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The Optimist View: How to support someone through grief

“We bereaved are not alone. We belong to the largest company in all the world一the company of those who have known suffering.” – Helen Keller

Yesterday marked the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in the United States. For many 9/11 victims, a voicemail was the only way to communicate and say goodbye to loved ones. These voicemails have been widely shared over the years and even commemorated in the 9/11 Museum and Memorial. To honor the 20th anniversary of the attacks, NPR set up a phone booth in Brooklyn Bridge Park and invited the loved ones of six 9/11 victims to leave a voicemail for the person they lost that day.

The speakers include Trish Straine, whose husband died in the north tower days after their second child was born and Matthew Bocchi, who lost his father in the attacks at age nine. The moving project demonstrates the enduring nature of grief and highlights how the way in which we process grief changes over time. For these families, the simple act of being given a safe place to speak candidly to someone who is no longer with us is a powerful way to honor their memory and hold space for grief that may still weigh us down even two decades after someone has died.

Processing grief takes time, but having people by our side to support us through it can make a world of difference. However, supporting someone through grief holds its own unique challenges. Loss and grief are experiences that every living creature on Earth will face—yet dealing with them makes people profoundly uneasy.

Discussing death and trying to support a grieving person often leaves people feeling awkward and perplexed which may lead to making the person they are trying to comfort feel worse, even if they have the best intentions. According to Andrea Warnick, psychotherapist and one of the developers of Canadian Virtual Hospice’s MyGrief.ca, people are usually afraid that they’ll say the wrong thing, “so they default to not saying anything at all. Or sometimes they do say things that may not be super helpful.”

To avoid these less than helpful (but normal and common) reactions when you’re inevitably faced with the task of supporting someone as they go through their grief, Warnick and Zainib Abdullah, psychotherapist and co-founder of WellNest Psychotherapy Services, have some best general practices for what (and what not) to say.

What not to say to someone who’s dealing with death
Don’t fall into the fix-it trap

Oftentimes, people think they need to take on the responsibility of “fixing” the situation. Warnick says that she likes “to remind people that as a supporter, your job is not to fix it. Your job is to be with them through it.”

A common way that the fix-it trap manifests is by trying to offer silver linings to the grieving person or starting phrases with “at least.”

“‘At least he’s not in pain, at least it didn’t happen at a different time of year.’ I say, just throw that out the window. Stop talking, nothing was ‘at least’” says Warnick. Abdullah says that the “at least” phrase comes out because people want to bring attention to what they perceive as the least painful part of the situation, but in reality, it comes across as trying to change the way someone thinks of their loss. While the grieving person may use this type of language, as a supporter, it shouldn’t be used.

Don’t give solutions or advise people

Phrases that start with “you should” are not helpful, and can even come across as judge-y. Common well-intentioned ones include “you should try to keep yourself busy,” or “you should get some fresh air.”

Another common phrase that shouldn’t make an appearance is “be strong,” because it implies that some expressions of grief are negative. “Humans experiencing pain is not a sign of weakness, it’s just the experience of life,” explains Abdullah. So, telling someone that they should be strong seems as though you’re invalidating how they are feeling while also telling them that they’re currently being “weak.”

Don’t tell people that they’re “strong”

While this is a well-intentioned compliment, the reality is that often, you’re praising the grieving person for suppressing their emotions. Warnick says, “A lot of my clients have said to me that it really feels like usually, people are saying [they’re strong] when their emotions are in check. The flip side of that is when they’re feeling very vulnerable or raw, then they feel like they’re being weak.” Instead, reframing the idea that permitting yourself to feel the hardest feelings in relation to grief is a demonstration of true strength and bravery.

Don’t try to make sense of it

Don’t say, “everything happens for a reason.” For someone who is dealing with death, this isn’t particularly helpful. Another phrase that should be avoided as a supporter is “you aren’t given more than you can bear,” unless the grieving party has brought it up themselves. As Warnick explains, “the goal is to be present and help [them] feel less alone in the situation because we’re there with them.”

Don’t try to one-up their pain

This is another common yet misguided reaction to someone’s grief. “It’s usually coming from a place of concern and wanting to make the person feel as though their situation is less hard,” says Warnick. However, this actually takes away from the support that you want to give and makes it seem as though you’re minimizing their experience of loss and grief.

Use the term “loved one” with caution

Warnick explains that the use of this term is based on assumptions. You don’t always know what the relationship was like between the griever and the deceased and referring to them as a “loved one” may bring up complicated feelings for the grieving party.

Being there for someone who is grieving can be intimidating and overwhelming. This is true for those who have not experienced deep loss before, as they may feel like they cannot relate and so will surely say the wrong thing, and for those who know what it’s like to lose someone they care for profoundly because it can bring up discomfort and pain that they spend most of their time avoiding.

Now that we’ve covered the ‘what not to say,’ let’s turn our attention towards how we can offer real support to those who are grieving. Warnick and Abdullah have some tips on what we can say and do to be most supportive in this tumultuous time.

How to support someone who’s grieving
Do tend to your own grief and acknowledge your discomfort as the supporter

We have difficulty saying the right thing as a supporter. “Acknowledging that for ourselves could be helpful because it helps us to regulate our discomfort and pain in that moment of witnessing pain,” says Abdullah. “Sometimes actually just saying, ‘I know nothing I could say right now would make this easier, but I’m here for you. Or that I love you,” is enough.

Do be present

Having the right words isn’t always necessary, but showing up for the grieving person and being willing to talk about who died is. According to Abdullah, “letting them know that whatever they’re feeling is okay and it makes sense,” is crucial. This includes “any reaction, or any expression of any emotion—or a lack of expression or emotion, because some people may not express grief outwardly or in the conventional way we think of grief as sadness.”

Do use the name of the person who died

Most people who have lost someone do not want that individual to fade away and become forgotten, so even though our initial reaction is to assume that they don’t want to talk about the person that died, the opposite may, in fact, be true.

“Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break.” – William Shakespeare

Allowing the grieving party to share stories and memories of the dead can be helpful and therapeutic, so say their name and give those who lost them space to share.

“When my dad died,” Warnick says, “one of my colleagues said to me, ‘Andrea, I never met your dad, I wish I had but I would love to hear about him. I would love to learn about him. If you ever want to tell stories about him, I’d love to do that.’ And I just think that was probably one of the most helpful things that was said to me.”

Do use intentional language

Warnick suggests replacing popular euphemisms for death like “passed away” or “passed on” with the reality of the situation. Saying outright that someone died may be uncomfortable at first, but “it shows that as a supporter [you’re] comfortable talking about this, [you’re] not going to skirt around it.”

Do offer concrete, useful ways you can help

Instead of just throwing out a “let me know if I can do anything,” offer specifics on how you can help, like cooking meals, or providing childcare.

Warnick mentions that some of her clients’ friends have offered to cover parking fees at hospitals, which can rack up, and have also invited the person to spend time going for walks or watching movies. “Continue to include the person for the long haul. It might be that you’re inviting the person over and they don’t want to come. You’ve had 99 times of them saying ‘no,’ but still ask for 100. Don’t take it personally,” Warnick advises.

Keep in mind that nothing you say or do will bring the person back, or even make things better, however, your presence is the most powerful thing you can offer to someone who is grieving.

Sadness is the most common emotion associated with grief, but grief is never unidimensional and it often doesn’t look as we would expect it to. It can show up as anger, guilt, yearning, regret, or emptiness. It can be experienced as a physical pain, as well as emotional turmoil.  It comes in waves and while one day might look bright, the next day all the heavy feelings might return.

We cannot predict how a loved one will react to grief or loss, but we can show up with an open heart and a willingness to support without judgement or expectations. For, as Henri Nouwen, the Dutch priest and famed spiritual healer writes, “The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing… not healing, not curing… that is a friend who cares.” Just being there matters.

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