Updated: Oct 19, 2021
Grief is something we will all encounter in our lives; after all, we all know people, and we all know that people die, so it’s obvious we will all deal with grief at some point. Hopefully, those times will be rare, but that may not necessarily be the case for all of us.
A lot of people in my life have died. I have a rare skin condition that, although it won’t be the cause of my death, in its more severe forms, it’s complications can be fatal. Through this skin condition I am incredibly fortunate to know lots of other people with the condition; part of loving so many people with it means that we lose a lot of people too. It’s always heartbreaking and, no matter how many times it happens, it never, ever, gets easier.
Before this past 11 months, the most people in my life that have died in a year has been three. That’s a lot. This past almost a year has been worse; I have lost five friends. Not just people I know, but people I have sat up late talking to; people I hug when I see them; people I have shared bits of me that many people don’t see. Two of those people have been two of my closest friends. Those two friends would be the friends I would be talking to now (both of them were talented writers and they would be so pleased I am writing again, even it ends up being just this piece). But, I can’t. At least, I can’t get a response from them when I do talk to them.
So, I know quite a bit about grief. I have supported people through it and I have lived, am living, with it. And I thought that, as well as being helpful for me to write it, it may be helpful to some of you to read it.
Grief, without exception, is hard, and, as with all feelings, it’s important that everyone’s motions are heard and validated. There is no wrong way to grieve. We can all only do what it takes to get us through each day and hope that, each day, it becomes easier to smile.
As it’s been an all too regular occurrence, I have realised that most people do not know how to be around a grieving person. That could be because it’s hard to be reminded of our own, or those we love’s, mortality, or reminded of those we have already lost. It could be that, although we will all encounter death, that we have never learned how to respond effectively. It could be for many reasons. However, I thought it might be helpful, as a person grieving, to give you some guidelines. You can read them and decide they are the wisest points ever, or that they are a pile of nonsense; you are entitled to have your opinion, just as I am to have mine, and these are what I would request of people attempting to support me.
The sympathetic head tilt.
Equally, saying, “Awwww”.
This is not helpful. The intention behind it is understandable; it’s done with kindness; however, all it demonstrates is that you don’t know what to say. It’s okay to not know what to say. Say that! Say, “I don’t know what to say but can I give you a hug?” Say, “I don’t know what to say but I will happily listen to you tell me about your friend.” We will never get to create new memories with the people we love that have died so it’s really important to be able to talk about the ones we have, so they remain part of our lives.
Show, don’t tell.
During this intense, and previous, grieving periods, I have had lots of people tell me they love me. It’s wonderful to feel that people love you and it’s very kind of people to say it. However, love is more than a word; it’s an action. Don’t tell me you love me then not ask how I am, or offer to support me. Or, if you have so much going on in your life that you can’t offer that, say that. Say, “I love you [person that is grieving], but, right now, I have no energy left to offer anyone, but, when I see you, I will give you a big hug.” Maybe offer to go to the cinema together; that will show you want to spend time together and you’ll have the film to talk about. Grief is very lonely; showing someone you care by being there physically, even if you can’t quite do emotionally, (as long as you have expressed that you don’t have the emotional ability currently) will mean a lot. Be honest. Grief is a big thing for someone to carry, whether it’s you feeling the grief or being the person to help carry it; if you don’t have the strength to carry it, say so; if you just avoid the person grieving, they will believe you don’t care and that will be another grief for them to carry.
Listen even when they are not saying anything. If you text or phone and they don’t respond, don’t be annoyed; maybe they can’t people right now. Text them (sometimes voicemails can feel intrusive) and say that you were just messaging to see how they are and that you will message again another day. We need to know you care and that you aren’t angry that we can’t communicate verbally right now. If you have messaged every day for a while (whatever that while means to you) and you have seen no signs of life, message and say that you are worried about them, that you know that they aren’t up to talking, but please could they just tell you they are still alive so you don’t feel the need to go and knock down their front door.
Listen to what they are not saying. We know that people sometimes aren’t good at talking about feelings so, in true stiff upper lip fashion, we may go, “I’m fine” when asked how we are. Most people who say they are fine are far from it. If someone says this to you, ask them another question that may get more of a response. Say, “You might not want to talk about it, and that’s okay, but I am here to listen if you would like to tell me that you really aren’t fine.”
Listen to what they are saying. If you have tried to get them to talk and they don’t want to, and they have told you time and again they don’t want to, believe them. But don’t stop contacting them. Send texts, cards, gifts. Let them know that, although they may not want to talk, you still care. If they do talk, listen with the intent of hearing, not responding; don’t interrupt. If you can’t comprehend the pain they are in, or what they are saying, again, be honest, say that; tell them that what they are saying is beyond your understanding right now but, goodness!, it all sounds incredibly hard and that you may not have words of wisdom but you can offer a hand to hold. It’s okay to not understand every emotion someone else has but it’s important that, if someone is sharing it with you, you listen with kindness.
Don’t say, “Call me if you need anything”.
It’s understandable why people say this. We feel we are helping. But, it’s also a way of putting more responsibility on the person grieving. That person is already struggling; they may not know what they want or need; they may not know how to ask for it; they may think you don’t mean it, that it’s just a platitude; and they already have too much to think about.
Instead, offer suggestions. Ask if they need anything when you do a supermarket shop. Ask if they would like to meet for a coffee and a chat; tell them you would like to know more about the person they are grieving because they were obviously wonderful for people to be grieving them, but that you are also equally happy to sit in silence reading books over a hot chocolate and a slice of cake. Keep inviting them to things; they may say no but it will be important for them to feel included. Offer specific things, not just general comments. Take responsibility to be their friend and help them. Ensure they know you expect nothing of them. If they say they need teabags when you are shopping, ask if they would prefer it for you to leave them on the doorstep, so they know you aren’t expecting a conversation but that you are happy to chat if they would like to.
Remember that the funeral doesn’t always give closure.
Funerals, although tear-inducing affairs, can also be quite wonderful. They are a chance to say a public goodbye and spend a few hours talking to people who also loved the person you are grieving for, without feeling that you are boring them.
However, the next morning, and many mornings after that, when they wake up, the grief is still there. Respect that. Continue to treat the person tenderly until they have demonstrated to you that, although their grief will always be a part of them, they are now back to their variation of normal. You will know whether they are faking it because you will have shown by now how great a friend you are because you will have been following the previous points.
Think about the language you use around the person grieving.
In our current vernacular, we use words that, in their true meaning, have such depth and power, but they have been utilised to mean something less. Think about those words. Think about what you are going to say before you say it. Don’t say that you feel so poorly you feel like you are dying, when you know you are not; just say you feel really rough. Don’t say you are dying for a cup of tea; just say you are desperate for a cuppa instead. Often, those words will slide over the listeners, because they are so much part of our language now, but, to someone already feeling surrounded by death, those words can be jarring.
Don’t make assumptions.
Just because your grieving friend is out wearing neon, clubbing until dawn, don’t assume they are “okay now”; maybe they are; but, maybe, they are out dancing to trance to block out the noises in their head, throwing back vodka because it numbs the pain. Ask them how they are. Refer to point 3 and listen to their answer, the one coming from their mouth and their actions.
Just because your friend is “carrying on as normal”, don’t assume that anything feels normal to them. Understand that they may have a job to do and they still need to get paid. Understand that they may need to be occupied with something else.
Don’t assume that, because your friend is grieving, they don’t want to be included. Maybe, what they really need is to be surrounded by friends as you all go and scream at a boy band or at a rally. Still invite them to things, even if they keep saying no. Ensure they know that you still care and that you still want their company, even if they are currently only capable of crying and monosyllabic utterances.
Don’t assume that, because they are smiling and laughing, there isn’t still pain. Life is full of so many emotions and, hopefully, we are all capable of feeling more that one of them in a day.
Don’t assume you know what they are feeling.
Treat others as you want to be treated.
This is an adage that many of us claim to live by yet, in many circumstances, we will expect things of some people that we would not expect from ourselves, and we do things that, in similar circumstances, we wouldn’t want done to us.
When you have a grieving person in your life, think about how you would like to be treated. Think about what you would like your friends to do, what you would like help with, what you would need. Then be that person to the person that needs you right now.
If there are any other words of wisdom you would like to add, please do, but, remember, if you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all.