I’ve alluded to this before, but I’ll say it point blank: from January 2014 to June 2015, 9 people in my life passed away. They died of heart failure, blood clots, burns, young and old age. Plus the murderers of a childhood friend were sentenced. And a tree died. Some of my dreams died. My roommate’s dog started to die but we didn’t know it yet. It was kind of a lot.
Over that year and a half, I got pretty good at telling people why I’d be out of town again, at hiding that I was still grieving (or grieving again), at visitation small talk, at selecting photos for slide shows, at giving warm hugs without sobbing, and at thanking strangers for coming.
Lately, I’ve watched various people in my life experience intense loss. So here are 7 ways to care for a grieving person, learned from being the one grieving.
–Say something. More to the point, don’t say nothing. Avoid platitudes, but a platitude is better than nothing. Say you’re sorry. Ask me about a favorite memory of the person. Don’t ignore it because you’re nervous or uncomfortable. That’s horribly selfish. Don’t be afraid to bring up my loved one or say their name. Even if it just happened. Even if it was two weeks ago and you just found out. Even if it’s been months.
–Listen. Listen to what I say. Listen to what I don’t say. Let me guide the tone and topic for a week or so, especially when the funeral or death comes up. And if you conveyed your sympathy, I thanked you, then I started talking about work or asking about you, don’t keep dragging our conversation back to my grief. Maybe I really don’t want to delve those depths right now.
–Don’t harp. I’m not the only person who has lost someone and neither are you. Mention that a family member died but don’t tell me the whole saga of your grandmother’s slow demise unless I ask multiple questions. Your harping makes me feel like I should be comforting you. Your grief is no less legitimate than mine, but mine is also quite new. Please don’t make my pain about you.
–Do something tangible. What you’ll do will depend on how well you know me. My roommate would vacuum and tidy up while I was gone and be available when I got home in case I wanted company or a distraction. When I did want to talk, she asked how my family was doing, if the service went okay, if everyone behaved well. (That could be it’s own tip: don’t cause drama. Pity it ever needs saying.) The day we had to put the dog to sleep, a friend texted and said he wanted to bring us KFC for lunch.
–Take initiative. Saying, “Can I bring dinner by tomorrow? I’ll leave it on your porch” is way better than “Let me know if there’s anything I can do.” A dozen other people have said the same thing to me, and I don’t know that they all meant it. Assuming you did mean it, no matter what I need or how much I need it, I don’t want to inconvenience you. But if you take the initiative, I can either say “Thank you” or “Would you mind waiting until next week?” or “I really appreciate that, but I’d rather get coffee with you and talk. Could we do that instead?”
–Pain is pain. My friend told me this nine years ago. Her fiance had just called off their wedding and she couldn’t understand why a lady in her church, who had recently suffered a miscarriage, had reached out to her to offer encouragement. “Your loss is so much greater than mine,” my friend had said to the woman. And the woman had answered, “Pain is pain.” All pain is not the same, and maybe you don’t understand why I’m grieving so much over the death of my roommate’s dog or the falling of that tree. Just know it was important to me, and so the loss is painful.
–Don’t tell me I’m grieving wrong. You aren’t helping by criticizing how much or little you saw me cry. Maybe I’m much better at acting okay than you think. Maybe this is my third funeral in two weeks and I’m a bit numb. Maybe I wanted the woman in the casket to hold my babies and I just saw how much yours have grown. I’m working through this is my own way. You don’t have to understand to respect it.