I’ve read plenty of articles on the topic of how best to support grieving friends, as well as what to expect as a person who is facing grief over the loss of someone. For those of you not in the loop of my personal life, I recently lost one of my best friends to a tragic and preventable accident, which occurred at the lab where she worked. You can read the details about her death here, can take action here, and if you’d like to read about my own personal struggle with grief and loss, well I have a couple of those posts as well.
Part of my process with grieving right now involves a certain amount of sharing the “practical” side of my experience with others. That means letting others know about what has been most beneficial to my well being, what helped me immediately after my friend’s death, and what has helped me now (it is 5 months today, and I still feel frequent pangs of depression, anger and loss). Here is a list of 5 things that are helpful to know when your friend is going through a difficult time. Please circulate it to others, and feel free to add your own experiences and advice in the comments section.
1. Grief isn’t linear. It’s complicated. The stages of grief that are often part of the narrative of recovering from loss has its place in the way we may understand bereavement. But it is by no means a model that applies to everyone, particularly in circumstances of complicated or particularly traumatic grief (eg. losing a child, tragic or sudden death). Even in the cases of death we may see coming, we may not react in ways that others expect.
When Sheri died, I expected to be in a long stage of denial, followed by anger, then sadness, etc. This was not the case. I was in denial for about 7 minutes before my boyfriend pulled his car into a parking lot outside a middle school where I proceeded to break down about what had happened. Grief is a convoluted mixture of emotions – someone you know who is grieving might be irritable and angry and still be in denial and sad and in shock. Think about how confusing it can be to break up with someone you love. Now multiply that by much much more. We have to be patient with grief because it is a process that has no model for recovery, no manual to tell us what is the appropriate way to continue on with our own lives. There are practical ways to help and there are ways to cope, but there is no real right way and there is no real right time to move on.
2. Grieving takes time. So much time. Sometimes a lifetime. Grief and the needs of grieving people change. It might take time for them to start hanging out in groups and it might take time for them to regain daily focus. Affirm them. Let them know you’re there for them when they need it.
3. Not everyone knows how to grieve openly. Sometimes I think it’s more difficult to watch someone you love appear completely emotionless after losing a loved one, than it is to stand by someone who cries, yells, or talks openly about their pain. It can be tempting to force someone to “deal with their grief,” but the truth is that that doesn’t always happen. People react differently to death and those reactions are motivated by their day-to-day commitments, by their cultural upbringing and social expectations. I was able to express my emotions openly about Sheri’s death, but there are many times where I cannot describe my pain to anyone and need to deal with it internally and by myself. Not everyone has the time or resources to process. It’s important to be supportive in a way that works for the grieving individual, and not in a way that you might think is appropriate.
4. This said, take care of yourself. Self-care is at the core of being a support network for someone who is struggling. Don’t lose yourself forever in being at the beck and call of a grieving friend. Take shifts with other loved ones, find your own outlets of support. Grieving, like so many other processes, is a marathon not a sprint. Everyone involved needs to remember that.
5. Be sensitive and don’t take it personally when we’re not. I got a lot of emails in the last few months that varied in their messages. Some people emailed to apologize for being scared of checking in. Others emailed to remind me that they were there for me if I needed anything. A few even attempted to email and pretend that nothing had changed – someone very close to me went so far as to ask if “everything was back to normal.” Ultimately all of those people expected that when I was ready to talk about everything but grief, I would let them know. That isn’t the way it works. I wrote back to remind them that my life looked differently now and that I couldn’t be responsible for actively maintaining friendships at the time. Don’t expect a lot from your grieving loved ones – they’re going to snap at you, or sound apathetic, or fall off the grid. If you care about them, you will check in with them, and hear them. Just because they sound ok, doesn’t mean they are, but it doesn’t mean they’re lying to you either. It’s complicated. Some days are up and others are very down. When you stop hearing from them and find out they haven’t left the house in weeks, you need to encourage them. You need to be patient with them flaking out on plans. Nothing about the process is nice or easy, but reminding your loved ones that you are there for them, regardless of the capacity, can be very helpful for them later on.