The last few weeks have been sad as we’ve been surrounded by death. Nationally, the news of the 215 indigenous children who were found buried at the residential school and locally, the horrific hate crime that happened to the Afzaal family. For many there have been other deaths that have touched their lives as people have lost loved ones to illness, accidents, and suicide. As our hearts go out to our friends and neighbours how do we help them?
Grief is a natural response to loss. It’s the emotional suffering you feel when something or someone you love is taken away. Often, the pain of loss can feel overwhelming. People may experience all kinds of difficult and unexpected emotions, from shock or anger to disbelief, guilt, and profound sadness. The pain of grief can also disrupt physical health, making it difficult to sleep, eat, or even think straight. These are normal reactions to loss, and the more significant the loss, the more intense grief can be. Understanding that everyone grieves in their own way is essential to being there for someone else.
People do not get to choose how they grieve; it is a natural progression through difficult emotions, which swirl around and come at unexpected times. Often the grieving person does not even understand what is happening to them. Comments about how they are grieving or what they should be doing can often make someone feel that they are grieving wrong, which hurts.
Grief is where unconditional love can shine and be healing. Their loss is theirs so do not make it about you. In other times, thinking of how you would handle it is a good navigation technique to understand someone else but in grief it does not work as you might grieve very different from them. Staying focused on their needs and wants will help with the uncomfortable moments when you do not know what to do because its not about knowing the “right” thing to do. Its about being there for your friend and loved one. They might want to reminisce, do an activity, cry, or just sit in silence and having you there helps.
In the moments when you see them its often hard to know what to say so here are some suggestions:
Honestly, I don’t know what to say.
I miss him/her too. My favourite memory of your loved one is ____.
Be specific about what you can offer. Example: I’m available on Tuesday or Friday to walk your dog, do your laundry or take your kids to the park. What would be most helpful?
My heart is hurting with you.
I’m so sorry for your loss.
I’m here to listen.
I missed the chance to get to know your loved one. I’d like to meet him/her through your memories. What was he/she like?
I can’t imagine how hard it must be to face these days without your loved one. Are there particular times of the day or days of the week you find especially hard?
You are not alone. I am here.
Here are some examples of you should not say, although well-meaning, these sentences may feel wounding to a griever or fail to communicate the empathy you’re intending:
Call me if you need anything. (Instead, be specific on what you can do.)
It’s been a week/month/year. Are you over it now?
God won’t give you more than you can handle.
Time heals all wounds.
God must have something to teach you through this loss.
At least you have other children. At least you can get married again. At least . . .
I miss the person you were before your loss.
When will you be your old self again?
I know how you feel.
It’s good that your loved one isn’t suffering anymore.
It could be worse. I know someone who has experienced a more devastating loss than yours.
Grief does not end when the funeral is over. Stay connected to them so you can be aware of challenging anniversaries or times of year. Don’t assume it is the loved one’s birthday, a holiday or the death date. Allow the grieving friend to let you know when its hard, instead of prompting it because that can come across as they are not grieving right if it does not hurt on those days.
Navigating this can be difficult so remember to be compassionate to yourself as well. If you feel that you have hurt your friend or loved one, then apologized and ask what they need. This will help to make your friendship stronger. Grief is hard, it is sad, and it is a part of our lives. My heart goes out to everyone of you who has lost a loved one.