Grief is an incredibly hard, painful, and lonely emotional experience.
While there is often no way to take away someone's pain, it's important that we show up for the people we love and make sure they know they are supported as they navigate a sudden change. But, whats the best thing to do when every person and situation is so different?
Do you send flowers? Start a meal-train? Call them regularly? Give them space?
I wanted to share 3 tips from my experience as a grief therapist and human to help guide you:
1. Ask what they need, but narrow it down- offer 1-2 options
As humans, we are incredibly relational and it feels genuinely awful to know that someone we love is struggling or in pain. We can feel naturally pulled to show up and help out, but are simultaneously aware that everyone has different needs and ways of processing. If you have ever had the thought, "I want to help, but I also don't want to overwhelm them", then this tip is for you!
It's perfectly ok if you don't magically know what someone needs, the truth is- they may not either. When someone is navigating sudden life changes, loss, and stress- they often feel very detached from what they need. So, the key is in how we ask about and offer help. For example, if we said- "I'm thinking of you and please let me know if there is anything you need"- it may feel like another thing on their plate to consider and it creates a barrier, as they would have to navigate the discomfort of asking for help to access it. Instead, consider- "I'm thinking of you and would really like to do something to help. Would dropping off a meal Tuesday or helping with dog walks over the weekend be helpful for you right now?".
Giving specific options of ways that you're willing to help removes the discomfort for the person you're offering help to and can feel easier to accept. Unsure what to offer? Check out tip #2.
2. Think practical
While flowers can be a beautiful way to show love and support, I also recommend considering practical ways that you can offer support. Depending on the type of loss that someone is going through, it may be very difficult for them to continue functioning as they normally would (for a period of time). This can leave aspects of their lives in disarray, such as:
Aspects of child-care
If you know someone has a dog- consider offering walks or a gift card for time at doggy daycare. Do they have kids? Maybe you could offer to help with school pick-ups. If you know someone loves their garden but will not have time to take care of it, consider offering to water or weed it. Are they physically impacted or needing to be away from home a lot? Consider offering cleaning help so they feel relaxed when they are able to be there.
Bottom line, whether you're offering to help with tasks, meals, cleaning, or errands- showing up in ways that allow one less thing for that person to worry about is huge.
3. Keep checking in
One thing I hear from everyone who has navigated grief is, "I really struggled when people stopped reaching out" or "I didn't understand how everyone else could just move on".
It makes sense that life, other stressful events, and plans continue outside of someone's grief experience- however, feeling like they need to catchup with a moving world when they are still struggling can be very painful. While it may feel more comfortable to help someone find ways to move forward, don't forget the incredible power of allowing space for someone to feel and talk. Sharing true empathy and "getting in the pit" with someone -as Brene Brown says- is an incredible gift that is 100% free. (Checkout her video explaining empathy, here)
While our society values "pushing through" our emotions and "toughing it out", we know that acknowledging our unique process is key to our healing and that it should be honored, acknowledged, and allowed in conversation. Remember that people don't want to be in pain and we all navigate challenges in very different ways, on very different timelines. Continuing to check in and offer support long after the initial "how can we helps" have worn off is something that will not be forgotten.
While I hope grief is not something you have to face soon, I hope these tips help when you do + that you take care of yourself in the meantime!
Meredith Waller MSW, LCSW
Certified Clinical Anxiety Treatment Professional
Based in Boulder, CO and offering online counseling throughout Colorado