Grief – How to be an Informed & Effective Supporter

Grief is a normal and natural experience. Regardless of our education or experience, at some point we all experience loss. This loss may present as the death of a loved one. It may also be the conflicting feelings brought about by a change in what was familiar; the things in our life we wished had been different; all our lost dreams; or even unresolved emotions driven by unsaid communications. Regardless of the cause of our loss, as a griever, we are usually ill-equipped to identify and process our emotions.

As someone offering support to a griever, we have even fewer tools. We have never been taught, nor fully understood, that grief is an emotional experience. It is not something we can think our way out of. This is an opportunity to understand the grieving process on a deeper level and gain helpful strategies to use when stepping into the role of supporter.  You will become not only more informed but more effective in your interactions with those who are grieving.

From a griever’s perspective, they may reach for 1, if not all, of the 6 common myths. These include: a belief their feelings don’t matter; it is safer to isolate from those who could support them; they may replace the loss with food or activity; they could attempt to be strong for others; stay busy; or even wait for time to heal their wounds.

As an individual in the role of supporting a griever, with our desire to help our friend or family member process their emotional pain, we may unknowingly substantiate these myths. Many times, it is because we don’t know how to support someone who is grieving.

If we change the subject because their grief makes us feel uncomfortable, we deny them the time to express their emotions. Or we could unwittingly push their experience aside as we share our own journey of loss, mistakenly believing that our sharing offers support and understanding. Both examples send a message that it is not safe to be vulnerable and to be totally honest with how they are feeling. These messages, even if unintended, encourage the griever to pull away.

We may hesitate to mention the name of the person who is no longer in our friend or family’s life, believing this will only remind them of their loss. In fact, the person is very familiar with the loss, they need no reminding. However, mentioning their name sends a message to the griever that we remember the person and their life, or their time with that person, mattered.

We have been taught by our well-meaning parents that when a loss is experienced, we can lessen or remove the emotional pain, by replacing the loss. Our first experience is usually the death of an animal companion. Our parent(s) will tell us not to feel bad, they will get us another dog. In our teen years our friends encourage us to find another partner, immediately following a painful breakup. When we lose our job, we are told to find another. Replacing the loss does not mend a broken heart. While in a supporting role please avoid this suggestion.

Because we have been taught to intellectualize an emotional experience we tend to criticize, analyze, or judge the experience. As the support person, we believe it is helpful to try to assist the person to understand their experience, to take sides, or offer our advice or opinion. Grieving people do not need to be fixed. Judging the person who broke their heart only adds to this heartache as it can send the message that somehow this situation was their fault due to poor judgment. A grieving person needs a safe place to share their emotions. They want to be listened to with dignity and respect. What they need, more than anything, is for you to be a “heart with ears”.

Instead of listening and crying with them we believe we must wear a brave face. We must be strong and not express our emotions, which can be an impossible task. When we can be vulnerable, we set an example by honestly sharing how we are feeling, and this gives the griever permission to do the same.

We are told to stay busy and usually in the supportive role we encourage this. We offer to take our friend/family to lunch, to the movies, shopping, etc. The reality is that busyness only serves to bury their emotional pain under an avalanche of activity and delays the healing that needs to be done.

In the role of the support person, we often reach for intellectual statements which are not helpful. How many times have you said, “I’m sorry for your loss?” or “You should be over this by now”. A study completed in 1984 discovered there were 141 statements so commonly spoken that as a griever there was a 95% chance you were most likely to hear most of them in the first 72 hours after experiencing a loss. Of the 141 statements, 19 are actually helpful!

A few intellectual statements we have been taught to say, which are not helpful:

  • I know how you feel.
  • Be strong for…
  • Be grateful you had them so long.
  • Keep busy.
  • They had a full life.
  • It was God’s will.
  • You should be over it by now.
  • It just takes time.

Some helpful, emotional statements we could offer instead, which would encourage conversation and aid in the griever’s healing:

  • Could you tell me about your loss?
  • What happened?
  • How did you find out?
  • I can’t imagine how painful – devastating – heartbreaking – that must have been for you?
  • What was your relationship like?
  • How does this feel for you?

As a support person, please recognize it is normal and natural for the griever to:

  • review a relationship and discover things they wish had ended differently
  • realize the loss has ended some of their hopes, dreams, and expectations for the future
  • discover some things they wish had been said or not said.

If grieving is normal and natural, than the feelings they experience after a loss must also be normal and natural. We live in a society that makes us feel like we are inadequate in our attempts to heal. In a supporting role we can often feel even more ineffective. These strategies will help change this.

If we can remember grieving is an emotional experience which cannot be thought away, we are headed in the right direction. To understand the myths, we have been taught to reach for, do nothing to move us forward, and we can choose not to use them. And finally, to use helpful, emotional statements which allow the griever to feel heard and in turn lets the support person feel they are offering effective support when our friend/family needs us most.