Why didn’t you reach out when you were grieving, I would have been there for you? Why didn’t you lean in when I when was grieving, I needed to know you cared?
And so goes the merry-go-round of what to do when someone you care for is in grief. Whether that be the loss of a parent, a child a sibling, friend or pet, the divorce of a partner or the ending of a job.
With loss comes grief.
I have heard ambulance officers say, with multiple casualties, they always treat the quiet ones first because they are the ones likely to be the most hurt.
In my experience, the same goes for someone in grief. A withdrawal from people and a quietening of personality can indicate a deep state of pain. When one is suffering from an enormous loss, it can feel impossible to reach out. It’s got nothing to do with ego or the appearance of trying to be strong and it’s not always about wanting to be left alone or needing space. Grief at times becomes an inward journey. You know when you slam your finger in the door and it throbs so much, you grab it, hold your breath and can’t speak or move? For some, that’s just what grief is like.
Coupled with the flashbacks of memories and in the cases of being there until the end when a person or pet dies, the memories of the last minutes, hours and days can be especially confronting.
Having lost both parents, grandparents, a friend to suicide, two friends in car accidents and beloved pets, when I grieve, the pain is so raw, so intense, so brutally heart wrenching, that all my energy is focused on just staying upright and taking the next breath until the grief loosens and it’s intensity releases its grip. As a therapist, when a client comes through my door struggling to deal with unresolved grief, our discussions often focus around the need to feel supported by friends and family and the confusion about why these people may have disappeared or why some people may have literally moved into the house and taken over.
Grief is certainly confusing. One moment can feel OK and the next without warning can be desperately emotional, even angry. The waves of grief appear spontaneously and at times insurmountable. The rollercoaster of emotions can be a hard and exhausting ride not just on the person who has experienced loss, but by the people standing by witnessing it.
As proposed by Elisabeth Kugler-Ross in her book, ‘On Death and Dying,’ there are five stages of loss.
1. Denial and Isolation
We don’t always go through each of these stages in that order or experience them all but for some people they do and they can all be experienced in a day, over many days, months and even years.
Grieving takes enormous energy, its a process that must be allowed to pass through every part of our being. The early days of grief challenge us because the realisation of loss hasn’t quite settled in properly, such as when you wake up in the morning and for a split second, everything is OK until your memory kicks in and reminds you that your brother, Mother, dog or job are no longer there. Then the weight of loss hits you again and grieving takes over. For others, it’s like a marathon that has many twists and turns up a steep and rocky mountain with no designated path and where some points in the journey are harder than others. It’s lonely climbing this treacherous mountain and just breathing takes the only remnants of energy you have.
So, for someone in grief, they may want you to know this, “Please don’t think you are not needed when I don’t reach out to you. I can’t reach out to you, I’m stuck on this huge insurmountable mountain, all the way over here in grief land so I can’t possibly make the trip all the way over to you and then come back here again. What I need is for you to walk towards me, meet me at my point of despair, and tell me you are here, right beside me, even if only for a brief second. That gives me a short time to rest. That unstraps the burden of weight from my aching heart and allows me to feel like I’m being held. Your outstretched hand lightens the load and interrupts the loop of emotional intensity playing in my mind and creates enough of a moment, so I can catch my breath before this mountain of grief summons me to keep climbing.”
If your grieving friend or family member hasn’t reached out to you, remember it’s not because they don’t need you or want to hear from you, they may not be in a place emotionally where they can. This is the time where you need to reach out to them, no matter how fleeting. No one would ever expect you to drop your life, your kids and your job, nor would your person in grief want you to step outside of what is comfortable for you.
So, what can we do to support our friend, colleague or family member through their loss or show you care, even if you don’t know how? Is there an etiquette to loss?
1. Do what is right for you and trust your intuition.
2. Rather than say, ‘if you need anything, call me.’ The person may find reaching out too difficult. Instead, lean in to them and ask how they are doing today.
3. In this situation, silence is not golden. Your silence could in fact be deafening and create a deep rift of confusion. If you are unsure, uncomfortable and just not knowing what to do, a simple text saying you are thinking of the person is all that is needed.
4. If you are comfortable, drop in with a card, flowers or a meal. Or, leave it at the door. It really doesn’t matter what the object is, it shows you’ve been thinking of the person.
5. Call. Your phone call may not be taken but the act of dialling and being willing to talk to the person in grief highlights your willingness to be supportive and that can mean so much more than you realise.
6. If it’s a work colleague, be aware the last thing they’ll want to do is be emotional at their workplace, so acknowledge them and their loss via an email, note or card on their desk and they’ll open it when they feel strong enough. Take their lead and if they are ready to talk and if it is appropriate, perhaps find a quiet space and just listen. A colleague once left a little mini photo open album on my desk with a card saying they didn’t know what to do but wanted to express their support and sympathy so they purchased this little photo album because it had been done for them once and it meant a great deal. I found that to be beautifully thought out and I’ve never forgotten that act of consideration.
7. Send a message sharing how you have gone through grief. Some people need reassurance that the pain will ease eventually.
8. If you are concerned about your friend or family member at all, gently recommend that calling Beyond Blue could help 1300 22 4636
The most important thing you can continue to do is communicate, it’s the cooling, soothing balm that lets the person in grief know they are cared for.