By Abby Woloff, LGSW
Most of us are familiar with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s widely known theory of the 5 stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. However many who have lived through the loss of a loved one will tell you that healing is rarely so linear. Some people vacillate between anger and acceptance or between a good day when things feel “normal” and the next when you again feel depressed. Newer research helps us understand that our feelings of grief can shift day to day, even minute to minute: Today is fine, tomorrow is a little worse, the next day a little better. Every day it changes and that is part of the coping process.
We often wonder, what do you say to someone who has lost a loved one? Many of us want to feel like we’re helping and want to practically contribute to lessen their daily load; others want to offer advice and share our own experiences to help guide friends through a uniquely difficult emotional and logistical time. There are also those of us who are profoundly uncomfortable around loss and would do most anything to avoid confronting it. Wherever you fall in response to these reactions, know that you are not alone. There is no one thing that anyone can say to make someone’s loss feel more manageable, if there was we would all say it. However it can be liberating to know that often times the best thing you can do for someone is show up. That alone is hard to do. In our busy world making time for someone you care about is important and difficult. The secret is: you don’t have to say anything. No matter how badly you feel it is most likely that your friend feels worse; sometimes just being there is the greatest gift.
A few tips for how to be a supportive friend to someone living with loss:
- Resist your desire to give advice or talk logistics. It is wonderful that you have gleaned knowledge from your own experiences, and it’s even possible that your experiences could help your friend, but chances are many people are offering advice (“I have a great estate planner”; “I love my financial advisor”; “Have you filed all the necessary documents yet?”). If you truly feel that you want to share what you have learned it might be helpful to gently offer to be available to them at some point if they need help thinking something through (“I know this is hard, let me know if at some point you want to talk through x, I’ve been there and would be happy to share my experiences with you”). Or better yet, send an email with some of the logistics and details you want to share, which enables your friend to access the information when they need it (and are ready for it). It also gives them the chance to not use it if they choose.
- Hold off sharing your own story. Loss often brings up our own feelings and memories. We want to share them to demonstrate empathy and to connect with the pain our friend is experiencing, however that might not be what they need. Your experience has informed you that this is a painful time, tap into that and be the listening ear you wanted when you were in that position.
- Remember it’s not about you. When visiting with someone who is grieving refrain from talking about your own world, unless they explicitly ask. A common instinct many of us feel when uncomfortable is to try to lighten the mood, so we sometimes want to share jokes or anecdotes about nice family moments, but someone who has just lost a loved one might not be in a space to hear them.
- Grief is exhausting. We sometimes feel like the quality of the relationship we share with someone is mirrored by the amount of time spent visiting with them, but in the case of a mourner, it’s important to remember that grief is extremely tiring and the person you’re visiting might not be up for a long visit. Once you’re there be mindful of their indicators about whether they want a shorter or longer visit. Also, it might be difficult for someone to return calls or emails, especially if they’ve been flooded by an outpouring, so try to remember if they don’t get back to you that it’s not personal.
- Be respectful of who they are and their own unique needs. Your friend might not be someone who likes to talk about him/herself and that won’t change because the spotlight is suddenly on them. While it’s important to listen, it’s most important to be present and take cues from them about what they need. If they aren’t someone who wants to talk it is okay to simply say “I’m sorry for your loss, and I’m here for you.”
Unfortunately all of us will be faced with loss at some point during our lifetime. If you have already lived through it you know that it can be complicated and confusing at times. And you may also know that it’s more important to listen than to speak. Just being a non-judgmental, supportive friend is the greatest thing you can do. Grief can sometimes feel like a lonely, solitary path – the best we can hope for is that we have people who share the path with us.
JCS offers a variety of bereavement programs that are free and open to the public. Click here for more information.
By Abby Woloff, LGSW, JCS Therapy Services
JCS provides a broad range of services that meet the diverse, multi-dimensional needs of individuals and families throughout Central Maryland. We offer guidance and support when you are seeking solutions for emotional well-being, aging and caregiving, parenting, job seeking, employers and businesses, achieving financial stability, living with special needs, and preventing risky behaviors. To learn more, please visit our home page or call 410-466-9200.