When Someone You Love Is Grieving: How to Really Help
By Angie Schultz
“The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.” ~Henri Nouwen
It’s hard to stand at the edge of someone else’s grief.
There’s the awkwardness. You always feel a little like an uninvited guest who arrived late and missed the first half of the conversation—a conversation that turns out to be a wrestle between another person and the deepest parts of their own soul.
What can you say when you realize you’ve barged in on an interaction so intimate, so personal that you just want to avert your eyes and slink quietly away?
Then there are the triggers.
Grief has a way of unsettling everyone in the proximity. It stirs up our own unhealed parts. Is it any wonder that we have the instinct to smooth over the other person’s emotions, to take everything back to normal, before it has the chance to stir up something inside us?
But here’s the thing: Your friends need you. Your family members need you. When we are grieving, we need our closest loved ones more than ever.
I’ve had moments of not knowing how to help too. That’s why I’m sharing my insights about what healed, and what hurt, when I lost my husband to cancer.
Don’t Say Nothing
It would be easier to say nothing. To bury that whisper inside that nudges you to reach out. To focus on the busyness of your own obligations—your life—instead of drawing closer to my dance with death.
I get it. But being on the other side?
It hurts to be this raw, and to have you look the other way.
Please don’t ignore me.
I know it’s a risk. You may get it all wrong. Or you may say all the textbook-right things, only to have me not receive them. My emotions are up and down and all over the place. Some days I’m hard to deal with.
But this risk, it’s the kind that matters. The kind that deepens relationships, cements love, and humanizes both giver and receiver. When we dance together, you and I, trying to figure out how to be in the presence of so much pain, something magical happens. We open ourselves to meaning and beauty and richness. To the purpose of it all.
In facing death, we embrace life.
Don’t Ask How I’m Doing
Sounds counter-intuitive, right?
I just told you not to ignore me. And asking, “How are you doing?” is the first thing we say in most situations to show concern.
The thing, is, answering this question when I’m grieving is painful. It’s so painful that immediately before and after my husband’s death from cancer, our daughters actively avoided going places where people might ask “How are you doing?”
That cut out a big chunk of their support system.
“How are you doing?” asked in passing, say by the clerk at the grocery store, isn’t the problem. It’s the soulful, “How are you doing,” said with words drawn out in long intonations, accompanied with deep pitying eyes, yet said in a rushed or crowded setting, that is tough. It’s tough because:
-Some days going deep enough to give you a genuine answer upsets the emotional balance that’s getting me through the task at hand. Even on a good day, there is so much feeling under the surface. It may be taking all that I have to hold it together. I know you mean well, but please realize it’s hard for me to answer this question honestly and also keep my composure when the setting calls for it.
-The immediate answer doesn’t mean much anyway. Emotions are fragile and unstable, especially in grief. How I’m doing may be different now than it was an hour ago than it will be in another hour. I’m fine and I’m not fine. Some days I’m really at a loss to explain it all.
-Both of us know the answer is messy and complicated and multilayered. When the setting is too crowded or the time is too short for a heartfelt conversation, we each feel the disconnect of a partially true response. It creates distance instead of intimacy between us.
Fortunately, there is a better way to bridge the space between us, and to communicate love and support.
What to Do Instead: Pretend I Already Answered You
You aren’t going to be satisfied by a cheerful “Fine!” when you ask how I’m doing.
You won’t believe me because you can see the grief behind my eyes, despite my smile. And even if you haven’t been through my experience, something deep down tells you that this is big. Too big to be neatly resolved and tucked away in the category of memory.
Trust yourself. You’re right.
So what would you say to me if we fast-forwarded past the “How are you doing?” stage? If I actually had the time and space and emotional stability to give you a full response, how would you answer?
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