Grieving a loss is different for different people. There is no formula, or manual on how to grieve correctly. Grief isn’t only about death but about almost any kind of loss. I talked to a friend once who had been ill, who said, “I lost a lot of weight and I’m not happy with my body anymore. I feel like I’m grieving the loss of what my body used to look like.” She’s right – she is grieving a loss. A loss that is grieved can be anything from a loss of a job, a friend moving away, body change, health, a pet, a marriage…anything. If its absence causes pain, then it’s a loss. Just as there is no real right or wrong way to grieve, there is no real timetable on it, either. Our culture has come to assume that we are “supposed” to be happy and that grief or loss equate to pathology or abnormality, when actually grief and loss are things that happen to us all at some point. We were never promised a life of unending happiness. It’s how we handle grief and loss that makes the difference.
Grief only becomes problematic when; well, it becomes problematic, such as begins to interfere with normal daily functioning or coping skills, for example. One example might be Carol, who lost her husband three months ago. She is saddened, grieving, but is still functioning, managing daily activities. Her grief, while very real, is not really problematic for her; it’s not causing significant issues that are hampering her daily life. On the other hand, if six months later Carol were losing weight, not paying the bills, can’t seem to concentrate on her work and is making mistakes in her work, is cutting herself off from important relationships, isn’t eating well, isn’t taking good care of herself, is significantly depressed, missing appointments, doesn’t seem able to take care of her home as well, then it is now interfering with her daily functioning and she might benefit from seeing a therapist or a physician (preferably both as any medication, such as an antidepressant, is almost always more beneficial alongside good therapy).
Over the years I’ve observed things that people have said helped them with the grieving process, as well as some that didn’t. Here are a few basic Dos and Don’ts - -
· Talk about them; say their name. Invite them to talk about their lost loved one. “Jane, tell me about Bob. What was special about him?” In the case of losing a loved one, the one grieving needs to hear their name. “Jane, I’m so sorry for your loss. Bob was a kind and good man.”
· Try to remember them on important days, such as the anniversary of the death, or what would have been a wedding anniversary, birthday, etc. “Jane, this is the first anniversary of Bob’s death. How are you doing?”
· Ask if there is a special cause they would like you to make a memorial gift to, such as the Humane Society, or a church’s outreach ministry. The amount you give isn’t important, as much as the remembrance gesture. Simply write, “In memory of [name]” on your payment. Often a church will send a note to Jane when a memorial gift was made in the name of Bob, for example (please ensure that the cause you make your memorial gift to was one that Bob would have agreed with and supported if he were here).
· Ask what they need. Don’t assume. We all have the best intentions and inundate the grieving person before and during the funeral. And then we move on with our busy lives. But it might be a week or three months or six months or a year later that Jane needs to talk, or needs to know that someone still remembers Bob and misses him. Asking her how she’s doing in this process, or asking her what she needs, can be helpful and let her know that she’s not alone.
· If you ask a grieving person to call you if they need anything, then make sure they can. Leave your phone number, email address. Make sure you quickly return their call or email or they might retreat, assuming they were bothering you by reaching out.
· Lament with them. The grieving person is in pain. They grieve also for what could have been and need to know that their loved one won’t be forgotten. It’s okay to cry with them and say that you hurt, too. As a therapist, in my world we have a saying, “Don’t bleed all over the client. When you talk about your personal story, only do it if it will help the client, it’s brief, and it isn’t to make you feel better”. Check yourself – is your emotion helping the grieving person, or is it making things harder for them? Is it empathy or sympathy? If the grieving person must stop and comfort you, or feels guilty for your own pain, then consider that it might be adding additional stress to the grieving person rather than helping to relieve it.
· Reach out in tangible ways - - does Jane need help with the taxes that Bob always did the last twenty years? Does Jane need lawn care, having never used a lawnmower before? Does she need her car maintained? She may be at a real loss for these practical needs. Give her a gift card for a free oil change, or a month’s lawn care, or give her a pro bono hour of professional work, such as financial management or legal advice. Give her a dignified gift certificate for an hour of therapy with me, for example.
· The grieving person will rarely reach out and ask for help, as well-meaning and caring as the “Call me if you need anything” gestures are. Rather, do something. Prepare a meal in a disposable container that Jane doesn’t have to go to the work to return to you. Go mow the grieving person’s lawn or wash their car, just to be kind. Pick up an extra pizza and drop it off for Jane’s kids.
· Basically, the grieving person needs to know they are allowed to grieve, in their way and in their time. The most well-intentioned friends can tend to drop away after there has been a great loss, often because they simply don’t know what to say or do. Be honest about it; “Jane, I know you are hurting. I can’t take your pain away and I wish I could. I don’t know the words to say, but I’ll just be here with you. What do you need right now?” They often just need to know that someone is with them, understanding them, listening and caring. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves and each other by believing we “have” to have the answers or know the perfect thing to say and do, when we don’t, so let’s take the pressure off ourselves and each other. Just our presence is often enough when someone is hurting. When my mother passed away this week, just pulling up the kind notes people wrote on my social media page and reading them again and again meant the world to me.
· Dress appropriately for a funeral / memorial service. You don’t necessarily have to wear black, but dress respectfully and keep in mind that it’s not only for the deceased but for their grieving family. If there is a group meal held afterward, offer to help clean up; don’t leave any messes for the grieving person to clean.
· Offer to help keep a record of memorial gifts, plants, flowers, tributes that were made by friends and family, so that thank you cards can be sent later.
· If you are the grieving person, ask for what you need and don’t be afraid to delegate when necessary. Take the time you need. Grieve in your own way. If taking a sunrise hike up a mountain and strewing rose petals off the edge is your way of honoring your love, then do it. It’s your gesture, no one else’s. Don’t allow others, however well-meaning, to intrude on when you need private time or alone time. It’s okay for you to ask friends and family, “I miss Bob. Tell me something good you remember about Bob; it would help me today.” Know that when people say, “Call me”, they mean it. They want to help. So if you do need something, call if you can. Let people help you as you can; it’s often their way of showing love when they feel tongue-tied or awkward and want to show care but just don’t know the best way.
· It’s okay to donate flowers or plants to a local hospital or a nursing home if they are beginning to fill up your house. It’s better to let someone else enjoy them than to feel guilty and let them all die in your house.
· Talk at them. Be with them. They don’t need lectures and they don’t need “fixing”. They usually just need your presence. A quiet hug sends more love than a lecture about how one day things will be brighter.
· It’s stupefying that we still have to be reminded of this, but the death of someone is not the time to be disrespectful. Only say something positive or respectful, or else remain silent, because your words will never be forgotten. “Oh, Bob died? Well, he was a mean old cuss. Never could get along with anybody!” This is a time for respect of a fellow human being – as well as their grieving family - so do what your mama taught you…”if you can’t say something nice….”
· Don’t ask, “What happened? How did it happen? You mean Bob’s truck went over a bridge and he broke his neck!!??”, especially on social media, or share those details on social media. You can bet a loved one of the person who died or was injured will see it and it will hurt them all over again. Don’t ask for, or give, salacious details – if someone needs to give them or hear them, it’s for the wrong reasons.
· Tell a woman who just lost a baby that “It was meant to be”, or “God wanted that baby in Heaven”, or “You can always have another one.” And don’t tell her that it wasn’t a real baby “yet”. To her, it was. No, the addition of another child will not ever replace the lost child.
· Assume that the loss of a pet, or a home, or a divorce, for example, is “not as bad” as the loss of a spouse when actually these losses are rated very high on a stress index. We attribute, or project, meaning onto the person or thing. The loss of Joe’s dog Max could mean the world to him; Max may have been Joe’s only companion.
· Assume that Jane’s pain in losing her husband will be like Bill’s pain in losing his wife. No two people grieve exactly alike, or on the same timetable. What is relatively “easy” for one grieving person to weather, might be terribly difficult for another.
· Tell a grieving person they need to start moving on, or getting over it by now. That is one of the worst things one can say and it never helps. Rather, ask what they need.
· Don’t fear that if you talk about the deceased person or encourage the griever to talk about them, it will make things worse or emotions will start going all over the place. Rather, it is usually healing. What isn’t healing and can make grief worse is when silence is encouraged or “tiptoeing on eggshells”. “Ever since Bob died, all my friends tiptoe around me and go quiet when I walk in the room. They rarely call anymore. I want them to know it’s okay to talk about their feelings about Bob, too.” Say something like, “I miss Bob. Boy, could he make a good cheeseburger after a golf game! Didn’t we have some fun times!” Jane might need to know that someone, anyone, still remembers Bob and misses him or liked or respected him. Don’t tiptoe around the elephant in the living room.
· Voice an opinion to the grieving person about the manner of handling the remains. “Jane, did Bob ever actually TELL you he wanted to be cremated?”, or, “Hm….you mean one day you aren’t going to be buried next to Helen?” Unless you’ve actually seen or heard the wishes of the deceased person yourself, you don’t know and it’s never someone else’s place to voice an opinion on the matter, regardless. My mother, as you may have become familiar with my nursing home journey in past editions (and I thank you for the kind emails and texts!), passed away this week. She was cremated and her ashes will be strewn at sea. I have already had to tell a couple of intrusive people that opinions on the matter are not open for discussion. Be mindful of privacy boundaries of families.
· Don’t say, “Call me”. They usually won’t. You call them. “Jane, I was thinking of you today. Can I bring you anything or would you like to go have a coffee this afternoon?” Better yet, drop off a pretty plant or a tray of nibbles or a heartfelt card.