When I lost my mum in 2018, it hit me hard. Sure, those who did offer condolences were sympathetic, but few seemed to know what to say.
With one or two exceptions, they fell into two camps: either they were quick to share a story about how they’d also lost a parent, or loved one, and knew exactly what you were going through, or took the line that she’d had a good, full life and well, she was almost 79 and you’re what? 52? Get over it mate. Time to move on.
Although well-meaning, I know, neither approach really helped.
It’s not easy, I totally get that. We don’t get a guide book on these things and it can be incredibly uncomfortable for those who maybe didn’t know the person you lost, or understand the nuances of the relationship you had.
Unfortunately, it’s something almost all of us will confront, if you haven’t already, and as we age so does the frequency of us finding ourselves in the position of support for grieving family and friends.
But what can you possibly even say when nothing in your power can change what your friend is going through?
After running a crematorium for a number of years, Tania Howard, CEO of Centenary Memorial Gardens in Brisbane, knows more than most just how difficult the support role can be for many.
While no two people grieve in the same way, Tania tells us that there are some basic guidelines you can follow if you want to offer your bereft friend or family member support that makes an impact.
Below are her tips to keep in mind:
People often talk about the value of understanding that you don’t understand. Even if you have navigated a similar loss and felt a similar type of grief – this relationship was different, its background was different, the journey between the bereaved and the departed was different – therefore, the loss is unique. Treat the situation as though it is the only one like it in the world. For the grieving person, it is the only loss in their world.
Be aware of corrective listening
Other people’s pain can be uncomfortable to endure. It’s easy to interject someone’s emotional share with “that’s not true, you were great” or “that person wouldn’t want you to feel this way”. The term for this is corrective listening, and while you are trying to ease the burden, it’s not helpful. In fact, it makes the other person feel misunderstood and unheard. What a grieving person feels, however negative it may be, is 100% valid even if it’s not true.
Ask what they need – but use phrases that require a “yes” or “no” response
Those early days of grief are overwhelming. It’s difficult to think straight and make sense of basic concepts. It’s helpful to ask how you can help, but the generic “let me know if I can help with anything” is not going to suffice. Phrases like “can I bring you some supper” or “do you need help fetching some groceries” or “can I give you lift” or “is someone assisting you with funeral arrangements” are immensely helpful. They require only a yes or no answer. Plus, you can choose a way to help that suits your own schedule when you make the suggestion.
Grief can go one of many ways
Understand that grief has no rules. A person who has lost a loved one may choose to withdraw socially and take many months before emerging again. A person may thrust themselves into a crazy new adventure like an overseas trip or packing up the house and selling it. Some individuals go through an identity change – they colour their hair or buy a motorcycle.
Different people have different ways of adapting to this enormous change. As a concerned bystander, you may support the process by standing ready if there are consequences and by remaining a voice of reason. Remember that grief requires breathing space, so don’t try to control it. Facilitate it and be a friend that’s readily available.