Loss and Grief: You want to help, but you don’t know how.

There are probably hundreds of articles available about how to help someone you care about who is grieving.  Hey look, here are one, two, three good ones!  That was easy to find!

I probably don’t need to write one more.  But, this week has been an odd one, and somehow I’ve had a number of conversations about grief.  It is on my mind.  In particular, I’ve been reminded that people often don’t know what to say when they hear about the pain of others.  So, let’s talk about talking to someone who is grieving.  Let’s talk about your side – the side of wanting to help.  You want to help, but you don’t know how.

It can be difficult to ask.

It can be difficult to know how to help.

  1. It is ok to not know what to say.  In fact, it might be great.  I’ve had plenty of people get that deer-in-headlights look when I bring up grief or other painful subjects.  Sometimes people say “I don’t know what to say.”  I think that’s a great thing to say.  I don’t know what to say either!  Here’s the thing: a lot of times there aren’t words.  Some feelings are so strong that words don’t do them justice.  But we still feel them, right?  Some things can’t be explained.  How about a hug?  That has a lot of feelings that words don’t.  My favorite things to say are things like “I don’t know what to say, but I’m sorry.  And I care.  And I’m here.”  or “I wish I could magically make it different.”  or “Can I give you a hug?”  You can’t fix it for them (no one can), so don’t try.  Just be there, be present, and listen.  Being genuine and caring goes a long way.
  2. It is ok to bring up the issue causing grief.  I think people are often worried that by bringing the issue up (person who died, divorce happening, job lost, etc.) they will cause the person grieving to cry, to feel badly, to break down.  But, the person who is grieving is grieving.  Chances are, the issue is on their mind.  Even if it isn’t, they’ll likely welcome the opportunity to talk. Why?  Lots of people are uncomfortable talking about loss.  Just by bringing the issue up, you’re showing you care and you’re willing to listen.  That can be a relief for a person who is grieving.  Sure, they might cry, but those tears were already there.  And you gave them an opportunity to express those tears and to feel like someone cares.  That’s a good thing.
  3. Be concrete when offering help.  Have you ever been really stressed out?  I’m sure you have.  Did you have trouble making decisions while stressed?  I bet you did.  A grieving person is stressed, but also the world doesn’t look the way it is supposed to.  There’s a loss, so somewhere there’s a big hole in the middle of an otherwise normal world.  That is very disorienting.  People who are grieving don’t know what they want, and they don’t know what they need.  If you tell them “I’m here if you need me, give me a call”  or “Let me know what you need” well, they probably won’t.  It’s not that they don’t need help.  It’s not that they don’t want you around.  It is that they don’t know what they want.  They don’t know what to do.  They might be lonely; they probably hurt, and maybe they don’t want to burden you.  So, what should you do?  Make a suggestion with concrete choices.  Here are some ideas:  “I make a great lasagna, and I can come by on Tuesday or Wednesday.  Which day would you like me to bring you lasagna?”  “Would you like company on Saturday?  I could come to you at noon.”  “Would you like to see  the new George Clooney movie with me on Sunday?”  If they say no, consider asking again.  They may feel like a burden, like you feel you have to invite them.
  4. Make contact.  Reach out.  Frequently.  It can be tough for the grieving person to reach out.  Invite to events, sure, but also just say hi.  Send a newsy email that expresses you’re thinking of them.  Send it with no expectation of response.  Just make yourself available, over and over.  After a few months most others will forget about your loved one’s grief, and your loved one might feel even more alone.  Keep saying hi.  Keep checking in.
  5. Expect that the person grieving will make his/her own path.  Everyone grieves differently.  That’s important.  There is no normal for grief, no right way to grieve.  There’s also no one normal timetable for grief.  There is no point where they “should be over it”.  They don’t have to do, think, or feel anything at all (besides keep breathing – we’d like it if they do that).  Should is not a part of this.  It is ok for them to be in denial, to feel angry, to feel sad, to feel relieved, to feel guilty, to feel happy, to not know how they feel, or to feel something else.  Let them be whatever they are.  It is ok for them to want to engage with the world one week and then not the next.  The path is not straight and it is not always forward.  If you’re worried they need help or are harming themselves, talk to them.  When you talk to them, don’t act like you know what’s right for them.  Don’t tell them they should be, do, think, or feel anything.  Just compassionately share your concerns, listen, and be willing to help figure things out.

Grief isn’t easy, and it will happen to all of us if we live long enough.  Counseling can help us navigate the winding path of loss and grief.  If you’re worried about yourself or someone you care about and are near Orlando, give us a call at Life Skills Resource Group in Orlando at 407-355-7378.  Our experienced Orlando counselors, psychologists, hypnotherapists, and life coaches are knowledgeable about grief and loss.  They are  here to guide you and give you the support you need.

Even when there are no words, Krista