Grieving individuals often talk about the changes in their close relationships and the secondary losses of family and friends who do not know what to say or do for them. As a result, the bereaved person experiences people withdrawing from the relationship both physically and emotionally. The enormity of grief demands a lot of the person experiencing it and as a result there is little left over for the caring and nurturing of relationships.
Sitting with family and friends to the bereaved, messages often include a similar sentiment – not knowing what to say or what to do. Support people will say that they do not want to upset the bereaved person further and so they say nothing. I hear sentiments of not knowing how to fix things and not wanting to see their friend or family member in pain. A further complication to the relationship is the support system is often grieving too, sometimes the person that has died and other times the changes in the friend or family member as a result of the death.
So, what are the messages to these two groups following the death of a loved one?
For the Family and Friends of the Bereaved:
Grief is not a Five Stage Process – It is understandable that in something so overwhelming and unsettling as grief we would want, maybe even need, a linear trajectory and a tidy checklist of stages. Unfortunately, it can be a disservice to the bereaved, asking that they follow an outdated model of bereavement where they may feel pushed through their grief and set up to meet unhelpful expectations. In reality, grief is unique and the way each one of us responds when grieving is based on many variables including the death event, the person who died, our experiences of death, our communication style, etc. When we are supporting someone who is grieving it is helpful to follow their lead, what do they need or want (do they want to talk, or would they prefer to be alone)? How are they processing and “making sense” of their grief? What is bringing them comfort? While the intensity of grief will diminish, the grieving process is a lifelong experience of redefining the relationship with their loved one and learning how to live in the physical absence of the person who has died.
Don’t Over Promise and Under Deliver – All too often the expressions of sympathy, while well meaning, are laden with promises that are impossible to keep. The bereaved are often told if there is “anything they need” they simply need to ask. In reflection of that sentence, would you really be willing to do anything? And in the overwhelmed brain of the bereaved, picking anything out of the multitude of daily tasks and then remembering who offered can just be too much. If you are ready and willing to support your bereaved loved one, start by understanding what you are capable of. Take a good look at who you are and where your strengths lie; not everyone is going to be able to provide the bereaved with emotional support and that is okay. If you are able to provide practical support, then pick a task that you know is required and let the bereaved know when to expect you and for what and then show up!
Take Care of You First – For the most part we are an empathic species, we want to care for those who are suffering. Being an emotional or practical support is an important and necessary role in the wake of a death and it takes energy to show up and sit in someone else’s pain. We do not have an endless supply of energy and in providing support it is possible to neglect our own emotional, psychological and physical needs. While it may seem counterintuitive, it is important that we tend to our own needs first to ensure that we have the energy necessary to provide care and nurturing to our bereaved loved one.
For the Bereaved:
For Now, Not Forever – Death has the potential to change everything and for now you may not have the support you need from those you normally rely on. It is not uncommon to experience the loss of friends or of family support when we are grieving. Grief does not necessarily bring us closer to others who are navigating the same death. However, this does not mean that you will never have a relationship with these friends or family members. Be careful about creating a forever in your story and in your relationships. For now, you need to look after your needs, being kind and generous with yourself and find the people who can and will be your support system.
Be Willing to Ask for Help – It is not easy to be vulnerable and asking for help may not feel comfortable and you may not have the energy to do so. Most relationships are the result of reciprocity; the idea that we give care to others and receive care in return. Allowing others to care for you is an act of vulnerability but it also is a testament to the relationship. It can be a way our friend or family member expresses or processes their own grief. Alternatively, a lack of communication can lead to unmet expectations and as a result deteriorate a relationship. It is true that not everyone can meet our needs so take the time to identify those capable of being there and then allow them to support you.
It Might Not be About You – Grief is a heartbreaking and a time-consuming experience that will impact you emotionally, psychologically, physically, socially and spiritually. Not everyone has the resources, the ability or the knowledge to provide you with the support you may need and that is not about you (even if it feels like it is). Admittedly, it is a hard realization to have about friends and family members, but if we can have realistic expectations based on people’s abilities we are less likely to be disappointed and the relationship can actually flourish. For example, if your friend Jane is not a great communicator and is uncomfortable with feelings, they are likely not going to provide emotional support, but maybe there is something else Jane can do? Does she love taking the kids on adventures and be able to give you a break? Is she a great negotiator and would be better suited to support you through the bureaucratic aspects of death? It can be helpful to you and your relationships to be aware of your expectations and check them against your friend or family member’s capability. Readjustments in what we can expect from others can lead to rewards in the relationship.
Grief is a natural response to the death of a loved one but that does not mean it is comfortable or even easy to navigate. It will take months, even years to establish the life and new identity we are going to re-invest in, while still managing the demands of the day-to-day. Take care of yourself through kindness and self-compassion and remember that counselling can play a role in finding strategies to cope and manage with grief while establishing healthy expectations for yourself and your relationships.