A Layperson’s Guide To Dealing With A Grieving Mess of A Person
As a little girl, when I looked into my future, I didn’t see GRIEF SPOKESPERSON written on my name tag. On the whole, I’m not a bummer of a person — I swear. Alas, someone who mattered a great, big, major deal to me died suddenly and tragically, and the way that I coped was to shape my sadness into letters and words and sentences and notes and essays, and eventually, a book, and now I’m an expert on grief. [Cue the confetti.]
But I have spent lots of time thinking, writing, and talking about grief. Last week, someone asked me a variation of a question I’ve gotten dozens of times since my brother died three years ago:
What do I say to someone who is grieving? How can I help them through such a difficult time?
It’s a great question, albeit one for which there’s probably not a “right” answer or play book as it’s all so subjective. But from my own experiences dealing with other humans whilst grieving, I have some opinions on the matter. And in talking to others about their darkest times, it seems like there’s some universality here.
It’s important to note, however, that nothing you say or do will make any of this feel better for the person who’s suffering. And that’s okay! Your job isn’t to make them feel better. Your job is to offer support during a difficult time. But since I assume you don’t want to make them feel worse, here are some tips that might be useful.
1) Don’t ask what you can do. Just do it.
A grieving person will never respond to “let me know if there’s anything I can do” with a specific request. You won’t ever hear: “You know, thanks for throwing me that bone! What I really need is a hot meal delivered to my doorstep at 6:00 pm on Tuesday night because apparently there are other people living in my house who still have the ability to consume solid foods, and I haven’t been able to get out of bed for days. Thank you!” People who are consumed by grief aren’t going to tell you what they need. They don’t know what they need. They’re essentially an open nerve, blindly feeling their way through every moment.
So just do it. Do what, you ask? Something. Anything. Acts of service are greatly appreciated. Arrange an online meal train. Drop off a frozen casserole or bag of takeout on the front porch. Make sure to include plastic utensils and napkins. Bring over a bag of groceries and unload them into the fridge and pantry. Pick up my three year old and take her across the street to the park for an hour. Take it upon yourself to do something concrete that will lighten the load and ease the burden.
Bonus tip: When you do deliver the goods, be a decent human being and send a text message. Don’t call or ring the doorbell because then we have to engage, and we don’t want to engage. We don’t want to talk to anyone or see anyone or get out from underneath the covers ever again. We haven’t showered or brushed our hair or changed our clothes in days. It’s likely we’re wearing days-old underwear. Don’t make us look at your face in this state. Please. And thank you.
2) Don’t sugarcoat or cheerlead.
Acknowledge that it sucks. Acknowledge that it hurts. Acknowledge that I am sad and hopeless and weary and in deep emotional (and likely physical) pain. See that. Hear that. Please don’t say he or she is in a better place now. That’s akin to punching me in the face. Don’t say it will get better. Obviously, it will get better in time, but that’s not helpful to me right now. What’s helpful right now is wallowing in darkness and despair. So let me do that. Sit with me while I do it, either physically or over text or email or on the phone and really listen. If I want to cry, let me. If I want to scream and holler, let me. If I want to throw some shit across the room, get out of the way. You can’t fix this. You can’t stop the bleeding. There’s no bandage strong enough for this sort of gushing wound. In fact, the best avenue to eventual healing is allowing the grieving person to exorcise her demons, to get the darkness out of her body whenever, and as much as, possible. Your job is simply to say, “I’m here and I hear you and I’m sorry and I love you.” Period. So do that.
3) Don’t make it about you.
The urge to dive in and say, “I completely understand how you feel, and here’s why,” is totally human and absolutely comes from a good place. Unfortunately, it will not be received in the way it was intended. Frankly, saying you completely understand how a person feels about any given thing is rather invalidating. It presupposes all sorts of things. Acute feelings are complex and messy and irrational and deeply personal. The way you respond to a traumatic situation will be different from the way I respond, so don’t negate my story by telling me you’ve already written the book. And please, for the love of God, don’t compare it to the time your grandma died. My grandma died, too. I write about it on the first page of my book. It was sad. And natural. And as it should be. That was that, and this is this. It’s not the same. And even if the person you’re comforting IS grieving their own grandmother’s death, don’t compare it to your experience of that. To be safe, I’d recommend you don’t compare it to anything you’ve ever experienced at all. If you still want to know the exact words to use, go back to the last bullet point. “I’m here.” “I’m sorry.” “I love you.” “I hear you.” These sorts of statements can be useful. Hugs and hand-holding and physical touch can also be effective if you see that the person is open to it. Bonus tip: Ask first! That’s one way to know. For example, “Can I give you a hug?” is a totally reasonable question.
There is a caveat to this. If my brother overdosed on heroin and your brother overdosed on heroin, there might be some value in saying, “When I went through this, I felt…” The person on the receiving end will likely take comfort in the fact that someone else understands this particular variety of pain and suffering. But you still have no right to say, “I know how you feel.” No two relationships are the same, and no two feelings are the same. My sad is not your sad. So if you want to talk about your sad, just make sure to couch it with, “When I…” That will help.
4) Don’t ask “How are you?”
This one’s short and sweet. I’m terrible. Don’t put me in a position to have to say anything other than that. Most normal people (present company excluded) feel beholden to an unwritten social contract and will likely feel pressured to deliver a sentiment along the lines of “Fine,” “Okay,” or another euphemism of the sort. But, I assure you, I’m not fine, and I’m not okay. Don’t force me to be a liar on top of everything else I’m dealing with just to make this moment easier on you.
5) Don’t make my loved one invisible once the funeral’s over and everyone’s back to business as usual.
After those first few days and weeks and months and years, the grief changes and softens, but it’s still there. It’s always there. Grief is a life sentence that never goes away. I think people sometimes hesitate to bring up the lost loved one because they don’t want to make the other person feel bad, but please understand, we’re always thinking of the one who’s no longer with us. Just because we’re not leading with it in every conversation, or any conversation for that matter (see the unwritten social contract), it doesn’t mean it’s not always on our minds. Saying, “You know, I was thinking about (insert loved ones name here) the other day,” or “I remember the time (insert loved ones name here) did X, Y or Z” is an act of kindness. It’s always appreciated and never resented. Bring them up. Talk about them. Say their name, say their name. We need to hear it somewhere other than inside our own heads.
6) Don’t make me a social pariah.
I know you don’t mean to. I know it’s not your intent. But it can feel that way. Part of that is on me. The Island of Grief is the most solitary, isolating, lonely place. That’s part of the deal. But continue to reach out. Send a text every few days or once a week reminding me that there are still people ashore who care about us and are rooting for us and love us. Bonus tip: Always end your text message or email with “No need to respond.” And mean it.
There’s a caveat to this one, too. I probably won’t read your comment or message on social media, especially in the beginning. At first, all of the pings and dings and notifications can be overwhelming, and as time passes, social media feels like a landmine. It’s a place where everyone is posting the best versions of themselves doing shiny, happy things, while I’m still living in a metaphorical garbage can. After my brother died, I didn’t read Facebook comments or messages that people posted or sent for at least a year. So feel free to comment but understand that it might be akin to screaming into a canyon.
7) Be patient.
It’s gonna take time for us to get back to normal, or some new version of normal. In the meantime, expect that we will do the wrong thing over and over again. We will neglect to respond. We won’t be polite. We won’t be reciprocal. We will forget to send a thank you note. We won’t remember your birthday. For longer than it may feel like it should, everything we do will be wrong and littered with mistakes. This is part of the deal. The grief takes up so much space that our brains don’t function like they used to. At some point, we will get back to ourselves, or a new version of ourselves, but it will take some time.
Once we emerge, different from the person you knew before, get to know the new person. Accept us for who we are now having been changed on a cellular level by something we neither wanted nor asked for.
And love us through it. Love is a good tip overall. You really can’t go wrong with love.