Kindness in times of grief

Recently, a new friend (made on Twitter, bless it) has had a terrible shock and has been grieving.

My heart bleeds for her as hers bleeds for her friend who is fighting for life, and it made me think that it might be time to share some things I have learned in recent years about grief.

The first is that grief is almost never what you think it will be.

Before I had ever lost someone, or had to watch someone I loved suffer, I guess I thought grief was how it appeared in movies.  Not that it’s portrayed the same way all the time in movies, but the point was that I think I thought that grief was something that you could see – in tears, in white faces, in rages, in talking – and that it was something limited.  Movies end, after all.  None of that is very sensible, when you think about it, but I guess the point was that I hadn’t really thought about it.  Not much.

Before I’d experienced it, I didn’t know that grief can happen before a person dies and that death isn’t the only cause of grief.  You can grieve for loss of function, for loss of hopes, for changes that they didn’t want to make.  You can grieve for the hardship inflicted on their families by their suffering.  You can grieve for their anger, frustration and pain.  You can also grieve for your own.

That was another thing that I didn’t know.  That grief can take the form of all sorts of emotions.  It’s not just sadness, or even misery.  It’s also rage.  Along with Dylan Thomas, we rage against the dying of the light, sometimes.  It can be a piercing pain, in the middle of a laugh, when you suddenly remember.  It can be irritability and headaches and general fatigue and tiredness.  A general wish to go to bed and stay there has been a common factor in many episodes of grief, for me.

I also learnt that a lot of grieving is done alone.  When a grandparent dies, you control your own weeping in front of their grandchild, because that child needs your support.  They need to learn to handle their own grief; they can’t handle yours as well.  When you go back to work, people are helpful and friendly and supportive for a while.  But they expect you to get over it, at least in their presence.  They have their own troubles.  They can’t do anything for your pain and they don’t really want to deal with your pain as well as theirs.  And even if they should be compassionate, it isn’t really fair to ask them to be, when you don’t even know yourself how long this will go on.

If that sounds critical of the non-grievers, it isn’t meant to be.  I didn’t start this post for that reason.  Quite the opposite in fact.  I wanted to offer some suggestions for people who are near someone who’s grieving.  For people who do care but who don’t know what to do.  So, from my experience of being both the griever and the supporter, for what they’re worth, here are my suggestions.

1. Don’t ever say to a bereaved person, ‘I don’t know what to say’.  I know it’s true, but it puts the responsibility for your discomfort back on the bereaved person and leaves them in a position of having to reassure you that ‘that’s okay’, which, if you think about it, is really not fair.  Instead, say something like ‘I know there’s nothing I can say that will lessen your loss, but I want you to know that I’m very sorry.’

2. Unless you are on the grieving person’s speed dial list already, don’t say, ‘call me if you need anything.’  I have been guilty of this one myself.  This isn’t unfair, like the one above.  It’s always meant well and it may be sincere, but it’s meaningless.  They aren’t going to call you.  If they’re really grief-stricken, or struggling with an accident victim or whatever, they will be having trouble remembering to brush their teeth, much less call other people.

If you really want to help, just do stuff.  Take them a casserole or a cake and while you’re at it, throw in some milk and bread.  Bereaved households are forever making cups of tea and coffee for visitors and often lack the physical and emotional energy to get to the shops. I will never forget the experience of my uncle dying and one of my cousins saying ‘I never knew if it was the right thing to do, to take a casserole.  Now I do.’

There are some things that you can’t just ‘do’ as they need organising and/or permission.  If you know of something like that, offer help with that thing and make it specific.  For example, ‘I can take the kids to school on Mondays and Wednesdays – would that help?’  ‘I’ve got some time on the weekend.  Do you want me to mow the lawn?’ Specific offers are more useful, as sometimes the organisation is the hardest part of accessing help.  If you can’t think past that hospital bed, you can’t get think far enough ahead to organise someone to mow the lawn.  If you’re crippled with grief, it’s all you can do to get out of bed and make the lunches.  You can’t organise a school-run roster.  If you genuinely want to help, do the thinking as well as the grunt work.  The specific offer is also easier to turn down, if it’s not helpful, without feeling as though you are rejecting the offerer’s goodwill.

3. Stay in touch.  When there’s a death in the family, there is a lot to do.  There are people to notify, the funeral to organise, emotions to hose down, not to mention wills and finances to handle.  It’s always seemed the cruellest part of death that all those ‘things’ don’t go away.  But on the other hand, they can take your mind off the feelings.  So it is sometimes when they are over all of that ‘stuff’ that the bereaved most need your help.

This is a case where it can be helpful to say ‘if you need me…’, because this is in the context of ‘if you need someone to talk to’.  If you really are willing to listen to the person cry and rant and generally be messily emotional all over you, let them know.  They might not have anyone else they can do that with.  But it goes without saying that you should only offer if you are able and willing to cope.  And, because of the whole ‘can’t even get organised to brush teeth’ thing, if you offer, it’s even more important to…

Stay in touch.  Call.  Email.  Drop in, if you are on those terms.  Keep inviting the bereaved person to things, even if they don’t come.  Include them.  Offer to take them out for coffee.  Stay connected.  And don’t be offended if they say no, or can’t talk now.  Grief takes us all differently and some days are worse than others.  But knowing that you aren’t alone, even if you don’t feel able to fully engage, can be a great support.  And don’t be offended if they DON’T want to talk about their grief.  Sometimes normality – and the assurance it brings that life actually does go on – is the greatest gift you can give.  As Joyce Grenfell would say, “Weep if you must, parting is hell.  But life goes on, so sing as well.”

I hope this hasn’t been a downer.  It just felt like what I needed to share today.  I would love to hope that you’ll never need it, but that’s not a reasonable hope.  I hope instead that it’s been of some help for when you do.

Peace, Imelda



12 thoughts on “Kindness in times of grief

  1. Excellent advice. I think the most important point is the one about keeping in touch. One’s natural instinct is to give the grieving person space, and the fear of making things worse often overrides any sense of being able to help. I’ve been guilty of this myself, and I really regret it.

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment, Peter. It is so hard, isn’t it? I think people don’t want to intrude and they don’t know what to say and feel inadequate, but the result is that the bereaved person can be left very isolated. I’m sure I’ve been guilty of it too, but I got it right accidentally at a time when it was needed and the person concerned told me, later, how good it was to have someone just around and being normal and I have always remembered that.

  2. I agree too with the “stay in touch”. I felt very guilty lately because my best friend in Canada lost her baby and I wasn’t there physically to support her but I spoke with her last week and she told me that I have helped her lots by calling her once a week when her child was in the hospital and listen to her and that’s really all what she needed…

    • I do think it’s what we need most, and thankfully is IS something you can do just as well from afar as from nearby. I’m glad you were able to be there for her, Rita, even if not physically.

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  4. A thoughtful response to a difficult topic. And yes, it’s the practical things that help–the casseroles, the help with organising routine things during the worst of a loss–that mean so much. But a degree of ‘space and time’ is also appreciated–just be guided by the changing needs of your friend.

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