13 Feb 2017
When someone you love has experienced the loss of a child, it’s hard on everyone. They are engulfed in a sea of unbearable pain and grief and sorrow while you may be struggling to stand beside them, wondering what to say, what to do, and what they need. You love them dearly, but you don’t really know what they are going through and you don’t know what to do.
Maybe you’re grieving too.
Maybe you’re suffering as you witness their suffering.
Maybe you feel helpless.
Maybe you find yourself saying all the wrong things because you don’t know what else to say.
Maybe you want to love them through this, but no one taught you how to do that.
Most of us don’t really know how to navigate this thing called grief. They don’t teach Grief 101 in high school (although, perhaps they should!).
In an ideal world, your heartbroken loved one would be able to say, “Here, this is what I need. This is how you can help me.” Unfortunately, that’s generally not how it works. They have been crushed by a devastating loss and, chances are, they’re giving everything they have to simply get out of bed in the morning. Trying to articulate what they need and what kind of support they want probably feels next to impossible.
Fortunately, loving a grieving friend or family member isn’t as complicated as it can seem. Generally, it’s simply about being a compassionate and kind human.
First and foremost, show up. Be here.
Show up at their door. Run errands for them. Do their laundry. Make them meals and sit with them to ensure they eat (many times in early grief people lose their appetite and don’t eat regularly). Lay on the bed and hold them while they cry.
Continue to show up for months or years – this is a lifetime loss and they will need you for a lifetime. Text them. Call them. Send cards. Remember birthdays and anniversaries of their child’s life. Help them plan birthday parties and holiday remembrances and show up for death anniversaries. Mark them on your calendar so you don’t forget – because they won’t. And they won’t forget those who show up for them.
You will likely say or do the wrong thing at some point. It happens. But if you are willing to keep showing up and work through the discomfort, that’s what will matter. That’s how you’ll help.
Grief is not short lived. Nor is it linear or simple or logical.
Grieving a child takes a lifetime. We love our children for a lifetime and we will grieve them for a lifetime. Society likes to tell us that after a certain period of time, grief should be completed and we should be ready to find “closure” and “move on.”
To be quite honest, if you buy into that way of thinking, you will struggle to be able to support your loved one as long as they will need you to.
Your friend or family member will grieve far longer than you will want to hear about it or be around for it. This is where they will need you to be patient and understanding.
Those who grieve their child(ren) will eventually find a way to live with that grief and that aching hole in their life, but they will never stop missing their child or longing to hold them. Birthdays and holidays and anniversary dates may be painful and challenging for the rest of their life.
When you find yourself tiring of their grief or wanting them to “get over it already,” remember – they are far, far more exhausted and sick of grieving than you can even imagine. This is when they need you most to keep showing up.
While you might be struggling to know what to say, it’s likely your loved one really just wants someone who will listen.
Really, truly listen.
To their fears. To their grief. To their doubts and guilt and regrets and questioning. To the part of them that feels like they’ve failed their children. To their anger and their rage at the injustice of their children’s lives being cut short. To the urges of grief that make them feel crazy and abnormal.
Let those you love simply talk with you and be heard without judgment or false optimism. Don’t try to fix it or to help them feel something different – just listen.
Listen and when you want to object to something they are saying, or inject your own thoughts, stay silent and listen even more.
Listen and then simply tell them that you love them and you are here.
Here’s the honest truth: For a while, your friend or family member isn’t going to be a terribly great friend or family member.
They probably won’t always show up for holiday celebrations or birthdays or fun outings. They’ll probably forget your birthday and anniversary and other special occasions. They may not feel up to attending baby showers and children’s birthdays or being around babies and kids at all (this particular thing might last for years).
In that first year after their child died especially, they will probably forget things you told them or make plans and either forget about them or cancel at the last minute because they just couldn’t get out of bed that day.
When you complain about every day matters like being tired or your child acting up or the annoying co-worker you can’t stand, they may not engage in the conversation the way they used to or may tell you that you’re overreacting. It’s not that they don’t care about your difficulties, it’s simply that what they’ve experienced is so overwhelmingly huge everything else feels small and meaningless in comparison.
So, when they can’t be the friend or family member you remember or want them to be, forgive them. They’re still learning how to navigate life after the entire landscape has changed – not unlike being dropped in a foreign land with no map and no way to communicate.
Get to Know Them
However long you may have known your loved one or how well you might have known them, be prepared to get to know them all over again.
The loss of a child changes us in irrevocable ways.
Your friend or family member isn’t the person they once were and they will never fully be that person again. Grief has forged them into someone new.
Don’t be surprised if they don’t respond to things the way they once would have or if they suddenly aren’t interested in things they used to love or if the beliefs about the world they used to hold so dear are ones they cannot abide by anymore.
No, they won’t be the person you remember and loved so very much. Grief will change and morph them into someone new – and even that will change and morph again over time.
But don’t give up on them too quickly. They may not be the person you knew, but you might really love the person they have and are becoming.
Take time to get to know the new post-loss them.
Finally, if you do nothing else, remember with them.
Help them remember their child through the years and comfort them with the knowledge that their child has not and will not be forgotten.
Share memories with them. Say their child’s name. Remember their child’s birthday. Honor them on the holidays and for Mother’s and Father’s day. Donate in their child’s name. Read articles like this one and discuss it with your friend or family member.
Give your loved one the gift of remembering their child. It’s the greatest gift you can give.
And above all else, love them. Love them so deeply and openly and clearly they can’t help but feel it radiating from you.
They need you and they need that love.
Love them fiercely.
01 Dec 2015
It’s hard to see people we love be in pain and not be able to do anything about it. We want them to feel better, to smile, to laugh, and to be okay again. Feeling better sooner rather than later would be even better.
As humans, we are problems solvers. We want to fix things, to find ways to get past problems or challenges faster and easier. We like things to be neat and orderly and fit nicely into boxes and categories.
Grief is none of those things. It’s not fixable. We can’t rush it or make to move through faster. It is anything but neat and orderly or easily categorized.
Grief is messy. Grief is painful. Grief is confusing. Grief is complex. Grief is not going to go away overnight.
I get it. I’ve been on both sides of the situation – the griever and the one sitting with the grieving.
We can feel helpless and overwhelmed and lost on either side.
So, if we can’t fix things for those we love when they are grieving or make them feel better or make the grief go away faster, how we do help?
Be there with them in it. Instead of pulling away or trying to gloss over the pain and the heartbreak, lean into it with them.
Ask them how they are doing.
Sit with them in silence.
Give them a hug or just sit beside them.
Bring them food or take care of household chores so they have one less thing to try to figure out in the heaviness and disorientation of grief.
Send them cards, texts, emails to let them know you are thinking of them.
Remember them on holidays or the anniversaries of birthdays or death days – then let them know you remember too.
Speak their loved ones names.
Tell them you miss their loved one too – or that you wish you could have known them.
However you decide to share your presence, Be Proactive.
Don’t wait for them to reach out to you.
Grief is overwhelming and too often those living with it feel burdensome or hesitant to ask for support.
Instead of waiting for them to ask for support, reach out to them and offer ways to help.
Can I get your groceries for you this week?
Do you want some company? We can do whatever you need.
How about I take care of your lawn this week so you don’t have to worry about it.
I know _______’s birthday is coming up, do you want to do anything to honor it?
Would you like to go for a walk together? We can talk or not talk, whatever you need.
Send books you have found or see that could offer comfort.
Send them notes to let you know you’re thinking of them.
If something reminds you of the one they’ve lost, send them a message telling them about it.
Do something. Reaching out, even if imperfectly, is almost always infinitely better than not. Grief can feel so very lonely and isolating. Sometimes people think they are helping by giving space or not reaching out – but that usually just increases that sense of isolation.
Also, reach out and continue to reach out even if they don’t respond or respond with no for a while. Your act of reaching out still helps. Don’t give up too soon.
Remember, support is different than fixing.
Your support helps. It comforts. It helps us know we aren’t alone. It brings a little light into the darkness.
It doesn’t fix our grief. Nothing can. Nothing save our loved one returning to us from the grave will ever fix this.
Be patient with us. This thing called grief will last far longer than either of us want. In fact, we will have grief and miss our loved one until the day we join them in whatever comes next.
This pain and this longing and this emptiness that we are feeling is a natural part of losing someone we loved so very much. The greater the love, the greater the grief.
This pain doesn’t need to be fixed – nor can it be. It does need to be acknowledged, recognized, and allowed. Chances are, you will tire of this grief long before it eases or lightens for us. So will we.
It cannot be fixed and it cannot be rushed. It must simply be felt and lived through.
Your support does make the load a little easier to bear.
At some point, it’s highly likely our grief will make you very uncomfortable. Perhaps it will bring up your fears around loss or remind you of old grief of your own. Or perhaps it will seem so foreign and unfamiliar to you that it will scare you.
Either way, please, lean into that discomfort and leave the platitudes and cliques left unsaid.
Telling us that “time heals all wounds” or “he/she is in a better place now” or “it just wasn’t meant to be” or “everything happens for a reason” or any of the thousand other well-worn platitudes does not help.
Whether any of these sayings are true or not does not matter in the least (let’s face it, truth varies widely across belief systems and people). Besides, true or not true, in the face of grief they simply aren’t helpful or useful.
They are an attempt to fix our grief and to ease your discomfort.
And if you’d said such things before, don’t worry – we’ve all said them a time or two in our lives. Even those of us most familiar with grief.
We’re human and we make mistakes. It’s more important to forgive ourselves and make a point to find other ways to handle our discomfort in the future. It never hurts for us to take a good look at why loss makes us feel so uncomfortable or afraid – if fact, if we all did, our world might be a more peaceful and loving place.
In the end, it comes down to this:
If in doubt, simply acknowledge or ask.
If you aren’t sure if what you are offering for support is helpful or not – ask.
If you aren’t sure what they might need or want from you – ask.
If you don’t know what to say – acknowledge that and just say that.
If you are afraid, as many are, that bring up their loved one will hurt them more, ask them if they want you to talk about them or say their name. (FYI, 99% of the time, they’ll say yes.)
Connection and compassion require far less than we tend to think they do.
Be proactive and reach out.
Offer support instead of fixing.
Embrace your own discomfort.
Simply acknowledge or ask.
But most of all, love. In the end, all any of us really want is to feel seen, heard, and loved.
It’s as simple as that.
28 Oct 2013
Part of the reason I’m good at what I do as a grief counselor and coach is that I’ve “done” grief both really badly and really well. I’ve run the gamut from completely denying it and pretending it didn’t exist to getting lost in dark of it to moving through it with love and openness and support.
Recently, I’ve been talking more publicly and openly about some of my story and the heart of why I love my work so deeply and why I am so passionate about walking with others on their grief journeys.
The response I’ve received has been unexpectedly beautiful and sweet and heartfelt.
Every time I share my story, people come up to me and open up about their stories. Stories of love and loss. Stories of babies and children who left too soon, partners who die unexpectedly, parents and siblings and friends and grandparents leaving a gaping hole in their life. They talk about their journeys to move past the pain, rebuild their lives, to break the silence around grief in our culture.
Too many of them tell me they wish there had been someone to share their story and loss with at the beginning of their journey, rather than years later when they’d finally found their footing. Some of them tell me they have never spoken of their loss until they are telling me.
I, too, sometimes wish I’d been able to find a way to share my story and my pain years sooner.
Sharing our stories and having others witness our grief is powerful. It is love in raw form. It’s is a gift – through it may not feel that way at first. It’s a gift of open-hearted and beautiful love.
Love between you and your loved one who is gone. Love between you and yourself. Love between you and those who witness your story and your loss.
Grief tends to either open us to love or close us off from love.
Ignoring it. Denying it. The silence of it. Wrapping it around us and refusing to let it go. These things close us off from love.
Sharing it. Experiencing it. Moving through the pain of it. These things open us to love.
Open hearted love that heals.
Share your story. Choose love.