How to Be with a Grieving Person
How to Be with a Grieving Person
There are a lot of things I wish I’d known when friends and family have lost loved ones in the past. I wish I could have known them without knowing such grief myself but unfortunately that is how I learned it. I noticed that those who have experienced a loss like mine were the most adept at engaging with me in a difficult time. It is a skill forged in tears, it would seem.
I know people worry about what to say to someone who’s lost someone — so a lot of times folks just don’t reach out at all. The thing is, though, for all the fear of saying the wrong thing, there’s really nothing to say. There is literally nothing anyone can say that will make a death less painful. It is simply painful and words are unlikely to make much difference. Your words will not be the thing that turn someone’s grief around. Does that mean you shouldn’t say anything at all? No. You should say something but you don’t have to say anything original. You can say “I’m sorry for your loss.” You send your condolences. They won’t change anything but they will affirm your presences with the grieving person, which frankly, is all that is required. Show up. Give hugs if they’re wanted. Hold a hand if it’s needed. Pass the box of tissues if the person runs out. If you don’t have anything to say, just sit quietly. Flowers are really nice.
If you’re far from the grieving person, you can send cards. You can send care packages. You can send text messages. You can send flowers. You can send flower emoji.
People kept offering their ears if I needed to talk and maybe there are people who grieve in a garrulous way. But I did not need to talk. There’s just not much to talk about. He’s dead. It’s terrible. That’s it.
But it was really helpful to hear from people every so often. Honestly, just a little flower emoji was all I needed to know someone was thinking of me. I felt like my needs were so basic but they were rarely met by anyone outside of my immediate circle. Most people, if they did anything, wrote a condolence message on my Facebook post about my brother’s death and that was that. I have done exactly the same with my condolences over the years. I’d do it differently now. First, I’d send a direct message of some kind — an email or a social media message. If I could, I would send a card, if I have their address. Cards are nice because you can look at them again and feel as though the person that sent it to you is with you all over again. If the grieving person was nearby, I’d ask if I could stop by and give them a hug. Then, for the people I know well, I would check back in. How are they now? The loss doesn’t stop. It’s okay to send a second or third condolence/check in.
I think people worry that they’re going to trigger more grief by bringing up a loss but what I know now is that the grief is there whether someone is asking after it or not. I think mostly people are worried about making someone cry when they’re not currently crying. I don’t want to speak for every grieving person, I mean, I couldn’t possibly, but I will say for me, I’d rather be asked after than avoid tears. I really don’t mind crying. And I haven’t cried yet at an inquiry about how I’m doing with the loss. The loss (and the tears) are present whether you ask after them or not. It can be a relief just to acknowledge its presence. When someone brings up my brother’s death, I feel cared for because not everyone is willing to acknowledge such a thing.
In my particular case, the dominant response to the situation was silence. I’m not in a community where people bring casseroles. I did not receive a single lasagna. I think I might have liked one — as those rituals of care seem especially poignant to me now. Like, if you don’t know what else to do, bring food. But I really can’t complain. I received many kind messages (and two sweetheart cactuses) and I am so grateful for all the care. I promise I’m not writing this to get a lasagna out of the deal.
I’m really writing this for myself from before — like, all the things I wish I’d known before — when friends or family lost someone. There are so many things that make a difference that I would not have considered. Things like, checking in with someone more than once. Or, just sending a Thinking of You message. Or an emoji.
That’s all stuff I wish I’d done before for people who are dear to me. It’s fine. I didn’t. I didn’t know. And the vast majority of people don’t know, either — so whatever response they had is also truly fine. One thing death does for you is to clarify the stakes and scale of a thing. The really bad thing is the death, any response to it pales in comparison to that bad news.
A lot of people who’ve been through loss like this mentioned that people can say stupid things on the subject. I’m sure that’s true. — but I mostly didn’t experience anything particularly stupid. Honestly, I think something stupid would be better than nothing. If you say something really stupid at least we’ll have something to talk about. If it’s really stupid, we might get a good laugh out of it even.
I mean — the stupidest comments I heard at my brother’s memorial were of the “I didn’t know Will had a sister!” variety, which, you know, sucks for me, Will’s sister — but it’s that person’s truth, so, no big deal. That’s just facts for them.
What I’m trying to suggest here is that showing up for someone in grief is really just showing up, in whatever way you can and doing it in a sustained way. Send that “Thinking of you” text and then after a few weeks, send another one. It’s simple. But it’s effective. You’ll see. I hope you won’t have to see it for yourself.
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Originally published at http://artiststruggle.wordpress.com on May 9, 2022.