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I write this from someone who has lost a father at age 24 and a brother at 34. I write this as someone who has experienced great loss and hardship. I write this as someone who has had those feelings dismissed and misunderstood. I write this as someone who has read a lot on grief and loss – everything from memoirs, autobiographies, psychology, and self-help.
I write this also knowing there is no definitive list. I write this knowing there are more than just eight ways to help someone who is grieving. I write this knowing that grief is individual, but also many things are universal. I write this for bereaved people who are feeling misunderstood and don’t know how to talk about what they need from people. I write this for people who are witnessing the pain of grief in the people that they love, and they are so desperate to help.
Assume it is “that bad”
I had someone recently tell me, “I had no idea it was that bad?!” They looked genuinely shocked at what I was telling them, and all I could think to myself was, “My brother is dead. OF COURSE, IT IS THAT BAD.”
When a person loses someone close to them, it is the worst thing that can happen. It doesn’t matter the kind of relationship the person shared with their lost loved one. It matters that they had a relationship with that person, and now that person is dead.
The finality of that loss is like nothing else in the world, and all we can do is bear witness to it.
Know your own limits – don’t promise what you know you cannot deliver
Supporting someone who is grieving is difficult. You can be confronted with your own losses, your own mortality, and the mortality of the people you love. Grief is a painful and heavy thing that has no solution, which doesn’t work well for our current Western thinking.
I believe our society is geared towards a fix-it culture. If you’re overweight, diet culture is the fix-it solution. If you’re overworked – mindfulness culture is the fix-it solution. But grief and death – there are no fix-its. You cannot solve grief. You cannot yogalates your way out of grief. You cannot bake your way out of grief. You cannot marathon or fundraise or knit or garden your way out of grief. Trust me, I’ve tried.
There are no solutions to fixing grief.
Although, all is not lost. In understanding that grief has no solutions, we can also understand that grief is not a problem. Grief is love. It is the love we have for the people we have lost, and there is no way to get rid of love. Grief is messy, excruciating, and powerful. It is also a testament to the love we have for the people we have lost.
You might be wondering, why talk about grief having no solutions, and what does this mean for me helping someone who is grieving?
Well, I’m glad you asked.
Grief is a long game. It is a carry-it-with-you-until-your-last-breath kind of long game. Of course, we get better at understanding our grief and loss. We grow around the grief, and it gets easier to carry (most of the time), but it also never goes away, and there is nothing wrong with that either.
So when you offer your support to someone who is grieving, ask yourself:
- What can I take on in this moment?
- How can I make this support sustainable?
- What is my long-term plan to help myself help this person?
- How can I make sure I show up for the person and also look after myself?
- Am I promising things I can keep?
- Am I being proactive in offering help? (Don’t just ask, “How are you?” Instead you might ask, “Would you like to meet for a coffee sometime this week?”)
- Am I waiting for the grieving person to reach out to me? (If you haven’t heard from them in a while, call them. Check in.)
- Am I in contact with other people who are helping and supporting someone who is grieving? (If not, you should try to be.)
Step Up, Show Up – be proactive
I watched my Dad die. He took his last breath with me a few days before Christmas in 2011. I hadn’t slept for almost 3 days straight. I was a mess. My memories of that time are fuzzy. Trauma and grief have a strange way of warping our sense of time and our memories. I do remember someone asking me, “What do you need?” In that moment, I remember my mind going blank. I needed my father to not be dead. But that wasn’t going to happen. And so, I couldn’t answer the person.
When someone dies, it is generally overwhelming. Simple things like eating, sleeping, and showering can become monumental tasks. In the early days of a loss, the person might not even remember what day it is.
So how do you help?
Asking people what they need, in theory, sounds like a great plan. You are checking in with the person, letting them take the lead on how they need care, and making sure you aren’t assuming things.
The reality for a lot of grieving people is that they don’t know what they need. And asking them is just one more thing that they don’t know how to answer.
Some ideas to help you help others:
- Make food that is easy to reheat.
- Make food that comes in snack sizes (appetites can be tricky with grief).
- Visit them.
- Call them.
- Be there – and show up for whatever kind of grief they are experiencing that day.
- Invite them to things. They might say no. But that is ok.
- Don’t distance yourself because you don’t know how to help.
- Make them tea.
- Make them coffee.
- Take them to the beach.
- Go for a walk with them.
- Let them hug your dog.
Important note: often, when a person dies, the bereaved persons are inundated with food, texts, calls, and flowers. Then a few months go by, and then… n o t h i n g. Tumbleweed literally rolls in. Be the person that makes time to show up even though it has been 6 months, one year, or five years. In most studies on grief, the early stages of grief are measured generally as the first two years after the death. So people need support beyond those first few weeks or months. Remember when I said grief was a long game?
Help People Get Professional Help
I’ve been seeing a grief counsellor for a few months now. It was honestly one of the best things I did for myself. I also found a grief support group with people who had shared experiences of loss. Access to support isn’t easy, and I hate how little funding we have for grief and loss support in Australia and the world.
The grief of my brother has been complicated by many things. Things that were too big for me to handle alone. And finding help has been monumental for me.
Support groups exist and are generally free in Australia. These are a great way to meet people who have shared experiences. The fact they are free is also amazing. Peer-led groups generally mean that it is run by people who have grief counselling experience and are also bereaved. That knowledge of lived experience can be powerful and healing for people.
If you want the people around you to get help – how are you helping?
- Can you find a list of support groups?
- Can you drive them to their first appointment?
- Can you help them financially to pay for counselling?
It Takes a Village
When I tried to talk to people about my grief, the first thing they would say was, “You should reach out to a therapist.” And that was it. Conversation finished.
When I started to see a grief counsellor, people would ask, “Have you reached out to a therapist?” And when I would reply, “Yes, I am seeing one.” They would say something like, “Oh good.” Conversation finished.
In my first appointment with my grief counsellor, the counsellor asked me, “Have reached out to your friends?” And I felt like laughing.
The vicious circle of who’s ‘job’ it is to help a grieving person is the darkest of comedies if you ask me.
I don’t think I’m the first person to get stuck in one of these circles where everyone is pointing at everyone else without really realising they are part of the problem. As I mentioned in “Know Your Limits”, you cannot be and do everything for a grieving person. It isn’t sustainable. But if you think that sending someone off to a counsellor and then offering no support in their personal life is going to make things better, you are very wrong.
There are things a therapist, psychologist, or counsellor cannot offer that a close friend or a family member can. Similarly, there are things that a friend or family cannot offer that a therapist can. It isn’t either or. It is both. It is all. It is everyone. It takes a village.
So instead of standing around pointing at each other and deflecting responsibility, ask yourself:
- If I truly love this grieving person, how can I show up for them?
- How am I using a network of friends and family we have in common to come together and help?
- How am I looking after myself while also helping the grieving person?
Be Honest – tell people you don’t know what to say
Grief, death, and loss – are difficult topics. Their difficulty is twofold: firstly, these topics are deeply personal and affect everyone. They are confronting and painful. Secondly, (and yes, I am all-caps screaming this), WE DO NOT KNOW HOW TO TALK ABOUT GRIEF, DEATH, AND LOSS.
We suck at talking about grief in Australia. I would argue that this is probably true for many countries around the world. Each culture will also have its own unique challenges when it comes to grief. Unless you’ve trained in this field, experienced a great loss, or read a tonne of literature on the topic, you’re probably not going to know what to say. And even if you have done all those things, you still might have no clue.
Not knowing what to say shouldn’t be a reason to stay quiet around grief.
It is okay to say:
- I don’t know what to say.
- I don’t know how to help.
- This is shit.
- This is awful.
- I am sorry you are going through this.
- I know I cannot make this better, but I am here for you.
- Grief sucks.
- Learning to live with grief isn’t easy, but I love you.
- I love you.
- You don’t have to pretend things are fine around me.
- You and your grief are always welcome here with me.
If a Sentence Starts with “At least”… Stop right there
If you have read this far, you might be starting to wonder if everything about grief is a paradox. One thing is true, and then in the next point, it is flipped on its head. All I can say is, hate the game, not the player.
Knowing what to say is difficult. But knowing what not to say can be even more difficult. Rather than make up some scenarios, here is a collection of things that actual people have said to me about my grief and loss that have absolutely sucked.
When someone says: “My XXXX just died”, don’t immediately say:
- At least they are in a better place now …
- At least you saw them for a little while …
- Oh, is that person’s death still bothering you?
- Oh no, that must be awful for your parents. (You have a person in front of you – in pain. acknowledge the pain you see).
- Oh no, that must be awful for their partner/child. (It’s okay to ask about the other people affected by grief and loss, but don’t let this be the first thing you say because it can be dismissive – address the pain in front of you).
- At least they are in heaven … (if you are religious, and the person you are supporting is also religious, this might be helpful. But please do not assume).
- Well, now that your Dad’s death is out of the way, you can focus back on your work.
- It was only your brother.
- Some people lose their parents even younger than you.
- You didn’t live in the same state, so you can’t have been that close.
- Is that still bothering you? It has been like 3 months already.
- At least it wasn’t your husband.
- At least it wasn’t both your parents.
- I lost a dog once, so I know what you’re going through (of course, dogs are beautiful creatures, but don’t make comparisons).
- My friend knows a friend who has a cousin who died of cancer too.
- How did they die? (This can be traumatic. Especially if the person witnessed the death. Don’t just drop this on people – especially if a person died by suicide or accident).
- They would want you to be happy.
If your loved one dies on a national holiday… The holiday remix:
- They died on Christmas day? Oh, that must have just ruined Christmas for you.
- I’d love to come over, but I’ve got to watch the roast.
- They would want you to be happy today.
- They wouldn’t want you to cry on Christmas day.
So you’re at the bottom of my list. Now what?
Someone you know and care about is grieving. You want to help but don’t know how? Firstly, know that you are probably going to mess up. Grief is everchanging, and what helped someone one day might piss them off the next. Try not to take it personally. They are going through a lot.
The best thing you can do is educate yourself. Read books. What videos and movies. See a grief counsellor for a few sessions to help you get the tools you need. Talk to your friends and family – ask for advice.
Below is a list of books I’ve read that have helped me in one way or another. I’ve grouped them together in major themes and written F for fiction, NF for nonfiction, and A for autobiographical works.
List of Books About Grief, Death, Loss, and Mental Health:
The Unwinding of the Miracle by Julie Yip-Williams (A)
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (A)
It’s OK that You’re Not OK by Megan Devine (A) (NF)
This is Not A Book About Benedict Cumberbatch by Tabitha Carvan (A)
Moominland Midwinter by Tove Jansson (F)
Birds Art Life Death by Kyo Maclear (A)
12 Birds to Save Your Life by Charlie Corbett (A)
I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell (A)
Medical books about death and terminal illness
Mortals by Rachel E. Menzies and Ross G. Menzies (NF)
The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee (NF)
Being Mortal by Atul Gawande (NF)
Birds Art Life Death by Kyo Maclear (A)
Pure Colour by Sheila Heti (F)
Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner (A)
Never Simple by Liz Scheier (A)
The Art of Reassembly by Peg Conway (A)
Your Own Kind of Girl by Clare Bowditch (A)
Wild by Cheryl Strayed (A)
Poetry about loss
Night Sky With Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong (A)
The White Book by Han Kang (A)
Grief is a Thing with Feathers by Max Porter (A) (F)
Surviving the Death of a Sibling by T.J. Wray (A) (NF)
The Empty Room by Elizabeth De Vita-Raeburn (A) (NF)
It’s OK that You’re Not OK by Megan Devine (A) (NF)
Found Wanting by Natasha Sholl (A)
The Accidental Tour Guide by Mary Moody (A)
The Space Between the Stars by Indira Naidoo (A)
Set Boundaries, Find Peace by Nedra Glover Tawwab (NF)
Anxiety: the missing stage of grief by Claire Bidwell Smith (NF)
How to Be You by Jeffrey Marsh (NF)
It’s OK that You’re Not OK by Megan Devine (A) (NF)
Trauma and grief
The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk (NF)
I only wanted to recommend books I’ve read myself, which is why this list isn’t complete by any means. If you’ve read a book that you think would fit this kind of theme, please tell me in the comments. As always, share the reading love.