So I - with my engineer brain - thought I had this grief thing figured out. Just be helpful, do the little things that nobody wants to do. Don't give meaningless platitudes. Don't bring food, there's enough of that. Etc.
Fast forward, a good friend lost his sister last year. A few days after the funeral I went over to his house and started mowing his lawn. He was pissed, maybe more angry than I'd ever seen him. He just wanted me to come by with a 6-pack and watch a game.
My wife loves a clean house, it is big part of her identity. Her friends knew/know that about her. My friend didn't actually care about his lawn, but he adores baseball, and loved watching Cubs games with his sister.
Grief isn't one-size-fits-all and helping people isn't paint-by-numbers.
On day one I received dozens of bouquets of flowers and enough food to fill the fridge and freezer three times over.
On day fourteen all the flowers had died and the food gone bad. I received practically no phone calls or visitors in the months that followed.
If you want to support someone through grief just stay in contact with them regularly over an extended period of time.
Grieving takes a long time, and is a delicate, individual process. It takes years to fully process. Don't rush anyone who's grieving, ever.
Encourage them to get professional help if THEY feel like they need to. Don't immediately push them to see therapists.
I have heard that flowers are the absolute worst thing to send for exactly the reason you’ve mentioned. I am sorry you did not have the social support that might have made a small difference.
We had a fairly rich social life before she died, but many people just stopped keeping in touch.
Maybe they don't know what to say or feel uncomfortable around us now.
We are supporting a close family friend in the loss of their son. I will keep this in mind. They will need us and it is easy to let it slip.
Hear them grieve. The release of strong emotion is important. It's a sharing of pain, and in that telling there is also bonding through shared experiences.
Spend time with them. Being alone can amplify strong emotions and can lead to dangerous behavior. Just being there helps. And like hearing them, having been there counts. It's a shared thing, a bond, that brings strength to all involved.
Help meet basic needs. Food, comforts, house work, and all the little things matter. Grieving people lack energy and a little boost can help them get through a day.
Getting through a day, especially the first day, matters a lot. Each day they get through sees the grief play out a little bit at a time. The early times are most important! Grief and it's impact on people is most potent at the onset.
And don't force things, unless it's absolutely necessary. An example might be not leaving a parent alone after they have learned a child committed suicide. I did that recently. No, not my loss, but a close friend of the family. Their grief is profound, and leaving them alone unwise. If you are faced with this, be a great human and do your best. There are no easy or right answers. Just caring and sharing.
If it's the loss if of their child, bring up the child by name. Yes, it will trigger some emotions in the bereaved, but it also lets them know that someone else remembers their child's life.
Other than that, perhaps help them seek out a formal self-help support group if they are so inclined. The Compassionate Friends -- such a group supporting relatives after a child dies -- is one good example for my case. My wife and I think that TCF really helped us. I'm sure there are similar groups for other bereavement situations.
Don't expect them to ever "be the same" again. They most likely can't be...
I second the suggestion to bring food; ideally something that can be kept in the freezer if they're being inundated by food right now.
Or if you're a neighbor you could offer to walk their dog, or drive their kids to/from school with yours. Anything you can think of that makes sense for you to do that might take some of their burdens off their shoulders for a bit.
That is really good advice.
My uncle’s brother died long ago, so he told me something of the opposite - that I would think about this every day of my life. But it had to become a piece of me, and not the whole me. And that I’ll never be able to reconcile the rest of my life, but I could, right now, set a timer and do something for the next five minutes. Like physically move 10 yards to sit on the lawn. And then a new place for the next five minutes. Write something down. Start with single words when sentences are too ambitious. Read one page from a book and then rest.
The gains from each tiny step in one direction add up. The focus is intense, like an addict. At the end of a year, I wasn’t just running marathons, I was winning marathons. It could have gone better, but it definitely could have gone a lot worse.
Good luck soldier.
If they talk, then respond based on what they said. In particular if they are telling stories (sharing memories) about the deceased, then you should as well, if you have any. Don't talk too much (especially not about yourself), but sharing memories is good, if they are, or if they seem to want to hear more.
If they are silent, then you also stay silent, and just be there.
If they seem uncomfortable in the silence, but don't know how to talk, then share a memory of the deceased, but you should not talk too much. You are not there to entertain them, nor are you there to "take their mind off things".
Do NOT make them host you!!! They should not be cooking food for you, and bringing you a chair, or anything like that. You should do it for them. They should just be there, with people around them.
Also, don't overdo it. People want time with others, and they want time alone. With Shiva the mourners are recommended to set a schedule saying when they want visitors, so they can control how much time they want alone vs accompanied, and it also lowers the burden of hosting, since they don't have to always be ready for a visitor. (Some people do an hour a day, others 5 hours or more.)
When one is grieving, let them set the agenda. Don't push them to do anything. Everyone processes grief differently, and we all need to come to the reality of our loss in our own way and our own time.
If you start making "suggestions" or trying to "help" someone process their grief without being invited to do so, all you're doing is adding to the stress of the situation, not alleviating it.
And this doesn't just apply to the grief of loss either. Sometimes (often), in times of stress, folks want/need to express themselves and often ask questions and express doubts.
That doesn't mean they actually want answers. Rather, they're expressing their thoughts and feelings and just need to do so without comment, judgement or suggestions as to how to "fix" the problem.
So just listen and give the grieving person what the specifically ask for. The most important thing is to actually be there.
That's a lesson that took me a long time to learn. I'm someone who tries to be empathetic and wants to "help" by creating a solution. But often it's not a solution that's needed or wanted, just an ear, a shoulder and no judgement.
It's possible to adopt or create rituals, if others who are grieving are willing to participate. But it often seems like ones already in someone's culture "stick" the best.
For me, being around friends and family and keeping myself busy helped the most. Keeping up with my hobbies, hanging out with friends, and focusing on work kept me sane. Not sure if it was the healthiest method, but I tend to get a little self destructive when my mind is left to itself.
Avoid the "what ifs". You cannot go back in time, and it is unfair to yourself to constantly question what you could have done different. Be kind to yourself.
Finally, one comment that deeply resonated with me during a time of grief is this reddit comment. It helped give me some perspective in a time that seemed void of hope.
1. "Things will get better."
2. "I understand your loss."
3. "Here's how we can fix the problem."
Some insight into why can be gained by watching the short video, It's Not About the Nail:
In many (but not all) cases, if the grieving are willing to communicate at all, they want their cries of pain heard and listened to. They would rather that you cried with them instead of trying to tell them that there is light at the end of the tunnel or that there is a 'fix' for their 'problem' or that we must accept that life is hard and unfair and suck it up.
People often act what's appropriate to their culture, which is a faux pas to the other culture. So you should probably be really careful and spot what the person needs. But listening and nodding is often the safer route.
What the parent is getting at is solving the problem type interactions. There are not really solutions, more like coping, learning how to go forward and live...
You are not wrong. Emotions can be reasoned with and through. But that is not really where one starts with basic, profound grief.
That's part of my point though. There are problems to solve, like "this person isn't going to have any energy and still has to do all the usual living stuff", which is why bringing food, helping with housework, pets, that sort of thing is useful. But the grief itself isn't a problem looking to be solved. If you think that is a problem to solve, that's an error in your reasoning.
If that's not painting "logical-thinking programmers" as people that aren't able to take emotions into account when dealing with people, I don't know what point they tried to make.
Nobody but you said "can't."
It was guidance away from what some may think is helpful, and that is all it was. I would bet it was also learned from their own experiences too.
What I know about grief was.
Check on people.
Above all else, for the love of God.
Do not offer solutions. Don't tell someone they need to get help( in America this is often unaffordable anyway).
If someone has financial needs after a passing, you don't need to help them, but don't offer half baked solutions.
There's very little help for poor people in America. Getting assistance can take years if it's possible at all. Many movies which depict poverty show a fantasy version where you can call up 1-800-get-home and get placed in a unit within the week. This is something I'm unfortunately very familiar with, never assume that you know more about someone's situation than they do.
Now if you want to help, make sure you know the person very well, remember they owe you nothing. They don't even owe you friendship. That said I provided one of my best friends with a token amount of money which was enough to allow him to move to another country and start a new life.
And as of the universe smiled at me, I got a 30k raise within months of providing said help.
If I could be transported today and visit my former self at that time, it's not clear my words or presence would make any difference since even in this hypothetical scenario there is no "I understand what you are going through" unless you are in the same abyss at the same time. What may have made the difference is if I could have visited myself a month prior to his accident and told myself to commit to the Jewish practice of the Shiva (7 days of mourning). It at least would have put in my mind a time-box goal. But telling myself after the fact would have been too late since I was barely conscience in a meaningful sense.
Also depending on the circumstance, prolonged depression, or thoughts of revenge as a path to end your emotional pain, may be unavoidable. In S.Junger's book "Tribe" he discusses evolutionary basis for depression. If someone dies that is demographically similar to you and in your Tribe, then your brain makes you depressed because historically humans died violent deaths. The benefit of depression is that it makes you inconspicuous (e.g., hunched to reduced physical size, quiet, sleepy) which put you out of harms way. This is more true if your tribe is small and revenge is not practical.
So to anyone reading this, please commit now to timebox your inevitable future mourning periods. 7 days is perhaps too ambitious since in our time we confront death less frequently than when that Jewish law was prescribed. But you should set some goal. You owe it to the deceased to minimize the time in your life where you aren't alive in a meaningful sense. saadalem I regret and recognize I didn't answer your question or provide optimism. Fortunately advice mentioned in the other comments are really good and after reading some of them, it would have definitely helped me during that time.
> You owe it to the deceased to minimize the time in your life where you aren't alive in a meaningful sense
I don't agree with that. I don't think I "owe" them in any sense, just like I don't consider that they owe me anything.
If you're not the one grieving, as others have said, giving "helpful advice" isn't helpful and it won't get followed anyway. Grief isn't something you can fix. Listen. I have several good listeners around me, including my wife, and a counsellor through work, and I'm really glad of that. Most people seem to consider "go to a counsellor" unhelpful advice, and won't, but they really should! And switch if you don't like the first one you go to (I've been lucky and haven't had to switch).
If you're the one grieving, everyone experiences it differently. If there is "someone to blame" the anger can eat away at people - restorative justice stuff can help. In our situation what happened was a geniune accident. Some family have accepted that (it was always my view) and some are just really angry. And I don't know what to do there.
Different events multipled by different people means many different possible responses! I've been told that people do go through Elizabeth Kubler-Rosses stages of grief, but in a completely random order.
Wierd stuff brings it back, you cry over things that make no sense at all. For me, gradually those feelings have lost their sharpness. I'm sad but not to the point of tears.
If you're the one who is grieving, you can give "helpful advice" that provides a sense of perspective, to yourself. For example, my understanding that this was probably a genuine accident, even before the police confirmed that. You'll still cry, it'll still be hard, you're a person not a robot.
I do wonder how modern western life make us less prepared for this sort of thing. The world for us westerns (pre COVID anyway) is so safe that outside expected deaths of people in their old age, experience of grief is uncommon. In e.g. Britain this change happened in the mid 18th century. Now, most people haven't experienced a younger person they know dying, so have no clue what it's like. And that brings on the unhelpfulness.
Most curiously, the stages of grief were originally about /the experiences of people who were dying/, not the survivors.
Here's a really excellent podcast, four any who might be interested:
The closest analogous life experience I can think of is trying to sell or purchase a home with a mortgage, except the process can take over a year from the first time you contact a lawyer, they won't tell you when it ends or how frequently you'll need to do things, and it's much crueler as it's obviously not something you wanted to do in the first place.
When my dad died, people said all sorts of stupid shit to me. A billion variations on "I'm sorry for your loss." They'd tell me how much they loved him. What they'd miss about him. Bla fucking bla di bla. One person managed to say something completely different, I won't repeat it here, because it was unique and situationally specific -- but that was kinda refreshing.
Cut the crap, your blandishments do nothing for anybody. What I needed was somebody to fucking listen. Sit there and be silent long enough for me to open up. Or just sit there and be a quiet friend. Or get me out to take a walk. And not say much. Bring a lasagna or something so I don't need to figure out dinner. Come over and wash some dishes, or something. Some people might even have an answer to "what can I do to help." If you know a person well enough to know the difference between a hard no and a polite "I don't need the help," use that, a little firmness will probably be appreciated.
The main thing is just showing up and doing little things that will be helpful - like clean their place if it’s messy, make them a few meals, talk with them, etc
Keeping that in mind, the people who made me feel better were those who added some occasional (repeat - occasional) humor and positivity to lighten up the mood.
So rather than being all gloom and doom with the grieving if you notice them going through a less painful moment until the next wave hits, try engaging them in some upbeat conversation.
this is the best model I've ever seen:
In which way did it help you?
Nobody died actually, but it would be the final and last time I ever saw a girl I was with.
You can't do much more than that. It's up to the people grieving to choose what to do. Some prefer to be left alone, others would like to go for a walk, others just talk for a bit.
Some who have experienced such emotional trauma tell of a desert afterwards: a retreat, a place of half life and a place of healing. We walk and view the reflections of our life and listen to the whispers on the wind. Do not rest too long: there are dangers. Avoid the middle of the desert. Here the light is different: like treacle, it is thick and it flows. Time does not pass -- the air is still and things do not move; just the shadows, first they are here then they are there. These places can swallow you up like quick sand: walk away!
Keep walking and walking and walking. When the path is tough, just little steps will do; one after the other. Do not be afraid to take a hand: it will not pull you down but guide you on and carry you through the roughest terrain: Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. On and on we go. But slowly we heal, our wounds dry up and seal, our despair evaporates and is carried away on the winds. Life returns.
The misery that has seeped out from our hearts dries and slowly crystallises to form gems containing the rainbow of our memories. They line the chambers of the heart: our inner selves; a hall of celebration. Shine the light, and let these jewels colour your every day!
It really was a incredibly lonely, isolating experience.
To top it off, many friends left the Bay Area. I fortunately was not grieveing alone as my boyfriend’s cat inherited me, his next human.
The things that people normally get help with, or support- couldn’t be done. I was pretty alone cleaning out my boyfriends’ apartment, didn’t get to have any kind of service for either of them; and I had nothing to occupy my time except “what if” thoughts - but few people willing to discuss with me.
What would be most helpful for the grieving?
- If you can be with that person, be with them.
- Do share stories, photos, memories of the deceased if you knew them.
- Let them manage the conversation.
- If they want to go through the “what if’s” with you, entertain them! This was the most healing interactions I had.
- especially don’t tell a suicide loss survivor anything regarding them being at fault or not. They don’t need to hear it; and indeed they have been thinking about these what if’s constantly when alone. “It’s not your fault” can be interpreted as a sign that your support has boundaries and you don’t wanna discuss. Better to LISTEN to everything they want to discuss. If it was a suicide, gently tell them “I hear you,” and suggest even if they, the bereaved, intervened in the situation that ended their loved one’s life; they may have changed the outcome that day; but every day to the deceased was challenging. It takes professional help to pull someone out of a suicidal mindset; and even then it’s not a guarantee they wouldn’t have been successful eventually.
- Finally, check in with them around the anniversaries of their passing. One month, six months, one year, 18 months. Trust me, they won’t forget the date, they really need extra support then.
- Boys do cry. Anyone who told me that “Boys don’t cry” bull**t, I immediately found untrustworthy to confide in and share my grief with. Even though I had only one person tell me that, it was completely not what I needed. Don’t judge anyone’s reactions to grief. Do let people feel.
- My boyfriend Spencer, age 32, was a loving person who had a wonderful soul. I still like to discuss him to keep his memory alive; I find those who are not afraid to bring him up also, to be my closest friends.
- You/everyone else around the grieving will probably get tired of hearing about the deceased over and over again. There is no timeline or end date to grief. I still feel their loss as heavy today as previously.
I hope this helps.
The dead still exist exist but not within our forward lightcone or present moment.