We tend to make ourselves present and available for someone who experiences loss immediately after the loss. We recognize that this time presents a horrible, painful time for people, and we understand that they may need significant amounts of help because of the shock of loss. This especially proves true when the loss happened in a traumatic and unexpected way. We instinctively know that this creates a vacuum of sorts in a person’s life and we rush to fill where we can. And to this, I say, “Bravo!” In my own times of loss, that kindness outpoured helped so very much. I know the need that exists in those moments and I appreciate the desire to comfort and provide.
Unfortunately, we consider that as the most significant time of need. As our lives progress, we return to our normal and the loss stands out less clearly to us. This represents not a lack of care but a natural process of life. I bring this up not to condemn but to hopefully help caring friends determine how best to help those they love through grief.
During the initial days after a loss, our friends and family first go through a time of shock. Even when they expected the death, such as with a terminal illness, the loss still brings an abrupt gap. This time often involves moments of numbness interspersed with moments of intense emotion. Very little actual processing of the loss takes place. Those involved most closely must see to funeral details, possibly make decisions regarding organ and/or tissue donation, and ensure that any minor children, pets and/or livestock are properly cared for.
Such times see less focus on such things as food, sleep, and other basic needs. The hurting individuals need to put their energy into putting one foot in front of the other. This is a time when those less directly impacted by the loss may most readily meet physical needs. Since physical needs stand out clearly and require clear responses, they provide a simple way to reach out meaningfully to the hurting person.
Once someone experiencing grief begins to see to their own basic needs, the ways in which friends may assist become more obscure. And what each person needs varies greatly. This forms one of the most difficult times because we still want to help, but we don’t know for sure what to do and the hurting person probably doesn’t know how to put into words what they need. This frustrates. We want to help. They may truly want help but without a way to communicate what they need, they may despair.
There is no simple answer to this situation. There isn’t a one size fits all approach. But there are some things to know.
First, there is a gap between the initial shock and the point where grief settles into a person’s soul. The gap may vary quite a bit between one situation and the next. Some factors that play into it include whether the deceased left a will or not, whether their loss also involves the need for major life changes for those involved, and the length of close relationship with the now absent person. There may be legal matters to settle, the need to settle into a new home, or children for whom care now needs to be provided.
The firsts may occur right away in quick succession, or there may be quite a length of time before the first first hits. This also affects the way an individual experiences grief. Firsts and major anniversaries are clear times when grief may hit or come back in a fresh wave. We must prepare ourselves for those times. We must remember those important days. When we do, we come alongside the grieving person and share in their experience. This gives them reassurance that they needn’t face this alone.
A common time for grief to set in: the one year anniversary of the loss.
As the one year anniversary approaches, anxiety, painful memories, sadness, and even anger may awaken in the one who faces grief. This is often a time when the major life changes and decisions are done, life has begun to settle, and the shock has diminished. Reality sets in. Someone significant to us is no longer available. Guilt may now enter into the equation. Guilt for not remembering how the person smelled, what their voice sounded like, even what they looked like. Guilt for figuring out how to live life without that person. Guilt for not remembering every anniversary, every significant date. Guilt for being angry with others for moving on with their lives.
How do we help?
Again, there is no easy answer. Every situation requires something at least slightly different. Some warnings before suggestions…
1) This is going to require work.
2) This is also going involve emotional energy.
3) And it is going to involve time.
If you aren’t willing to invest these things, that’s okay. Just know that if you come at this half-heartedly, you may cause more harm than good. A hurting person who shares with you their heart only to have you quit on them when the going gets tough is going to be set back in their process.
Now, with that out of the way, let’s consider three things we might do to help.
1) Offer to listen. This means we need to make ourselves available. In other words: Be Present! It then means we need to say we are willing to listen. We let them know it is okay to talk about the person they miss, to talk about life, to tell us how they are doing, whatever they need.
2) Offer silence. Sometimes someone just needs us to sit with them, to be by their side. Grief is lonely. Let them know they aren’t alone.
3) Offer options. Ask if they want to do something to memorialize their loved one on the anniversary, if they would rather stay busy the entire day so they don’t think about it, if they want time to think but to do so in a different context than their normal. Don’t give them every option under the sun, but when we give options, we might spark something that helps them know what they need.
Remember anniversaries. Remember that they might only now start to experience the emotions of grief. Remember that this could be a lonely, painful time. And remember that their grief is not about you. Don’t force someone to grieve the way you think they should. Grief is a highly individualized thing and is different for each loss, even if those losses occur in quick succession. Don’t make it fit into a box; this hinders the process and delays progress.
Don’t assume grief looks a certain way. Sometimes the smile on someone’s face says just as much they are grieving as the tears in their eyes. Sometimes it’s a clinging tightly to a picture or a keepsake that perfectly characterizes the loved one. Sometimes it’s wanting to put everything related to that person out of one’s mind. Don’t assume anything.
Most importantly, know that your willingness to reach out and be a help is appreciated and important. The grieving person may not have the ability to express that in a way that makes you feel warm and fuzzy, but they do appreciate it.