When something, or someone is lost, there is always a void left in the wake. That void is grief. Grief is felt absence.
It’s felt by those on its precipice, it ripples outward from there. Is someone you know grieving? Are they peering over the ledge of the void? Are you not sure how to help them? This one’s for you.
Over the last three years, I have born witness to incredible amounts of grief. I have been lucky: My loved ones are alive and well. But in rapid succession, I watched many of the people I love and have close proximity to suffer tremendous loss. Here’s what I’ve learned.
Anticipatory versus unexpected grief
There is no easy way to lose someone.
But grief can come slowly, over a prolonged period of time, sometimes before the loss has even occurred. For example, if when someone has an acute illness or is declining in health in old age, their loved ones often begin the grieving process before they pass. That is, they begin to grapple with the fact that their loved one will not always be there and all the complex emotions that come with that. This might mean that at the moment of the actual loss, they will have already have approached some of the complicated feelings that come with grief mentally.
While it is never easy to lose a loved one, anticipatory grievers often do have the opportunity to say what they want to say to their loved ones before the actual passing occurs. People going through this type of grief often recover more holistically for this reason.
More acute grief comes with an unanticipated loss — a car accident or an expected health event, for example. The unexpectedness of the situation and the lack of reconciliation opportunities often make this type of grief more complex and disorienting. This type of grief will almost certainly require extra layers of support and most likely therapy as any outstanding business with the lost loved one must be reconciled independently and will be less concrete.
Acknowledge the loss
Step one in supporting a griever is to acknowledge their loss. It sounds obvious but it’s surprisingly not as common as you might hope.
When someone is brought into the throws of grief, their reality goes into a state of flux. Things that were once routine feel different, heavy. Their minds race with questions and are flooded with past, present, and future all at once.
Once of the most important things you can do is acknowledge the loss. Ground them. Validate their reality. I see you. I understand that this must be hard for you.
Every acknowledgement is a lighthouse in a storm. The storm doesn’t stop. But steady ground exists.
It’s the first and most important step. Do not tell yourself that you’re giving them space or wait on them to reach out. Do not make excuses — and understand that any excuse you come up with is an act of selfishness — you’re the one avoiding them because of inconvenience. If you can’t do this, you are no friend at all.
In your acknowledgment, do not placate. This step is all business. You cannot change the outcome. You know that; they know that. You are merely assisting them in pounding down a stake in the tent of their reality. No advice, no creating false hopes, no appeals to higher authorities.
It might look like this.
I heard about the death of your father. I am very sorry to hear of your loss. I am here for anything you need.
Start there. Do it as soon as possible.
Drop all expectations
When someone you love is grieving, you need to absolve them of any expectations you have of them.
Your birthday? Doesn’t matter. You had plans they flaked on? Never happened. Let it go. It’s not personal. Free them from accountability so that they have the space, time, and mental bandwidth and emotional capacity to recalibrate to their new reality. Do not anchor them with trivialities. Do not add to their burden. Do not saddle them with more weight.
Be quick with forgiveness. You might find yourself on the receiving end of an out-lash that may feel confusing and out of context. Grief requires sitting in uncomfortable emotions for extended periods of time. Sometimes, that leads to channeling negative energy outwardly, and not always in the right directions. If you find yourself on the receiving end of a negative outburst of emotion, remember that it might not be personal.
Continue to check in with them periodically, even if they miss a response or two.
The first year
The first year after a loss are especially raw. The first birthday, the first holidays, the first anniversaries all bring the felt absence back to the forefront.
Check in during these times.
In subsequent years, these milestone occasions will still sting, but as time goes on, the grieving person will become more accustomed to their love one not being a part of these events.
Grief is often a major catalyst for life shake ups in other areas. Grievers often describe seeing the world through a fresh lens, as if for the first time. It can come paired with career shifts, reevaluation of relationships, and drastic shifts in lifestyle. Sometimes, these are rooted in grasps for control over one’s life in the face of something so final and unalterable. These shifts are most likely to occur in the first year.
One consideration when sending gifts. In many cultures, it is common to send gifts to a griever in the aftermath of a loss. Most often, the idea is to lighten the grievers day-to-day load in some way, such as sending prepared food or self-care packages that include things such as candles, luxury toiletries, essential oils, and things in that space.
Because it is common place for the griever to receive an outpour of these types of gestures immediately following the loss, consider sending a gift approximately one month after the loss. You can send something like flowers or even just a text message or phone call immediately so as to acknowledge the loss as soon as possible, but later send a gift so that they receive the thoughtful sentiment during a time where they feel that their grief may have been forgotten by the rest of the world. Additionally, this measure ensures that these helpful resources arrive and are available for a longer period of time instead of front-loaded at a time that the griever is in their most acute state of shock.
When grieving, happiness can feel like a betrayal
When a grieving person does begin to experience moments of happiness after a loss, they often feel guilt.
Happiness after a loss can feel like a betrayal of the loved one to a griever. They often equate finding joy in the aftermath of a loss as letting go of their loved one. This complexity makes the recovery process more difficult.
When organic, remind them that their loved one would want them to be happy. That enjoying moments of happiness does not mean they miss their loved ones any less. Hearing these things, separating them in their minds can help them lean into moments of happiness and the future without the sense that they are leaving their loved one behind.
There’s no moving on from grief
Its important to remember that no one “moves on” from grief. That felt absence becomes part of their reality indefinitely. Its sting will manifest periodically, triggered by memories, smells, songs, and places. It will always be there.
Avoid using language that suggests “getting over” or “moving on” from grief. Understand that the goal isn’t to put the loss behind them, but to adjust to the shift in reality which their loved one is no longer a part of.