5 Tips to Help Someone Dealing with Grief

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It’s my mom’s birthday next week, you know. October 14th. Since she passed away from cancer last year (chronic lymphocytic leukemia), this time of year can be somewhat difficult for my family and me. This year, I am honoring her with #10DaysofTribute. You can join me here: http://on.fb.me/1OgXLSs

Grief is a funny thing, though—it can surface unexpectedly and is no respecter of time or convenience. I can be doing really well for awhile, and then something will trigger it (the movie Cinderella, for example—have you noticed how often parents die in movies??) and I’ll suddenly be in tears…in public…again. My current record is four public crying sessions in one week, haha. Often small triggers will build up over time until something happens that opens the floodgates. At those times, I have been so grateful for those people who have been there to help me through them.

Tragic experiences are difficult for the person dealing with them, but it can also be hard for those who want to help to know what to do. I’ve realized that a lot of times, people just don’t know what to say. I don’t blame them. Grief is not something that’s very culturally acceptable to talk about, and everyone deals with grief differently. I do my best to be understanding when people struggle to know how to help me in the midst of a meltdown. Over the last year and a half plus of going through my own grieving process, I’ve noticed a few basic things people have done that help me the most.

1. Show up and say, “I love you.” Then listen.

This one is first because it’s important. Show. Up. Even more than showing up physically is showing up emotionally. This means having the courage to visit or call the person and say, “Hi. I know you’re having a hard time, and I wanted you to know that I care about you. You mean a lot to me.” You don’t have to “fix it” or make it all better. Why not? Because that’s not your job. It’s the Savior’s. Christ is the one who has been through it all, who knows exactly how I feel, who has the power to heal my aching heart. And that takes time. I just need you to be there and let me know that you care about me.

2. Don’t dictate my feelings; acknowledge the validity of my emotions.

If you say things like, “Don’t cry—it’s going to be all right,” or “Take a few deep breaths, and you’ll feel better soon,” it tends to make me close off from you emotionally. In particularly volatile moments, it actually makes me want to punch you. Just listen. You don’t have to fix it, remember?

If I want to throw something, give me something to throw. If I want to be sad, get me a tissue and let me have a good, long, ugly snot-cry. Let me know it’s okay to feel how I’m feeling and stay right by my side. I just need someone to be there to hold my hand while I’m working through my emotions, and once I’ve reached the depths, I can bring myself back out again. Have the courage and patience to let me deal with my grief on my own terms.

3. Help me feel safe enough to cry.

In light of the previous section, if I full-out cry on you, especially in public, you should be honored. Really. It means you have helped me feel safe enough to open up, to be tender and vulnerable, to show you how much I’m really hurting no matter how brave I’ve been on the outside. That’s trust. When that happens, you’re standing on sacred ground. You haven’t ruined my day—you’ve created a safe space where healing can happen. Sometimes I need that so desperately because I have a hard time giving myself permission to grieve on my own. Here’s an example.

One day my last semester at BYU I was sitting with a friend in the food court working on a speech I was going to give in a couple weeks. I can’t remember exactly how the conversation turned this way, but as I told my friend about how my mother had always loved and supported and believed in me, the emotions bubbled to the surface, and all of a sudden I was crying. Tears running down my face, head down, heavy sobs right there in the middle of the food court for the entire BYU student body walking by to see.

And my friend was magnificent. He scooted his chair a little closer, put his hand on my shoulder, and let me cry. He wasn’t embarrassed. He didn’t feel the need to make it all better. He was just there, and I could feel his kindness and support and love. It was a sacred experience to be completely, utterly vulnerable and to feel that safe and that loved. To this day I am incredibly grateful to that friend, who didn’t even really know me that well, for the courage and compassion he showed to be there with me while I cried. I will always, always appreciate him for that, and I treasure that memory. It can be scary to reach out to someone in the depths of grief, but walking through something like that with them can be an experience that approaches the sublime.

4. I need friends more than I need sympathy.

Be my friend. I’m a person, not a project. I’m a living, breathing, thinking, caring human being who is worth getting to know, not just an item to check off on your “do a good turn daily” list. While initial expressions of sympathy and kindness are appreciated, consistent, loving support is more meaningful and more effective over time. When you make the effort to be my friend, I feel like you really care about me because of ME, not just because my mom died and you feel you should. I really do know that everything will be okay—it’s just hard sometimes, and I need friends to help me through and be there for the good times and the bad.

5. First observe, then serve.

Sometimes it makes me cry just thinking about the selfless, Christlike service so many people showed my family and me when my mom passed away. People saw my family’s needs for transportation, meals, kind words, time away, etc. and stepped up to fill them without being asked. Because of their example, when someone I know has experienced a tragedy, I try to put myself in their shoes and listen to them with my ears and my heart to find out what they need. A meal? An afternoon out? Just a hug, even? Then I do my best to do something about it. “Let me know if I can do anything” is a kind sentiment, but I have felt people’s love the most when they make an effort to do something for me, however small. Little things, like a favorite candy bar or a thoughtful note, mean so much.

So please—reach out. We need each other. As you may have noticed, it takes courage and a little vulnerability of your own to walk with someone through their valley of shadow. These times are difficult, but they are opportunities to form lasting relationships, to make connections that give us a taste of what it means to have the pure love of Christ. And our lives will be more beautiful because of it.

5 Comments

  1. Your article brought me right back to my mother dying in my arms in 2002. The day I returned to my apartment, a friend appeared out of the blue to “spend the day with me.” Another friend took me to dinner at a beautiful, slow paced delicious restaurant on Cape Cod; then we listened to slow jazz until the early morning hours, while I told many stories about my mom. I still cherish their thoughtfulness to this day. Love in action is seeing a need and filling it. Saying ‘let me know if you need anything’ may be kind, but when someone is suffering they may be unable to reach out, especially when the person has more experience with giving than receiving.

  2. Have Courage and Be Kind 😉 Remember all that Cinderella’s beautiful Mother taught her that helped her through her tough life? Do the same with your beautiful Mother’s teachings. (Looks like you are doing just that) I stumbled upon your blog on accident and am hooked. You have great insight. Thank you for sharing your feelings. I’m 49 and a divorced Mother of 5 children. Your thoughts are inspiring me. 🙂 – Melanie

    1. Thank you for these words on writing about grief. I have been kenipeg a journal for several years now, but before I started this I had already lost or thrown out the diaries I kept as a child. My sister died age 7 in 1980, so I would have liked to be able to look back on what I wrote as I was growing up. I recently decided to start writing a book about my journey through her death and my healing journey to the present and I found it hard going! It’s still on my to do’ list, although, having written only a few pages, has slipped off the top of the pile. If you have any tips for me, I’d appreciate them!

  3. Thanks for this article. My died of CLL in June and I have blessed with some amazing people who have done for me what you mention in your article. I appreciate knowing that you’re out there and that you get it. That can be the best thing and not something we experience often. I hope your journey is the best it can be. Take care!

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