11 Things I Know About Grief: For When You Love Someone Who Lost Someone

Photo by Janet Frishberg

Note: this was written on the Sunday after the Ghost Ship Fire.

My heart has been aching this weekend. As someone who didn’t lose someone I loved dearly on Friday night, but who loves a bunch of people who did, I’ve been thinking a lot about grief and support, and what I can offer in the wake of these tragic losses in my communities.

I roll with a pretty relationally, emotionally advanced crew these days, and yet I also recognize that not everyone has experienced a sudden loss before.

In the spirit of service, and with humility and tenderness, here are a few things I know about grief, for those supporting someone who just lost someone(s) they love:

1. Grief can look different than we might expect it to, especially to those of us who haven’t recently wandered the land of grief, or who don’t know much about the kind of grief someone is experiencing. Anger, forgetfulness, exhaustion, confusion, blankness — all of this can be part of grieving.

2. It is generally not helpful to try to make meaning of someone else’s grief for them. No platitudes, no saying it’s all going to be okay, or everything happens for a reason, or they’re in a better place now. It’s *not* okay right now, and those of us who are farther removed from the not-okayness can help by validating how difficult it is. It may not be okay for a long time. Let it be as bad as it is. Don’t leave, don’t look away, don’t try to fix. Be with, be near, be love and care.

3. Things that sometimes help: simple presence. Physical touch, especially if the person lost was your friend’s main person for physical touch. Taking care of things with or for the other person: meals—cooking or organizing them, money to help with flights or funeral costs, helping clean out the home of the deceased, contacting peripheral friends to tell the news or to share preferences around support.

4. Grief does not happen as quickly as our dominant culture and certain religions would like it to. The first week or two can bring an overwhelming flood of offers for support. What is needed is people who are still showing up and checking in 2 months later, 6 months later, 1 year and 5 months later.

5. A sudden death is pretty much totally fucking different than when a grandparent dies of a long illness. Please do not compare. The floor has just been pulled out from under this person. There was no time for pre-grieving or making amends, expressing appreciation or regrets or apologies. A lot of unfinished relational business can be left, and the person who is still alive often must reckon with those loose ends over the coming months and years. Having people who ask about the person who died, who still want to talk about it, who don’t change the subject right away, is important.

6. For many many people, in general, asking for support is challenging, and identifying what kind of support is needed is challenging. There are a lot of us who greatly prefer the role of helper than the role of being helped. In shock or grief this can become more acutely challenging. Helping someone get more comfortable with this, and reducing the hard feelings that come with needing support can be a great way to help. This can have exponential benefits.

7. Some people get so caught up in worrying about saying or doing the wrong thing (and lists like this can make it worse) that they do or say nothing. When in doubt, expressing authentic care and love is always good, and usually better than silence.

8. Do not expect a response from the person you’re reaching out to support, *especially* if you aren’t in their inner circle. This is not about you; it’s not about you proving yourself to be a good person. You are a good enough person already. Do your best not to make it about you, explicitly or more subtly. They’ll respond when they’re ready and able, or not, and that’s fine.

9. Be your most reliable self for this person. If you say you’re going to do something, follow through. If you can’t, enlist your trustworthy replacement.

10. Be careful of completely ignoring your own needs in favor of the needs of the person you love; keeping yourself well (emotionally, physically) is a gift to yourself and everyone you come into contact with.

11. Everyone is different. Every grief is its own process. None of these are rules.

In love and solidarity.