dies. Someone who has just experienced a great loss walks around with this gaping hole that nobody else can see or fill.
Because of this, things like doing your laundry or going to the supermarket can easily induce a panic attack. Seeing other people happy makes you irrationally angry. It’s hard to watch the world move on like nothing happened when your life slowed down almost to a stop.
I’ve seen several people I care about stay in this phase of grief for years. But you don’t have to watch that happen. Start small; congratulate your loved one on little things like taking showers and making breakfast. This seems ridiculous, I know, but I can promise you it makes all the difference to have that support.
One thing I do with my friends who are grieving is help them make a list of chores they need to do and fun things they would like to do. I assign them several of those things to do each week, and I follow up with them to make sure they're holding true to their commitments.
If not, I offer to help them accomplish those things. After a while, getting stuff done becomes normal again, and soon enough, they don’t need the list.
3. Don’t make his or her grief about you.
This sounds harsh, but constantly apologizing and feeling bad for his or her misfortune will only make your loved one feel worse. When my mom died, people would say, “How do you deal?! I could never live without my mom!”
What am I supposed to say to that? Now I’m suddenly put in the position where I’m telling you I’m okay, and half-consoling you for something you’re not dealing with yet.
It’s been nearly three years since my mom died. To you, the reader and anyone I meet moving forward, it’s news, but it’s not for me. I have a really hard time relating to people who say they're sorry now for my mom dying three years ago.
At this point, when I talk about it, it’s less like a poem and more of a hard news story. If you meet someone and he or she talks about a dead sibling, parent or friend in conversation, the best thing you can do is to just let him or her talk. It’s not insensitive; it’s making the person feel like his or her "weird normal" is your "normal," too.
4. Just listen.
Sometimes, a grieving friend is not going to want to talk. Sometimes, he or she will want to talk a lot. Sometimes, when this person talks, he or she will let you know beforehand when the uncomfortable feelings are happening.
Other times, you could be at dinner talking about sports, and suddenly, there will be tears out of nowhere and your friend will just start talking about it. Regardless of how it happens, when someone talks, just listen. He or she doesn't need you to say anything back -- just listen.
5. Be there.
Even if you feel like you have nothing to bring to the table in terms of guidance, your very presence means everything. That alone is enough.
Photo Courtesy: We Heart It