Because each relationship is a unique, one-of-a-kind creation, made by two unique, one-of-a-kind individuals, the loss of that relationship produces a unique response in each individual. So, no one can tell you what you “should” be feeling or how you “should” cope with your grief. Your experience is your experience.
How you feel is valid, personal, and real. Your experience doesn’t compare to others – others did not have your one-of-a-kind relationship. Allow yourself to feel what you feel (or don’t feel), without trying to “contain” or “control” how you present yourself to those significant people who are there for you.
Our perspectives on grief are both professional and personal, because our son died at age 17 from a progressive neurological disorder, so we’ve experienced first-hand what is helpful and what is not. Here are some responses we would suggest to provide support for someone who is grieving:
Be present, don’t disappear.
The most helpful people to us in our grieving process were those who showed up without any need to “make us feel better” (which is more for the helper than for the grieving individual). They didn’t talk; they were just there with us. They sat beside us and were comfortable with our silence and our pain. Even in the weeks and months after his death, when many had moved on with their lives, our hearts were most touched when some would just show up and be present with us.
Don’t ask what they need from you or say, “Call us if you need us.”
If you want to do something for the grieving person, such as taking care of their laundry or mowing their grass, just do it. If you wait to be asked, it won’t happen. The grieving individual has no idea what they need, and even if they did know, they most likely wouldn’t be able to voice their needs coherently.
Be aware of holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries.
The times around special occasions are full of joyous memories, which for someone grieving can be excruciatingly painful. Call the grieving person both before and on those days. Plan something pleasant where you can share time with your friend. Some individuals want to honor their loved one on the anniversary of their death or on their birthdays and being willing to share in those experiences can be very meaningful.
Don’t offer platitudes.
“They are in a much better place” may be true, but it isn’t helpful. In fact, those types of phrases feel like you are minimizing or negating the individual’s pain. The fact that their loved one is in a better place or is finally at peace or is no longer suffering doesn’t change the fact that the grieving person is suffering from the loss of their loved one’s presence.
Grief feels like an amputation: a part of yourself has been cut off and is gone. Just like the experience of an amputated limb, the “phantom” feelings of the connection continue long after the loss. You wouldn’t say, “Your leg is in a better place” if someone lost a limb.
Listen more than speak.
If your friend wants to talk about their loss, be a caring and supportive listener. You don’t have any words that can help, but your kind and attentive listening says you care, shows them you are there for them, and allows them the space to express their pain. Don’t say, “I understand how you feel.” Remember, each experience of grief is as unique as the relationship that was lost.
Drs. David and Donna Lane are a husband-wife counseling duo who specialize in trauma, grief, and loss as well as family relationships. While qualified by education, their life experience shapes much of their current-day work, as they have experienced first-hand the horrific death of their own son, who had a neurological disorder throughout his 17 years on earth. The Lanes are professors, counselors, consultants and award-winning authors; their research and writing on trauma and grief has been used extensively throughout the world in the aftermath of tragedies including the Sandy Hook shootings, Haiti earthquakes, Rwandan genocide and others. The Lanes live in the Atlanta area and have been married to each other for more than 40 years. You can find out more about them at www.thedoctorslane.com
Create a list of tasks friends can do to help a loved one in need. Go to NeedU.org