Grief visits in many forms and on its own hidden schedule. No matter how much we think we’re prepared for it, we’re not, and when it strikes at a distance – where we can see its effects, but aren’t directly impacted – it can be difficult closing the gap between needing to help and respecting another’s grieving process.
We don’t want to feel useless to our loved ones, yet we don’t want to feel unengaged; it’s a tricky dance of counter-intuitive rhythms, altered time signatures, and never quite knowing where to, or if we should, put our hands.
A few simple rules of thumb can help.
1. Don’t Exacerbate
Constantly reminding someone of how much something must hurt or how terrible their situation is might seem like you’re being attentive and sympathetic, but trust me, they’re well aware of their pain.
Try not to be the well-intentioned voice of doom. Instead, alleviate other tensions the grieving person might face: take on additional chores around the house, keep them fed, or provide innocuous yet affirming distractions like getting them out of the house from time to time or allowing a fragrance they like to wind through the environs. Small gestures of compassion can show more sympathy than a dozen verbal mentions.
2. Be Attentive But Don’t Cling
Sadness is healthy, natural, and vital to the healing process, but it needs the space in which to germinate if it’s to be of any benefit. Unfortunately a lot of us live in societies that are so afraid of the realities of sadness (even the simplest reality: not everything goes right), we’re unconsciously trained to avoid, deny, or banish sadness at any length, so instead of seeing grace in that emotional state, we go out of our ways to quickly turn grief into a semblance of happiness. We’re there in a flash to turn that quiet frown upside down.
This can have the harmful effect of falsely accelerating the grieving process, which is little more than a recipe for a breakdown of some type in the near future. Don’t insinuate yourself as an automatic sadness blocker; rather, observe your loved one’s need for solitude, observe when they reach out to you, and be prepared to act on both.
3. Never Say “You’ll Get Over It”
Has that assertion ever done more than punch someone in the heart? It’s useless to the point of insult. Any loss, be it the death of your lover’s goldfish, the divorce of an old college buddy, the passing of your child’s favorite teacher, or finding out the heroic tales of Aunt Edith’s exploits during the War were fabricated to build up your adolescent confidence, deserves the respect of being allowed to exist. Quick and facile erasure is just as bad as throwing happy faces at everything.
Yes, after a certain period of grieving, there’s a way to say this, but the inclination for most is to rush it out. Heavens forbid anyone be emotionally uncomfortable for more than ten seconds. You may think you’re being helpful by reminding them that there are brighter days yet to live, but a heavy heart is more interested in the present than a future that will take care of itself. That heart needs to know in its deepest bones, in the present, that there’s a soft space for it to lay when it can’t stand on its own.
4. Curb Your Enthusiasm
Even the most observant of us will lapse into an ill-timed explosion of good news when fortune comes our way, and believe me, the grieving person wants to feel happy for you, wants to share in your grand news… but quite literally can’t. The brain receptors aren’t there for it.
So when you think you’re raising their spirits by throwing light and sparkles at them, you’re really inducing micro-migraines and mini-panic attacks. Gauge a time and a method for trying to re-energize a loved one’s group-happiness batteries.
5. Adjust Expectations
A grieving child is not going to want to do homework. Your grieving office buddy gives less than a damn about maximizing synergy. People bounce back from things according to their own individual elasticity. If you’re used to Person X being your rock in times of need, understand that rocks have needs of their own. It’s illogical to expect anyone to be so adept at compartmentalizing that their productivity, commitment, and/or interest doesn’t significantly waver after a loss. We’re not built that way.
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6. Let Them Cry
This includes elements of compassion we’ve learned so far, but also stands as a separate entity. This isn’t ‘Let them cry, but attempt to direct the river,’ this is Let. Them. Cry.
Stop chopping carrots and let them press their faces into your shoulder in the kitchen until the moment passes. Take your coworker to lunch and if the waterworks start, the lunch “hour” extends accordingly. It is such a blessing when a loved one knows they have the grace to cry for as long as the spirit flows, whether with you or in the privacy in which you’ve compassionately left them. Tears are wonderful healers when allowed the emotional space to do their job.
7. Be Understanding
Not every loss is a big loss; doesn’t mean you get to belittle it. Not every loss is a devastating loss. Doesn’t mean it shouldn’t affect anyone. And certainly there are times when you won’t even be able to determine that there was a loss at all. Please know that it is not always up to you to determine what is and is not grief-worthy.
Understand that the relativity of the universe creates the need for compassion in the first place: we have to be able to see the worlds outside ourselves. A favorite toy going missing can be just as devastating to someone’s sense of reality as never getting a bedtime kiss from mom the rest of their lives. Expand your heart to see how life, love, and loss intertwine.
This means being willing to tear up the rules according to the dictates of the situation. Or mix-and-match. Come up with compassionate guidelines of your own. If the sight of blue plates painfully reminds a loved one of the blue water dish their runaway dog drank from, start a smash party. Three plates and done, one for you, two for your loved one. Maybe the promotion didn’t land as expected; find something about the situation to celebrate anyway, even if “celebration” means popping Office Space on Netflix with a big bag of popcorn to soak up huge jugs of wine.
Whatever you do to help, know that your loved ones aren’t expecting you to fix either them or their situation, they’re looking for a particular type of acknowledgment that gets overlooked far too often: that they are human, and humans hurt. A lot. Which brings us nicely to our last rule…
9. Be patient
Whatever the loss, whatever the expression of pain or grief (unless extreme and dangerous), be patient, be present, and be respectful. All things pass… but then they come around again, maybe next time straight at you. Life’s funny that way. The cycle of compassion is never-ending, but there’s a measure of comfort in that.