Grief and Loss: How to Support someone in Grief AND take care of YOU at the same time
“How do I support a loved one who has lost someone?”
“What do I say?”
“What do I do?”
“What if I feel its too much for me?”
Have you had someone you know experience a loss and then found yourself feeling unsure of how to support them?
Maybe you avoided them because you did not know what to say or do?
Or maybe you brought them a lot of gifts hoping to ease their emotional pain or make the grief go away?
Maybe you found yourself making endless jokes and using humour more than you normally would?
And what about checking in with yourself. How did YOU cope?
Being alongside someone else’s’ grief, and I refer to this role as a “supporter”, is challenging. I have found people’s own fears and anxieties around grief and loss interfere with their good intent to support someone and as a result they may either “back off”, instead of “lean in”, not helping anyone in that situation, or get too involved, putting their own mental and emotional wellness at risk.
Working within grief and loss coaching, I not only work alongside clients going through their own grief but help clients wanting some coaching around how to support a loved one experiencing grief.
This prompted me to put together a brief article addressing 2 items:
1.How to support a loved one experiencing grief
2. How to take care of yourself when you are a support
*Please note that grief is a reaction to a loss, and not limited to a death of a loved one
It is important to be a support but equally important to get support yourself. Through my work and personal experiences, I have observed the following experiences:
Mental and Emotional Impact:
- You may also be grieving as you may have had a relationship with the same person (or pet!).
- You may experience vicarious grief (experiencing someone else’s losses and it becomes your loss).
- You may experience emotional and mental distress such as compassion fatigue
- You may feel frustrated and a sense of holpessness as often we may act on instinct to want to make things better or “fix” things.
- It could be a trigger (subconscious or conscious) for you, surfacing your own past trauma and grief
Changes and Challenges in the Relationship:
You may distance yourself from the griever: Our own emotions can be challenging enough to recognize and process, and face let alone someone else’s emotions, and we may feel uncomfortable with our own emotional reaction and experience around someone else’s grief and their emotions. This can discomfort can result in “pulling away” to help ease the anxiety and emotional disturbance you may feel
The griever may distance themselves form you: Grief is a deeply complex and personal journey. You may notice the griever pull away from you. This is likely nothing to do with what you did/didn’t do, who you are or what you did/didn’t say but rather their own reaction because of what they are experiencing. This can be very difficult as you may instinctively take things personally.
So, understanding how a close one’s grief can impact you, how do you support someone and at the same time ensure a healthy mental and emotional state of well-being?
How to Be a Support:
- Don’t wait for them to reach out to you, reach out to them
- More importantly keep reaching out to them and no, you are not “bothering” them, and no, they likely do not have a lot of people and support and often the support starts dwindling as the time of death/loss grows further away.
- Sure, ask “how can I support you” but take initiative. A person in grief may not know or identify what support they need, and they may also feel uncomfortable asking for help. Focus on small acts of kindness and “administrative” tasks such as ordering groceries, driving them to an appointment, offering to do some garden work,
- Live your life and share it. Grief is exhausting. The person in grief will not want to talk about their grief all the time. Listening to you and your life stories and experiences can give them a sense of normality, comfort and distraction and a break from all the grieving
- Listen and hold space. No, there is no “right” thing to say. Sometimes the only thing needed is to just be present with that person, with empathy and compassion.
- JUST BE YOU. That’s right. Someone experiencing loss will need a sense of safety, security, a sense of normality. They will also need a break from the grief. Your friendship and just being your usual self can help them by providing them with all this. This is particularly important with traumatic grief.
How to Support Yourself
- Acknowledge and nurture your own grief: You may be in grief yourself if it is a loss for you too or you might experience vicarious grief (taking on and experiencing the loss of someone else’s loss. Either way it is important to set some time for yourself to explore what may be going on for you and getting support for yourself.
- Educate yourself on the grieving process. You do not have to become an expert but reading a little about the grieving process may help you understand what they may be going through and what you might experience yourself.Here is a great resource from the Canadian Hospice Palliative Care https://www.chpca.ca/resource/grief-and-bereavement-resource-repository/
- Know your boundaries and be cognizant of the role you choose to take on: The extent to which you will be in someone else’s grieving journey is up to you, particularly mentally and emotionally. And it can be a lot. You want to recognize, identify and implement boundaries, including emotional, energy, physical, mental and spiritual ones.
- Be direct and honest with your communication-both to yourself and the griever: This will help you with setting those boundaries. This is especially important not only for your own mental health but for the griever as well. You do not want to promise that you will “be there” for them when you cannot fulfill that promise. It is best to set the boundaries (emotional, physical, mental, energy) from the start.
- Make sure have a solid self-care plan in place, your own support and resources and know when to see a professional yourself.
So now that I have mentioned a few pointers of what TO do to help support the griever and support YOU, there are some things of what NOT to do when supporting someone in their grieving journey.
I want to share with you my BIG 5 and examples of them. Try not to:
JUDGE: “I think they are crying this much just to get attention”, “They didn’t even shed a tear at the funeral, what kind of person is that?”
ASSUME: “They aren’t that upset I mean I saw them out dancing last night”. “They obviously didn’t care or they would be crying”
MINIMIZE and DISENFRANCHISE: “Her Mother was 96 years old anyways”, “It’s was just a pet rabbit”, “It could be worse, at least they didn’t lose their home”
TAKE THEIR STORY AWAY FROM THEM (i.e., make it about you): “I know when I lost my job this is what it was like for me” (and on you go about yourself), “Now you are making me remember my old cat (and then talk about your grief)
RUSH THEM: “Your brother died over a year ago, don’t you think you need to go back to work?”, ” Why don’t you just get another dog, its been 3 months!”
And these 5 behaviours? Yeah, this goes for you too. Don’t judge your emotions. Don’t assume your reactions. Don’t minimize the strength and courage it takes t be a support. Don’t rush yourself. Lastly, do not TAKE ON THEIR PAIN AND IGNORE YOUR EMOTIONS
I’d like to end by saying thank you. Choosing to be a support alongside someone else’s grief is an emotionally courageous journey. It can also be one of healing, learning and self-development. Just remember that it also takes courage to know your limitations. Don’t lose yourself in trying to help someone else. and make sure to seek support for YOU
This article is in memory of my Dad, who passed away in September 2021.Never has an experience taught me more about the valleys of emotional pain, the depth of unconditional love and the strength and resiliency of we all have in us. I want to thank all those who have supported me: friends, family, neighbours, and clients. It is through the journey of others that I have found comfort, healing, hope and a way forward.
However long the night, the dawn will break
-Hausa (African) Proverb