How To Help If Someone You Know Is Grieving

Their relationship was tumultuous, passion can be that way, but for the past several years it had been surprisingly strong. They shared a joy for their dogs, they loved to go to the cabin in the woods, and they spoke often of the plans they were making for the future. They were both sill young, not even 40, and there would be plenty of time to enjoy each other.

Then one day, while she was visiting in another state, his diabetes went out of control, and he died, alone in their bathroom. She wasn’t there to help him, she wasn’t even there to say good-bye.

Did you get nervous just then, when I said the “D” word?

Today, approximately 300,000 people died. Some died by accident. Others by murder. Some by overeating. Others from starvation. Some died while still in the womb. Others of old age. Some died of thirst. Others of drowning. Each died their death as they must. Some died in surrender. Others died in confusion. There are 6 billion of us on the earth, and 6 billion must be dead, on a schedule within this lifetime.” From Who Dies?, by Steven Levine.

We live in a society conditioned to deny death, so I wouldn’t be surprised if some of you get a little anxious around the subject. We watch on the news, in the safety of our living rooms, of a mother and daughter whose bodies were found, and a mother whose body is being looked for in the landfill, but that’s far away from us. We are still alive, and to speak of death to someone we know personally reminds us of our own mortality. Most of us would rather not think about that.

In the past I’ve written about the stages of grief, but what if you aren’t the one who is grieving? What can you do to be of help if someone you know has experienced a loss?

In their training for grief counselors, Hospice of the Valley offers several suggestions. First, if you can possibly do so, listen. Believe it or not, talking about the loss actually helps the griever. Remembering gives solace. It brings tears, but not more pain. So don’t get the idea that you must always distract the person who is grieving. Sometimes they don’t want to be distracted, and enjoy the opportunity to talk about the loss to someone who can listen without freaking out.

Physical loneliness is another reality for someone who has experienced the loss of a loved one, and touch of some sort can be a great source of comfort. As you can imagine this is a very tricky topic. Please don’t get the idea that everyone who is grieving wants you to run right up and hug them. The usual courtesy around physical contact should be taken into consideration. It’s probably not a good idea to grab someone in the produce section of Bashas’ and give them a hug. But, if you are speaking to someone you know fairly well, you may want to keep the need for touch in mind. Personally, I always ask before I touch someone. “Do you mind if I touch your shoulder?” “Is it okay to hold your hand?”

Most bereaved people are too emotionally stressed to reach out or ask for help, they try to tough it out and go it alone. So it is especially beneficial if you are capable of offering support while the person is rebuilding their life. You may even have to take the initiative and suggest ways that you can be together, because of course, they are toughing it out alone. It is really important not to be too possessive or to encourage dependency however. The survivor is in a very vulnerable position, and it would be quite harmful to move in too fast and try to form a relationship that gets your own needs met. (This means don’t become a lover, stay a supportive friend.)

Finally, be patient. Grieving takes a long time, it is a process that cannot be hurried. Experts agree that the first six months are the most difficult, and the time when help is really appreciated. The bereaved person will typically experience a lift in mood after six months, and then again at about 18 months. Acute grief can last as long as three years, or longer. It’s nice to have at least one friend who understands this. On some level, most of us are nervous around issues dealing with death. We want those who are close to us to get over it, so we can forget our own discomfort. But the truth is, healing takes time.

In conclusion, I have to share two quotes from John Lennon,

If there’s anything that you want, If there’s anything I can do,
Just call on me, And I’ll send it along with love from me to you.

Because of course,

I get by with a little help from my friends.