In my life, I have experienced a plethora of deaths. I was introduced to funerals at a young age. I was the child of a person who went to the funerals of everyone. In hindsight, I recognize that she was supporting people that she cared for. I was terrified of them because I was forced to see the lifeless dead bodies of escaped spirits sitting in coffins. I had only ever seen such things in movies. In real life, it is quite different, especially for a child. After a certain age, I made the decision never to go to another funeral. I decided that my comfort and fear triumphed over that of anything else that was going on.
I developed a very hands-off approach to death in this way. I knew that if someone died that it came with dead bodies and a flood of emotional energy that I couldn’t bear to experience again. Only, I didn’t recognize it as energy at the time. I just knew that it didn’t feel good to be around so much sadness and often have it placed on you. I couldn’t explain it. I just knew that I didn’t like it. So I very much so kept to myself when these things happened both to myself and to others, only lending out open arms to as many people as I could muster the energy to reach out to. My methods for dealing with death has shifted constantly throughout my life. From the death of friends, direct family members such as grandparents and uncles, family members of those close to me or associates, I handled death the same way. I did not go to the funeral.
One year, one of my closest friends lost someone very close to them. My awkwardness behind death and how to cope faced its 2nd largest hurdle of my death experiences. I did not go to the funeral. I did not rush to be by my friend’s side. I offered no emotional support at all. I only asked if she was okay a few times and told her to let me know if she needed anything. Our friendship was impacted by my choice to be distant. For a while at least.
Fast forward a few years, April 21, 2017, I lost my mother. This was by far the most difficult, painful, challenging and emotionally and physically crippling experiences I had ever felt in my entire life. One minute she was there, the next I was in a hospital room being told she was not going to make it. A few days later she was gone forever. The following days had been spent planning funeral details and signing paperwork and getting her estate in order whilst getting phone call after phone call. Every single millisecond was spent in a state of paralyzing torturous heartache and emptiness. I was officially coasting through life and completely absent from my body and emotions. After being dragged through the logistics and the tiresome details of death and preparing for its following moments, I was officially sitting in the front row of the funeral lost in an excess of emotions. I was hanging on by a thread and trying my hardest to be there for my immediate family members. I couldn’t even interact with the majority of those who called, text, or came near me. I was overwhelmed and destroyed by something I hadn’t even come to terms with. And often, my own feelings were being pushed to the side so that I could listen to someone share their grief or story about my current grief and pain and what it felt like for them.
10 months later, I am still grieving. Often more than I was 10 months ago because there wasn’t much space for it at the time. I didn’t realize that I learned to shut down, and bottle up emotions, when in fact I had always lived my life the opposite way. Losing anyone impacts people in various ways. But there is something about losing a parent that takes a part of you and your soul forever. As a result, it has truly opened up my empathetic centers to death and loss both literally, and figuratively. Now, because I live with this every day, I am a lot more empathic to others who experience loss. Loss of love, loss of others, loss due to death. I can feel the pain of others and sometimes see what they are going through in a way that I had ignored for so long because of the discomfort of death and all that came with it. In other words, I have learned that being overwhelmed by your own relationship with empathy is not an excuse to not be compassionate or show care or concern to others who might need it.
I say all this to say, that there is no right or wrong way to grieve or to help others grieve. But there are some steps that you can take to support people who are grieving. Here are some essentials that I have learned by being on both ends of both losing someone, and supporting or not supporting someone.
How to support people who are grieving
Ask them what they need
One of the most important things to do when someone is grieving is to just ask them what they need or if they need anything at all. Do not assume that someone needs something. You do not know what they are going through in their own personal experience with death. It is best to ask someone if they need anything at all, if you can take a load off of their shoulders, or how you can help them in their process.
For me, I didn’t need much. I needed space because I am introverted and often deal with my emotions on my own by recharging and having the space to process my thoughts, emotions, and feelings. But there were things that I did need help with. Like putting away chairs at the repass or making a phone call to the park to see if they could fit 100-200 people.
Be as understanding as possible. Understand that grief is a very messy circumstance and it is not black and white. You never know what they will be feeling at any given moment. Even if you do not understand what they are experiencing, try to just allow them to go through whatever they are going through and understand their process as much as possible. Unless they are hurting themselves, or others, do not try and tell people how to grieve or even impose your own opinion of what is good for them.
Open your arms & don’t be offended if they do not run into them
Make sure to provide as much support as you can. Open up your arms, lend a shoulder to cry on, ear to listen to or whatever you have available. Take nothing personally. It is not about you. Create a space for them to feel safe. If they take you up on your offer, great! If not, that is okay. Some people have their selected circle of people they confide in, vent too, and express their emotions too in comfort. Don’t be offended if they don’t pick you. It’s not about you. It’s about them finding the best way for them to deal with what they’re feeling.
Just sit there and hear them out and don’t get upset with them if they come back to it. When someone passes away, it brings up emotions at appropriate, and inappropriate times. A song, a meal, a word, a letter, a voice, a person, so many things can bring up emotions about the deceased. A lot of moments are spent just simply trying to get from one moment to the next and be okay. You cant have those moments where you get annoyed or frustrated with them for bringing it up again. You should not be waiting for the day when they get over it because there is no getting over it. The grieving process displays in many ways.
Give them SPACE
Let them figure it out and FEEL and deal with loss in their own way. I cannot stress this enough. Death & their relationship with it is their own personal journey. The most important thing about this step is that those who are grieving need to know that people are there. They do need comfort, but they are often overwhelmed with so many things. They will take the time to reach out to and respond as necessary but it will be at a pace that works for them and their grief. Do not forget that they have a lot of people to communicate with, and that life goes on, so regardless of this loss, they still have their everyday life to tend to, and often after death, anything on top of that is too much. Remember, it is not about you. Do not insist that they answer your calls, or talk to you, or that they need to get it out. Throw out your fishing line as many times as you want and wait for them to catch the bait.
Always be gentle
This speaks for itself. Be gentle when dealing with people grieving. They are often barely keeping it together.
Do not distance yourself
I have been on both ends of this. I have distanced myself, as stated above, and I have also had people distance themselves. Loss can push you away from a lot of people while you shut down to deal with your internal struggles. Regardless, you are aware of those that are and were there for you during your death experience, and those who were not. It is important that they know that you are there, whether or not they do anything with that. It is often very comforting to know that people are texting you or calling you and that they care, rather than not getting calls or text from people that you want to hear from. The only thing about this is that it is comforting to know that people are there WITHOUT expectations from you. The support needs to be given freely without the pressure of them to respond or do anything with it.
On the other end of this. For those that are experiencing loss, Don’t be too hard on people who aren’t there. They might not know how to be there, or they might not be able to be there. Life is challenging and some people only have enough to give to themselves. Sometimes that is not a bad thing. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need, if people can give it to you, great! If not, you can determine how you feel about that and act accordingly, but be reasonable.
Understand your position in their lives & what that means as far as support goes
No one wants to have their mailman call and text them all day about their grief. One is more likely to confide in their best friend than they are to their mailman or the friend of the person who passed. Having a relationship with the deceased alone is not enough to burden certain persons with your experience in your grief. Even if you mean well. For example, as the gym partner of the deceased, you won’t go to the wife or kids asking for support if she doesn’t know you very well. Being the ex-boyfriend or girlfriend of the deceased from when the kids were too young to remember you doesn’t create a connection between you and the grieving. Knowing and understanding your own personal connection to the person experiencing loss is important. Be aware of the relationship between you and the deceased, and those experiencing the loss of the deceased and act accordingly.
Be considerate & respectful of their loss
Do not put more on them than necessary. Be supportive, but do not burden them with your feelings and take away from their grief so that you can talk about your own life, your current struggles and what you’re going through behind this death. It is very selfish. For example, a friend from middle school popped up and spent the last 5 days of my mother’s death in the hospital. Although she was experiencing loss of a friend that she spoke to on a fairly regular basis, we as a family didn’t know her well. We did not have a connection with her. Unfortunately, she didn’t know when to step back and on several occasions put us in an uncomfortable position when we had to ask her for space. She talked about how she was going through so much herself and how this just added to how difficult life was for her at the moment. The day we were told that my mother was dying, we had to ask her for space to let us process the information we were just told. In fact, we had to tell her that she couldn’t come in the room with us to receive the information. When we came out, we had to share that moment with her because she was there and we found ourselves comforting her, when we needed to be comforting each other. She cried and hugged us, and actually, put more on us by giving us her emotions rather than allowing us the space to process what we were just told. We were losing our mother & daughter.
The day that my mother passed, she was there. My family asked her not to tell anyone until they got to me so that they could tell me that my mother had passed away. She did not respect their wishes, and instead, she posted on Facebook that my mother had died and that is how I found out that my mother had passed away. Posting the families personal business on social media without their consent is not okay. Be respectful of the families wishes at the least and don’t be afraid to ask for permission to share news like this. It is heartbreaking to find out online, call the hospital and be told that what you read on Facebook is true, especially if it can be avoided. Do not be afraid to ask the family if they mind if you are there, or if they would rather have the space to deal with whatever is on their hearts.
Do not tell them they’re in a better place & don’t tell them things happen for a reason
Even if the deceased is in a better place. They’re in a better place in reference to their life. Not that of the life of the one dealing with their loss. For the one dealing with the loss, it is hard to emotionally wrap your mind around the reasons why it might be a good thing that the person they care for is gone permanently. Its hard to find the silver lining and figure out how this happened for some positive happenstance or reasoning.
The truth is, there is no way to know what death is going to look like for someone or how to be there and guarantee that you do it in a way that works for everyone. There is no right or wrong way to be there because everyone experiences loss differently. But you can decide the best ways to be there by just simply understanding what death looks like in general and all the ways that you can practice trying to be a good support system, or not, to someone who is dealing with the loss of someone they love or care about.