From sympathy cards to handwritten notes, from neighbors to family, and from social workers to counselors there is plenty of “do this/do that” or “try this/try that” conversations offered to the bereaved. I have been bereaved and I have been the support for others; therefore, I have also been the transmitter and the receiver of many of these messages.
Here are a few:
- The grieving process is unique to each person and they need to do it in their own way and in their own time / You are not meant to do this alone.
- Be strong and carry on because if anyone can do this, you can / You don’t have to be strong all the time.
- It’s okay to be angry / Why are you mad at the world?
- You need to take time to deal with this / It’s best to stay in a routine or busy.
- It’s okay to cry / You may want to ask the doctor for something to help calm you down.
- This is all too much for anyone to bear / God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.
I could go on, but I think you get the point. If there is any doubt let me be clear on this truth: Grief creates panic, fear, chaos, confusion and a vast range of emotions that are unpredictable and overpowering. For the most part, people are doing the best they can with what they have. This includes well-meaning supporters who may encourage you to “do it your way” but who also say “others have walked this path before you and can help (by showing or telling you what to do).” Nobody really knows what is right for you, but everyone can walk with you and provide support while you find the way. If that is true, how do they walk the journey with you and allow you to do it your way in your own time?
Here are some suggestions:
- By being present to another’s sorrow without judging or persuading them to do things in a certain way is how he or she is given permission to do grief in their own way and in their own time.
- Be mindful of statements you make so that your own losses and how you felt don’t become the focus of the support. No matter how many losses one has (including me) we cannot truly understand how someone else feels. We can only speak for our experience. Having said that, we may have empathy and be able to “appreciate or understand” but we can’t know exactly.
- Offer love, not advice. Allow the person to find his or her answers that are meaningful to them. Allow them to question, to feel angry, sad, and even relief – and never judge them for it. Accept them for who they are in the moment and don’t couch your support in an agenda of “getting them over their grief.”
- Listen (with an open heart) and allow the person with a broken heart to do 80% of the talking. You don’t need to fix this. You only need to be present.