We have all been there. Someone we know—family or friend—, or sometimes a complete stranger shares with us a staggering loss. It could be a death, a job loss, a relationship ending, a change in fortunes, or some other game-changing fact. And the question then becomes: how do I help? What can I say to them that can help?
It is absolutely natural to be speechless at first. Shock does have a great deal to do with it. The experience of shock is probably started in the limbic system of the brain, which is believed to regulate most, if not all, of the wide spectrum of human emotional responses. In a culture where one can be inundated with the superficiality about life and death, it is humbling to actually experience it yourself, or by proxy, and realize all the things one might say or do are just trite conventions seen on television or discussed ad nauseum on some day time talk show.
It might actually be less about what do we say to someone in grief, as what do we not want to say to someone in grief.
It is very easy to put our own needs ahead of the grieving person’s—without even knowing it. When it comes to shared traumatic experiences, such as a death or a job loss, often we will try to illicit a response that mirrors or compliments our own belief system or experience (this happens in religion and politics as well). This however is not a very good way to help a friend or loved one who is experiencing their grief for the first time. It can actually cause harm to the person in grief. So, try not to have any expectations or agendas when supporting a grief stricken person. You really are not there to talk about yourself.
The question turns into something else. How do we help a person grieve?
The truth is a lot easier, and sometimes a little counterintuitive. Just letting the person talk about their experience and their situation is actually helpful. People report feeling better during the act of “getting this of my chest.” It should be no surprise, since talking about oneself is a primary component of talk therapy.
Because the grieving person can also be in some shock, it is okay to encourage self-care activities: to remind our friend or loved one to take care of themselves, and keep up with daily routines and activities that will promote normalizing and healthy behavior.
Keeping things locked up inside of us, burying emotions and reactions only leads to eventual strain on the whole system. It seems that the human brain is built to communicate and by not doing so, we actually cause ourselves harm.
Knowing that, makes reaching out to that friend or loved one that much easier to do.
When my father passed, I was surrounded by a fantastic support group who understood the way I grieve. Imagine the shock of flying from that supportive environment to the funeral and family in the Midwest, who were ‘shocked’ when I didn’t ‘act like I was supposed to’. The ideas of doing yoga, going for a long run, and making sure I had my espresso (comfort mechanism!) before sitting through the service was appalling to them, but provided a sense of normalcy for me. I celebrate Dad’s life every day, when I fix the car, redo a room in the house, or watch football. My friends and I often discuss those that we’ve lost while walking through a garden, or the local hardware store. Grieving is an individual process. Many times a professional can help guide a person through the process, offering the support and suggestions to move through to the next exciting installment of life.