Grief. The very word turns us off. It has a negative tone and implies suffering and unknowns (both things we harbor an aversion to, precisely because we don’t know what to do!). “How do I grieve well?” That’s a question I have been asking myself every day since my dad unexpectedly died almost two years ago.
Furthermore, though no one has actually vocalized it, a question I can sense in those close to me is “How can I help you grieve well?” If you are close to or know someone who is grieving, you can probably relate to that question, even if you wouldn’t have been able to articulate it as such. So I’m here to attempt to shed some light on the uncomfortable situation of loving someone through their grief. Though I definitely haven’t done it perfectly, having spent close to the last two years grieving and truly seeking to do it well, I’ve picked up on a few universal themes on grief that they don’t teach us in school, but every person should know! So here goes:
1) Show Up
Those in grief aren’t looking to you to say the perfect thing or fix the problem.
I think so often we hesitate to approach people who are grieving because we don’t know what to say. That’s valid! What can you say in the aftermath of death? Fortunately, those in grief aren’t looking to you to say the perfect thing or fix the problem, we’re simply looking to know that we are not alone. The great lie the Devil seeks to sow is the feeling of isolation in our grief, thinking that no one cares or understands. While it may be true that no one can really understand, it is a lie to believe that they don’t care. When words fall short (which is basically right away), be okay with having nothing to say and show that you care by kind gestures and being present. Sure, the meal you made for them may not be their first choice of dining, but by simply dropping off dinner you’ve communicated that you care. Again, I understand, being with a grieving person can be uncomfortable at best, but have the courage to overcome your own fear of awkwardness and forget about yourself for the sake of the other person.
2) Keep Showing Up
Grief is something that a person will carry with her for her entire life.
The beauty of loss is that it is objective and others can easily empathize with it. Losing my dad is an explicit suffering, and while it is extremely hard, I don’t have to explain why it’s hard. However, what I’ve discovered in my own grief is that the objective loss is only half of the equation. With any loss there are a series of what psychologists call secondary losses, or losses that occur because of the initial loss and most likely wouldn’t be experienced otherwise. Through seemingly the smallest things, I’ve had to re-learn how to exist without my dad physically present in my life, and those lessons and reminders constantly show up at the most inopportune moments. Getting a flat tire reminds me that I can’t call my dad for help (as well as being stranded in a parking lot at 10pm), and referencing just my mom rather than my parents when talking about my family brings a slight jab to the heart during the typical daily conversations with my co-workers.
There is a misconception out there that time heals all wounds. Though time does bring about change, grief is something that a person will carry with her for her entire life. And in a sense, she should! The longevity of grief speaks to the value of the human person. The fact that my dad will not be at my wedding, meet my future children, or be present every year for his birthday and father’s day are all future events where his absence will be painfully prominent. Grief is on-going, and therefore the support needs to be too. Keep showing up. Though someone may appear to be fine, the feelings of grief and hardship are volatile and change as quickly and drastically as the Minnesota weather in April. Your support is needed just as much today as it was on the day the loss occurred.
3) Don’t Over-Spiritualize Grief
Engage the human element to seek true and holistic healing.
I think one of the hardest things a human person can do is watch someone else they love suffer, and watching someone grieve is a prime example. So while it is well-intentioned, if the person is a Christian, the default response is to chalk the loss up to the spiritual realm in an attempt to make them feel better, saying things like:
God has a plan.
They’re in heaven now.
You have more of them now than you ever did before.
While that may all be very well true, and the spiritual aspect of grief does hold a prominent role, it’s doing the person a disservice if that’s all we acknowledge by negating the very human component that is also present.
Losing someone you love is confusing and disorienting. Your life has suddenly been changed by no choice of our own and you’re re-learning how to live it without that person present. You change as a result, and half of the grieving process is striving to fully become and understand this new person that you are. With these changes in mind, it’s not uncommon to suddenly become very forgetful, have a short attention span, become overly critical and struggle with making decisions. After months of struggling with what I thought was intense scrupulosity, I realized that the root of the problem was my mental and emotional reaction to the loss, and by going back to the basics and working on getting enough sleep every night all the way to seeing a counselor, those human elements were able to heal in a way that they couldn’t by simply praying.
A person in grief may not seem her old self, and that’s because she’s struggling to reconcile her “old self” with this “new self” of who she is without her loved one. So be patient with her, and if there are practical things that need to be done to help in the healing process, don’t cover them up with spirituality, but rather engage the human element to seek true and holistic healing.
4) Don’t Avoid
The best way out is always through.
Avoiding grief has become second nature. Our American society has made the topic of death and grief taboo, which in some ways makes sense. Who wants to die? It’s an uncomfortable topic! No one wants to talk about grief or think about it, not even the ones experiencing it! I have often wished that I could just have one day where my memory was wiped clean and I couldn’t remember the loss and take a break from grieving… it’s exhausting! Though I haven’t mastered the power of memory control, I (just like most people grieving) have done a really good job of keeping myself busy so as to appear to be doing well and avoid actually dealing with it. How did I do it? By claiming to be “just fine!” (since when was fine what we were aiming for anyway?), and by staying overly involved in just about everything, giving the illusion that since I was functioning well, I must be doing well (not true!).
So what does this mean for you when supporting someone who is grieving? It’s actually pretty simple: don’t accept “fine” as an answer, and don’t assume that a good public face translates to a good private face. In as much as you don’t need to fix the problem, do encourage silence in life. The best way out is always through, and we’re not doing any favors by allowing others to avoid the elephants in their life by avoiding them.
5) Recognize Grief as a Gift
Each person responds differently, and each response can be a time of grace for that person.
Grief is a gift? Say what?!
As much as I may have painted a bleak picture on the topic of grief, it is a natural and great gift that God has given us to cope with the inevitable losses in life. Though the above themes hold universally true, how each person grieves is completely personal, which speaks to our God-given uniqueness. There is no timeline, there is no standard. How I have grieved the loss of my dad has looked significantly different than how each of my siblings and mom have grieved. Tears are good, sometimes the experience of the soul is so great that there needs to be a corresponding physical outlet. Tears years down the road don’t at all imply regression, but rather that you’re dealing with the grief as it takes shape during this new and particular season of life.
Though an unexpected and traumatic loss is something I wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy, it has been a great gift in both growing in my own humanity and understanding others’ in theirs. It has been the greatest depth of emotion I have ever experienced, and thus has cultivated a whole new depth to who I am. It has strengthened my connection to others by helping me learn vulnerability, which ultimately points to Love itself. As C.S. Lewis says, “to love at all is to be vulnerable.” While that vulnerability can produce the greatest pain we ever experience, it is proof that we loved, and continue to love. When supporting someone who is grieving, understand that each person responds differently, and each response can be a time of grace for that person.
So take grief for what it is, a gift from God that necessitates the support of others today, tomorrow, and every day thereafter. Don’t allow grief to act as a divider, but rather embrace it to experience our humanity fully and side-by-side as God intended it!