It was the summer of 2012 when I lost both my paternal grandparents within a month of each other. While, yes, I had my own grief experience, I was more impacted by witnessing my dad's grief around the loss of his parents.
The summer my grandparents passed was the first summer I spent away from home; I was continuing to study and live my college life in Duluth, MN. I spent some time at home to go to the funerals and be with my family. Following the funerals, when everyone had gone back to their daily lives, my dad and I were sitting at his kitchen table playing cribbage (something we do quite often). Although this is typically seen as a bonding activity for us, this time it was simply being used as a distraction. It was the only thing I knew to offer to ease the pain as I saw the father I love dearly hurting so much. I felt so helpless in that moment. I had no idea what to say as I knew nothing I could say would give my dad what he truly wanted...his parents back.
Have you felt this way when supporting a loved one who's grieving? It's not uncommon! Often times, when we're witnessing our loved ones grieving, we can be left wondering "What do I say?" or "What should I be doing?". This leads us to saying or doing one of the common reactions of someone trying to provide support to those who are grieving. What are some of these common reactions? I'm glad you asked! Let's take a look at some...(***please keep in mind these reactions may not be true for everyone.)
Familiar good intentioned phrases following a common loss:
"He/she is in a better place"
"At least they are no longer suffering"
"Look at it this way..."
Another common reaction is quite the opposite of communicating the above statements; avoidance. Those who are supporting someone who is grieving may ask themselves, "What if I say the wrong thing?" or, my thought process when supporting my dad, "There's nothing I can say that would make him/her feel better." So what do we do with these fears/uncertainties/discomforts? We may find the best solution is to avoid engaging in conversation about the loss with our loved one. Not because we don't care but because we don't want to risk making the situation worse. And while these common phrases and actions come from a place of love and care, to someone who is grieving they can be heard/seen as invalidating, dismissive, and insensitive.
Real Reflections: (a new element in my blogs...take a moment to reflect on the question below to better apply what you're learning to your situation.)
What have you noticed to be your biggest obstacle when supporting someone who's grieving?
So what does someone who's grieving truly need? This can vary from person to person so the best way to answer this question to ask your loved one "What do you need?" or "How can I best support you?". Some may be able to provide you with an answer and others may not. They may not be able to provide an answer because they aren't sure of what they want or they may not know how to describe what they're needing. Here are two things you can do that are always needed whether you're given an answer or not. Be EMPATHIC towards your loved one and VALIDATE his/her experience. One of the most important and valuable things you can give to someone who is grieving is validation. It provides him/her with strength and helps him/her feel a little less alone in his/her grief.
How do I validate and provide empathy towards my loved one's grief experience? You can do this by saying something as simple as, "That sounds really tough" in response to your loved one sharing his/her grief experience. You may also choose to do this by sitting in your loved one's grief with him/her. Now by this, I'm not saying take on his/her grief as your own. Rather, I'm encouraging you to just sit and be with your loved one while he/she cries, gets angry, shares memories, questions/processes the loss, etc.
In the act of validating and being empathic, if you feel inclined to ask questions, do so! One of the most common fears I hear from my clients who are grieving is, "I don't want people to forget my mom/father/son/daughter/brother/sister/partner/friend". So, if it feels okay with your loved one who's grieving, respectfully ask about the person they lost. Or, even better, share a memory of your own about the person they lost.
"What's your fondest memory..."
"What was his/her favorite thing?"
"Do you remember when/I remember when..."
How might you be able to validate and be empathic towards others during their grief journey?
Anytime we're providing support, care for others, or under any sort of stress, our self-care is often times the first thing to go. It's so important to remember to attend to our own well-being because if we aren't taking care of ourselves, we can't begin to show up as our best selves for others.
Many clients get confused or are uncertain as to what self-care really means and what it looks like. Self-care is anything that provides you with a sense of feeling recharged/refueled. It can take many different forms: you may look like the gif to the upper right, it may be engaging in various hobbies, relaxation, fitness, socializing, reading, gardening, etc. There really is no right or wrong way to attend to your self-care. There are, however, warning signs to mindful of that may tell you the activity you're doing is not feeding that self-care need:
The activity begins to feel like a chore; i.e. something we "have to do"
Engaging in the activity results in more stress and restlessness
Another common question I'll get is, "How can I tell when I need self-care?" There are a few things I encourage you to pay attention to (maybe you want to take note right now...go ahead, grab a pen and paper :))
What do you notice physically? Are you experiencing more tension or are you more restless than normal?
Has anything changed for you mentally? Are you experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression? Are you finding yourself saying, "I just haven't felt like myself/my best self lately"?
Have you noticed shifts in your emotions? Are you more irritable? Quicker to anger? Feeling a sense of burnout? Compassion/caregiver fatigue?
If any of these three areas are low/feeling empty, that's a pretty good sign you're in need of self-care. Of course, self-care is not the end all be all "cure"; you may benefit from finding support for yourself whether that be from your personal support system, therapy groups, or individual therapy.
How do you self-care?
Grief is a tough experience for everyone involved. Everyone grieves differently and everyone asks and receives support differently. Everyone's capacity to provide support varies. THESE ARE ALL OKAY!
Be gentle, empathic, and mindful to yourself and those who are grieving.
Here's to living a better life as your best self.
Brittany Squillace, MA, LMFT