Blog: Everybody Hurts: When Those You Love are Grieving
By Laura Chandler
As the REM song says, “Everybody hurts, sometimes.” It is the inescapable truth we all share as humans. We are going to experience pain. The holidays are a particular source of pain for people who have lost loved ones. Those celebratory holiday gatherings and fun parties can be a source of sorrow as they remind us of what is missing from our lives. Often times, for those who have lost a close friend or family member, the holidays are a time to withdraw, and a time to seek refuge in the quiet of solitude rather than the rush of holiday fervor. So, how do you help someone who is grieving?
First, it’s important to understand the situation and recognize what your impetus is for helping. Are you worried about them? Are you reading the situation correctly? If there is genuine concern for someone’s well-being, because you feel they are suicidal or in need of some intervention, then it is important to talk with other friends and family and, if necessary, to seek the guidance of a health professional before approaching them.
Frequently, people just don’t know what to do for someone who is grieving a loss, and that is because grieving is different for everyone and it can change over time. Someone may need support in the initial stages of loss and then need space later on. Some people will want to talk frequently about the person they lost, while others may not even want photos around to remind them. If you are going to genuinely be supportive to someone grieving at this time of year, or any time, you need to try to understand where they are in their grief process without judgment and support them there. In other words, don’t assume something is good or bad and try to move them to the place you have deemed is good for them.
This is not always easy to do, because suffering is not comfortable to be around. I remember a therapist acquaintance of mine consulted me about a friend of hers who had lost her teenage daughter the year before. The holidays were coming up, and the therapist thought there was something wrong with her friend for not wanting to talk about her daughter. She was assuming that talking about the loss would be good for her friend and did not consider the actual needs of her friend. This was a critical misunderstanding, and the opposite of supportive. The truth is that we are often trying to mitigate our own discomfort by helping the grieving person “get over it,” or get to a place where we can feel comfortable with them again.
In an interview I did with grief counselor and best-selling author of Second Firsts: A Step-by-Step Guide to Life after Loss and Where Did You Go?: A Life-Changing Journey to Connect with Those We’ve Lost, Christina Rasmussen, we talked about her experience of losing her husband in her mid-thirties and being left alone with two young children. After years of counseling others she said, “I couldn’t believe how different it is when you are experiencing it for yourself – the theory versus the reality…I died that day with him…it was a confusing experience…my life was over as I knew it.”
This is important to remember if you are truly going to help someone who is grieving. A part of them is irretrievably changed. You can’t imagine what they are going through, even if you have experienced loss yourself. It’s imperative that you get clear within yourself about your own feelings and experiences so that you are not projecting them onto the situation. If you are triggered or feeling strongly uncomfortable, you may not be in a position to help someone else.
When you are able to manage your own feelings and hold a compassionate space, you are in the best position to support someone you care about who is grieving. The best thing to do is to simply check in with them and let them know that you are thinking of them and ask if there is anything you can do to be of support. Let them know that if they want to talk, you’re there and if they want space you understand and will be there if and when they need you. The truth is that even if you are not physically there with them in their times of darkness, your intention to be supportive is felt and appreciated and can offer a light in that dark and solitary place.
Editors’ Note: You can listen to Christina Rasmussen’s interview with Laura on Sacred Stream Radio Podcast Episode 50. You’ll also find more resources on grief and loss in our online store, including an online training called Finding Meaning in Loss and Meditations for Navigating Grief and Loss.