How to Help Someone Who Is Grieving
What you should do when someone you love is suffering.
Posted Apr 25, 2016
When a loved one dies, we often spend a lot of time thinking about ourselves: how we’ll never be able to see them, spend time with them or touch them ever again. On some level, we realize that their presence, which at one point permeated our lives like a thick fog, will eventually settle and fade away. Details, which were once so clear, will melt into hazy memories. Did he have dimples? What did his hands feel like? What was that thing he always used to say?
In the last year and a half, since my father passed away, I have been on a slow, strange journey toward healing, which feels less like healing and more like struggling to survive in the wilderness, the kind Hugh Glass knows all too well.
My father left behind a wife, who he had been married to for nearly 40 years, two daughters, a son, one daughter-in-law, a dog and a cat.
While we have shed tears together and suffered the most tragic loss of our lives, we have all grieved separately and differently.
My mom, who has always been my hero, has steadily lost hope during this time. During my last trip home, I realized that she is waiting for her own demise as she regularly reminds me where her will, her bank account info, the safety deposit key, all lie in case something happens to her.
When I tell her that she is only 67, still young enough to have a rich and vibrant life (even love!), she calls me ridiculous and says she wants none of it. She doesn’t want to move on. She doesn’t want a second go at life. She doesn’t want to face the world alone. She will simply continue existing for her children and grandchild, and that is that. It is an agonizing admission for both of us.
She has even broached the idea of selling the house and moving into an apartment, an idea that she had flat-out refused months before. We both know that this was not a real option—to her, an apartment is tantamount to death—a coffin with carpet. When I asked her why she was suddenly considering moving, she said she didn’t want to deal with the upkeep of our house anymore. It’s old and constantly plagued by plumbing problems and other costly expenses. All things my dad would have maintained.
My mom has always made it clear that she will not, cannot, live alone. So part of me wonders if she has brought this up so I might offer to move back to live with her or invite her to live with me.
Instead of empathy, I am filled with frustration. Why can’t she just pull herself together and be independent? Why can’t she move on? Why can’t she do anything on her own anymore?
Then, I think about how I am a bad daughter—one who can’t afford to buy her a nice new house, has no desire to move in with her and has no idea how to help her through this horrific experience.
But most of all, how I can quickly end this painful chapter in our lives. When, if ever, will she (or any of us) find real closure?
“Closure isn’t really the thing that people think it is,” she says. “The belief it exists and ought to be a ‘goal’ of grief is simply not helpful.”
For more than a decade, she has been telling her grief support group to “let go of the notion of closure.” It is healthier to work toward integration, she says, which is the process of “figuring out how to integrate the experience into who we are and what that will look moving forward.”
It was when her son passed away in 2004, that Soos was forced to go through this process herself. “How was I ever going to simply be OK with the giant hole that was left in our family?” She quickly realized that seeking closure or getting over his death was an impossible expectation—and that the real task was to integrate his loss into her life. So she sought ways to continue to parent him and honor his life. This, she says, was the key to finding peace again.
Even the five stages of grief, the seminal research pioneered by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, wasn’t designed to help the bereaved, says Soos.
“It’s a very different process,” she says. “Yet so many people think they are expected to walk through the stages in a linear fashion because that is how you ‘do grief correctly.”
In other words, the grieving process is unique to each person. The best way to offer support, however, is not.
“Just listen,” says Donna Henes, a funeral celebrant and spiritual counselor who has helped mourners for more than 35 years. “The kindest thing to do is to listen, to ask questions and share memories.” Doing so “confirms the depth of their grief and keeps the love alive.”
It’s also important to be thoughtful of what you say. Platitudes such as: “Time heals all wounds” or “They are in a better place” are not helpful and can be extremely irritating to hear, says Henes.
Jennifer Kelman, a clinical social worker and professional coach, agrees. She suggests doing regular check-ins with grieving loved ones, and offering a simple: “I’m here and am around if you want to just be.”
Most importantly, Kelman says to “remove any timeline from the grieving process.” Supporters may feel like the person suffering ‘should be over it by now,’ which may put pressure on the griever to rush through the process, but in fact, this will only delay their healing.
What does this all mean? It means I’ve been doing it all wrong. While I may be in a hurry to reset my life, it doesn’t mean my mom is. And it’s not fair nor realistic to pressure her to do so.
The best thing I can do is simply to let her know that I’m here for her and that she can take all the time she needs.
That is what a good daughter does.
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