Wednesday, December 19, 2012

How to Help Someone Who is Grieving


After dealing with my brother's murder and finding myself virtually abandoned by most of my friends, I was devastated. The thing is though, most of them didn't do it because they were insensitive dicks. They did it because they didn't know what to do to help me. Rather than say the wrong thing, they said nothing. I get it. I do. Most days.

What I really want to do is help others help people who are experiencing devastating loss not feel as alone as I did. Whether someone has lost a child, had a loved one murdered, experienced a loss to suicide or simply lost their grandmother, they need you. Even if you aren't close, they need you. So be there. For them. Even if they are a virtual stranger. In the long run, strangers were some of the people that helped me the most.

Most of this pertains mainly to tragic loss, but it can help you help someone that is experiencing any type of loss.


How to Help Someone Dealing with Devastating Loss

They may need some space in the beginning.
When devastating loss first happens, it is impossible for the grieving to comprehend what is going on. They have no words and are often just blank inside, erased by what has happened. They may need some time to be able to speak with others. Let them know that you are there for them, but don't be offended if they don't return your call, even if you were very close before the tragedy.

Call. Call again. Then call again. Then call some more.
They may not want to talk in the beginning, but don't stop trying to reach out to them. And trying. And trying. Because by the time they are ready to speak to people and need someone to talk to, most people have stopped trying. And the grieving are most likely not going to call you when they need help. So keep calling and emailing and texting and trying. Because even if they don't pick up the phone, they feel better knowing you are there and that you care.

Understand that their loss is different.
This is one of the biggest things to realize when helping someone deal with devastating loss. No two people grieve the same and there is no greater demonstration of this than when dealing with the tragic loss of a loved one. There are a few things to note on this topic:
  • Don't give advice. Unless you have walked a mile in the grieving's very specific shoes, advice can just make them feel that what they are doing is wrong.
  • Don't compare their loss to your own. Comparing a natural death or one that happened later in life can alienate someone grieving tragic loss and make them feel even more alone.
  • Avoid general condolences. "It was just their time", "God wanted another soldier", "Everything happens for a reason" and other general condolences can really hurt in the case of devastating loss. I found that, "There are no words" helped the most. Because there aren't.
Don't avoid the topic.
Understandably, when someone experiences tragic loss, their friends and family are at a loss of what to say, so they say nothing. This can make the grieving feel that their loved one's life was not important. It also takes away a much-needed outlet for the grieving. It is better to say something than to say nothing at all.

If they bring it up, don't clam up.
When the grieving do bring up what happened, no matter how horrific it was, don't clam up or change the subject. There is nothing more painful than opening yourself up only to be shut down by the person you finally felt comfortable talking with.

Get their mind off it.
Though pretending nothing happened is not the way the go, sometimes going out and doing normal things can help the grieving cope. Things that are a bit out of their comfort level might even help because they have to concentrate on the task at hand and not their loss. So, take them ice skating, or enroll in a painting class. Just include them.

Ask how they are doing.
People are often afraid that if they ask a person grieving a devastating death how they are doing, they will trigger thoughts of their loss. Believe me, they don't need a trigger. They think about it every minute of every day at the beginning, every other minute of the day in the middle, and every third minute of the day after time has passed. All asking will do is show the person that you care. And don't just ask right after it happens. Ask next month, next year, next decade. Forever. They will love you for caring and remembering what they have been through/will always be going through. 

Know that it takes a long time.
By the time the reality of what has happened sets in, most people think that the grieving should be "over it". Give the person time to grieve. Devastating loss is a lot to process. It can take months or years to even understand what happened enough to start grieving the person's loss, let alone if it was a violent or unexpected death. Remember that they will be very broken. Days, weeks, months, years from now.

And because it is important,
Text. Email. Call. Again. And again. And again.
Keep trying. And trying. And trying. Because knowing you are there for them will be the thing that helps them the most.

In memory of John. Wild and untamed. Forever.

62 comments:

  1. Thank you for this. I have a very recent acquaintance who just lost her sister to a tragic accident. I wasn't sure if I knew her well enough to contact her. I just wrote her an email.

    I completely admit to being one of the ones who doesn't know what to say or how to behave, and so instead do nothing. That changes now. I feel as if you have given your readers some great tools. Thank you, thank you.

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    1. Thank you. I just cried knowing that one person might have someone there for them that they otherwise might not have. This is why I opened myself up to this. THANK YOU!

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  2. I'm still at a loss what to do, but I'm trying to get the nerve to email. I feel like I've been too much of a jerk to try again. I was good friends with 2 brothers in high school, but lost touch. The younger brother killed himself 2 years ago. I ran into the older brother last year (we both moved out of state) and the entire conversation ignored that the younger brother had ever existed. I didn't want to "trigger" something, but waited for him to say anything. I felt terrible at the time, and I feel terrible about it now. I just...feel like I'm not close enough to randomly email 2 years later. Trying to get courage after reading this.

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    1. Don't feel bad. It is hard to bring up. And, again, it won't trigger anything. He thinks about it every day of his life. I can tell you from experience, he would appreciate knowing that you are thinking of him, and more importantly, his brother.

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  3. This is absolutely wonderful. I am so very sorry for your loss. If I lost my own brother I don't know what would become of me. A few years ago I lost my grandmother very suddenly (yes, grandparents are supposed to be some of the first people you lose, but not HER) and I experienced so much of what you've mentioned here.

    A few months ago a coworker of mine lost her mother due to cancer. Before she lost her mother, we were pretty close (as much as two people with a huge age difference who work together can be close) and I feel like I've let her down by not being there for her, just how I felt many people let me down when I was dealing with my own grief.

    Now I know a few ways I can try to rebuild that friendship, just by trying to be there for her, especially at this time as I know she's going to have it rough over the holidays.

    Thank you very much for this advice.

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    1. I am sorry for your loss, Annie. Good luck helping your friend through her grief. Every little bit helps.

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  4. First, I am so so sorry about your brother. I can't even imagine.

    My husband's mother died 3 years ago, very suddenly...pancreatic cancer hit her out of nowhere and killed her within a month of the first symptoms. She was an amazing lady, and the best mother-in-law anyone could ever have asked for. It nearly destroyed my husband...his father had already died a few years prior, he was incredibly close to his mom, and it happened two days after our wedding anniversary, right before Thanksgiving and Christmas, and his mom was a huge holiday person. This time of year has been breathtakingly difficult for him as a result, and it's doubly hard on him to deal with people urging him to celebrate when all he can think of is his mom's passing.

    This year, we bought our first Christmas tree, because I'm pregnant (due today, for what it's worth... baby's not budging) and he wanted to do pics of our daughter with all the traditional trappings if she actually shows before the tree goes brown. There were tears, on both our parts. It kills me to see and to know how hard it is for him (I lost my dad to AIDS 17 years ago...another holiday fan, and that first whole decade was achey at best when it came to the tree), and all I can do is be here and listen. My mom was so excited when she heard that Rob wanted to even get a tree this year, and she kept nudging and nudging and nudging as he kept putting it off... I fended her off for him, because I don't think she realized what she was doing. She saw it as healing progress, and in a way it probably is, but healing hurts like a motherfucker sometimes.

    I'm babbling. But I appreciate this post on many levels. All the best to you this holiday.

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    1. I am so sorry for all of your losses. Life is ridiculous sometimes. We lost my MIL to breast cancer 5 years ago. She also loved Christmas. Hang in there. And get that baby out soon!

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  5. Thank you for sharing something so personal, and reaching out to help others ... for someone who hasn't experienced this type of loss, it's hard to know how to help.

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    1. Thanks. It took A LOT for me to open up. But if I can help just one person, it was worth it.

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  6. Omg!! I needed this today. We just lost my aunt. My uncle thought he would out live her she wasn't even 60. I can't call him. Afraid all I could do is cry. She was great. I need to call him. At the very least email him. I know his pain is way more than mine. Thank you for this.
    Again I am sorry for your loss. There really are no words for shit like this! It's just crappy!!

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    1. I am sorry to hear about your aunt. Hugs to your family.

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  7. Thank you for writing this. It's hard for anyone to know how to help when horrible things happen and there is no better person to advise the helpers than someone who has been through it.

    Situations like Sandy Hook bring up feelings for anyone who has ever experienced trauma, and especially if you went through it as a child. I am all too aware of what the children will go through that DID survive. They are forever changed becasue of what they have seen, heard, smelled and felt. They will never be the same. Yes, they are resilient, but not exempt.


    I'm very proud of you for doing this and I really hope that doesn't sound patronizing. I can't imagine how hard it was to write, edit and finally publish this. I have worried about you since we first heard about your brother and never did muich more than ask you to talk to us when you were ready. We weren't close then, but are getting more so now. We are all still here. To read if you want to write. To hug if you want to meet and to get you drunk while listening to stories about him someday.

    Wishing you, and everyone for whom this has brought up reminders of tragedy,some peace.

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    1. Thanks, K. This was probably the post that I have worked the hardest on to date. I hope it can really get out there to people and help them help others. I just wish I could get it to all the people that live in Connecticut so they could help those that need it the most right now.

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  8. Could this have possibly been more appropriately timed? (Reference my blog post from this morning...)

    I was thinking about you and your brother and blogging last night, when I was trying to figure out how much to share about my own situation. I ultimately decided to go with the whole adage "A trouble shared is a trouble halved."

    I figure if my friends can't bring themselves to call and check on me, I'll put that shit out there anyway.

    Thanks for the post. :)

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    1. I am sorry about your mom. I hope that the time you have left is all that you want it to be. Hoping that when the time comes, your friends can be there for you. I will be.

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  9. I got halfway though this and stopped reading. A person's face popped into my mind. I knew I had to contact her. I searched all my information and could not find her number. So I looked through my email account and realized that one year ago today, her son died, after a dental appointment. He was 19 and a freshman in college.

    I still can't find her number, but I left an email, and will call a mutual friend and get it.

    Thanks for the reminder. As someone who lost 3 sister and 1 brother, and my mother ... I guess you can say naturally (all young), I feel like all loss is devastating, but I agree that is is impossible to compare one person's grief to another.

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    1. I am sorry for your losses. Thank you for reaching out to someone else who has lost.

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  10. I have been fnding that thinking of great things about others (diseased and otherwise) helps in our grieving (sharing these may help others too) ..and where it feels appropriate, telling others great things about them to them helps all of us in life.. Both of these "talks of gratitude and appreciate (for our future) usually takes a little willpower but if we are feeling pretty well ourselves (if it is really just being lightly stoic) then the "telling" comes easier & comes from sincerity.

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  11. Thank you for this post. My parent's best friend, whom I called Auntie, pass away from breast cancer a few months ago. Her son pre-deceased her by almost 10 years - he had a fatal drug reaction when he was 19. My Aunt's daughter, cousin by heart not by birth, is therefore left "alone" with only a distant father. She has anamzing husband, wonderful extended family and a beautiful little boy to help her through. But I want to do or say something... just something. My Aunt requested that there be no memorial service so I haven;t even seen my cousin since the passing.

    I have always hesitated in sitiations like this and maybe you can help me. I am a "blubber-er". I cry at the drop of a hat. I won't be able to talk to her without bawling my eyes out. I have always thought that the grieving person doesn't need me sobbing all over them... especially if their loss is so much bigger than my own in relation to the deceased. As the one who is grieving, would you rather me wait until I can get my shit together? Or would you like to see that the loss of your loved one is felt by many people?

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    1. I am sorry for your loss.

      If you can email her, start there. Tell her how you feel and that you are sorry for her loss. It might help you feel more in control if you see her face-to-cafe later.

      If not, just go for it. I am sure her knowing that you are also in pain will only help her feel less alone.

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    2. Thank you. I emailed her and let her know that I love her and am thinking of her. It must be particularly hard this time of year for all of those who are experiencing loss. I pray that you and your family are comforted and find moments of joy this season amidst the grieving that will inevitably come while missing your brother. And remember... rum and eggnog... rum and eggnog... rum... mmmm Rum! :)

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  12. I don't have anything to say, I am so blessed to have never suffered great loss or even had anyone close to me experience loss... So I am saving this away. Thank you. I hope I don't need to read this soon.

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  13. I'm so sorry for your loss. This was a wonderful post I'm sure will help lots of ppl. It must have been very hard to write. thank you

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    1. Thanks for sharing, Heather. I am sorry you have experienced so much loss in your life.

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  15. I am sending you the biggest hug ever, since yes, there are no words.

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  16. I'm so very sorry for the loss of your brother.

    One of my very oldest friends lost her three month old to SIDS in February of 2011, my first baby was 7 months old at the time. Needless to say it was devastating to her and heartbreaking for everyone. Though I didn't know what to do at the time I somehow managed to do all those things above, and mostly just BE there, for anything.

    The things she told me about what people were saying, it just sickened me. Blaming them, blaming the father, saying they deserved it, etc. I just can't even begin to wrap my head around it. And throughout it all, I was just there, because really, what else can you do?

    To this day our friendship is stronger because of it and both of our babies born this year with grow up knowing each other. I hate to say anything good came from the death of a child, but it's brought us closer together and it's brought me closer to God and to my children.

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    1. So very sad. It is horrible what some people will say after a loss. I am so glad you could be there for her.

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  17. The most important things to say are the hardest things to say. Hugs to you...

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  18. This was great. Shared it on Twitter!

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    1. Thanks. I truly believe that every share will help one more person.

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  19. I found your blog through the Bloggess. I love this post. Right now I am sitting in a hospital room with my dad who was hit on his motorcycle on Nov 3rd. We are still dealing with medical issues from the accident. So many emotions go through my mind everyday. Is he going to die, is he going to live. How will my mom be? Really thank you for being brave and sharing your story with the world!
    Angie

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    1. Angie, I am so sorry about your father. My other brother was in a motorcycle accident a few years ago and we went through a lot if the same things. Hang in there. Contact me if you need a friend.

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  20. --I love love love the photo w/ your lovely untamed brother.

    I identified completely w/ this post.

    thank you for sharing. Xxx

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  21. I am so sorry for your loss. What a horrible thing to go through.

    This advice is really wonderful, and I think it's so important that you put this together as people never know what to say or do.

    Your post really helped me. I have a friend who tragically lost her son a few years ago. We weren't overly close when it happened, but I did exactly as you said - I emailed and emailed and emailed. One day, she reached out to me, and we have developed a close bond, while her other close friendships have fallen apart. Maybe it really did mean something to her that I didn't give up. I hope so. She talks about her son, but she doesn't talk about what happened very easily, and she goes through periods of distance. But posts such as yours have helped me to "get it", and I know to keep trying, and not to give up.

    Thanks so much for sharing this on the link-up today. I'm so glad I read this, even though it means you had to experience such tragedy.

    I look forward to connecting more in 2013.

    xo
    Dani

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    1. Dani, thanks for so much for helping your friend. You may not know how much it meant to her but I can tell you it was the world when she needed it.

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    1. Thank you! If only I could get it out there to help more people!

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  23. I'm just catching up since the holidays and read this today. It's wonderful advice. You can never know the pain someone else has, but you know it sucks. I especially hated the "general condolences" when my mother suddenly passed away from stupid cholangiocarcinoma this year (which we'd never heard of a few weeks before). I'm so sorry about your brother. My heart goes out to everyone "celebrating" this holiday season missing someone so much.

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    1. Thanks, Kate. I am so sorry to hear about you mother.

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  24. Oh I so, so get this and can't thank you enough for sharing. I couldn't agree more with call, call and call again. I lost so many friends after the loss of our daughter. People just gave up on me, I haven't spoken to the maid of honor in my wedding since before my daughter's death. She just didn't get that I didn't have the strength to hold up my end of our friendship during that time.

    I'm so sorry you lost your brother way too soon.

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    1. Jessica, I am so sorry for your loss of Hadley. She not only had a beautiful name, but I am sure a beautiful soul to go with it. I have lost most of my friends since my brother's death. They just don't get what it is like. It is sad. Hopefully, like me, you have been able to find comfort in a few unexpected people. Always feel free to contact me if you ever need a stranger who understands.

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  25. I cant tell you how much this rings true. I lost someone very close to me to suicide a few years ago and I cant tell you the number of friends I lost. There are friends I had that felt truly angry, feeling as though I abandoned them and didnt care about them, when I just simply couldnt. Its interesting to hear this come out of someone elses mouth, because when the fights came, I didnt know how to defend my not being there for them and not calling, when I didnt know how to be there for myself.

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    1. I am sorry to hear that, Mija. I am here if you ever need to talk.

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  26. Thank you so much for this link, it acctually was sent to us by our friend who just lost her two years old daughter. Most of us care a lot about her and are truely sad not to have that lovely little girl with us, but we don't know how to act or what to say. As you said, unless you have been there you don't know how it feels.

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    1. I am so sorry for all of your loss. Please tell your friend to reach out to me if she needs anything. Seriously. Hugs to you all.

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  27. Thanks for this! Having lost my mom to cancer just a month before giving birth to her first grandchild, this really rings true to me. I've seen a lot of so-called friends disappear in the last year and a half -- but I've also seen many rise up and surprise me with their support. I wish more people understood how to help those who are grieving.

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  28. I am so sorry that your brother is gone. I can't imagine how devastating his death was and still is to you.
    Thank you for this wonderful post. I wish a few people I know would have read it after my mother died. Maybe then they would have had some friggin' clue how to console me.

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  29. Just discovered your blog from pregnant chicken's post on Facebook and happened across this post- thank you! I have a close friend who miscarried at 5 months with her first pregnancy & this post helps so much! When people go through horrible things, it's easy for us to become clueless about how to help. Thank you for pointing out that it's okay to ask about the situation and how she's is doing because she is most likely already thinking about it!

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  30. Hi Julie, I was showing a friend your hilarious videos over the weekend (the minivan one and the one about dressing your kid) and I stumbled upon this post of yours. I remember hearing about the loss of your brother on Facebook somewhere shortly after it happened but I don't think I knew he was murdered and I'm pretty sure I didn't reach out with my condolences... just didn't know what to say, it had been a long time since we communicated, etc. But after reading this post it made me want to reach out and say that I am so very sorry for your loss and your family's loss. I cannot even imagine and like you said, there are no words. Your post made me think a lot about the loss of my boyfriend 8 years ago and how I dealt with it and the circumstances of how it happened and the whole grieving process..Through it I had acquaintances become close friends of mine and close friends become acquaintances because of how they responded to my tragedy. I somehow understand how people can easily drift away because they don't know what to do..hell, I didn't know what they COULD do..but others seemed to know what I needed and I'll never forget that. Anyways, I just wanted to reach out and tell you how sorry I am and if you ever need someone to vent to or to discuss loss with or anything at all, I'll be there. We've sort of lost touch over the years as friends sometimes do but I'm still here and I still love you! Xoxo Katie

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I love hearing from you. It reinforces that writing this blog is not just a silly waste of my brain matter. If you leave a douche canoe comment, I will delete it. I am powerful like that.

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