A How to Guide to Help Your Person When They’ve Lost Their Person

People often come to me seeking advice for what to do when an important person in their life has received terrible news about an important person in their life. Although it is kind of nice to think that I’ve convinced people that I know what I’m doing in my grief, I actually have no idea. I also know that every person is different and approaches grief differently. That being said, I’ve compiled 8 easy foolproof steps that have no scientific data backing them up other than my own personal experience.

1.) SAY SOMETHING. One of the most painful things is the people who have yet to acknowledge the grief I have experienced. It is better to say the wrong thing than nothing at all. You’ll never know what to say. I’ve been on the other side of it and I still don’t know the right thing to say, and sometimes I’m guilty of not saying anything at all. I’ve spent many hours in the greeting card aisle looking for a card that says “Hey, life really sucks sometimes, and I don’t have anything to say to change that. However, I promise you never have to face it alone because I care a lot about you. Here’s to lots of embarrassing public crying in your future. I’m sorry!” Tragedy, death, and grief are all super messy awful things. The silence from people you think care about you is deafening though. So one more time, a little bit louder for the people in back: SAY SOMETHING.

2.) However, if at all possible, there are some things you should really try avoid saying. Although there is a possibility that people want to hear about your similar experience about your dog, grandparent, parent, pet turtle, cousin, etc., comparing your grief to theirs can make it feel like they are cheapening what they are feeling. Your grief is every bit as real as theirs, but give them this chance to honor theirs. Do what I say and not what I do though, because I’m totally going to talk about my grief throughout this. Also avoid “Everything happens for a reason.” I’m a really firm believer that life is a series of events always working to put you where you are supposed to be and make you who you are supposed to be. But I also think that sometimes that happens because life gives you a really awful batch of lemons and no one wants to sit around holding lemons so you make yourself some lemonade and although there are some refreshing qualities of it, it can be really bitter. Sometimes I have a tendency to take metaphors too far. Ask my students about my flipping on the light switch metaphor sometime. Also avoid “God has a plan” at all costs. Because although that might be true, saying it to someone who is struggling will most likely result in them having some choice words for God about this plan of his. Also avoid too much talk about praying for a miracle. It is very comforting to be include in thoughts, prayers, and good vibes. Prayers for peace, comfort, and understanding personally feel much more useful and realistic to me. When in doubt though, refer back to #1.

3.) Allow your person to talk about their person. Bring them up. Talk about the memories you have with their person. If you never had the privilege of meeting their person, ask about them. Talk about them in the days, weeks, months, and years after their loss. Although I might get emotional when people bring up my mom, it makes me so happy to hear that other people carry her in their heart also. It’s a reminder that even though she is not physically here, she will always be a part of this world. I have especially loved hearing from her family members, friends, and former colleagues. They provide me pieces of her that I never knew. It’s a reminder that although she is gone, I can always learn new things about her.

4.) Be really careful about how you suggest things. I think therapy is an absolutely wonderful thing that should be openly discussed without stigma. However, there were occasions where people suggested therapy and grief groups in a way that felt to me like they were saying, “I’m too busy or uninterested to support you so can you maybe go be someone else’s problem now because your grief is really killing my vibe.” Now I highly doubt this was anyone’s intention at all, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t feel that way. Absolutely support your person as they seek professional help in their grieving. Just make sure they know it is from a place of love.

5.) Be there. Meet their needs. If you see a need that needs filled, do it. Show up. When my mom was diagnosed, the school I was teaching at rallied around me in an unbelievable way. I still carry that love and support in my heart to this day. They gathered cards, money, and gift cards to make sure I was fed and my gas tank was full as I was commuting 6 hours roundtrip every few days. They stopped in when I was teaching just to check in, even though their own plates were full. They made copies, checked in on subs, and handled my most difficult students. They tried to convince the school to allow them to donate sick days to me (huge shoutout to schools and companies that have an employee sick day donation system in place). In one of the most challenging stages of my life, they reminded me that I would never have to face anything alone. Back home we had a steady stream of food delivery, people mowing our yard, and people making sure our physical and emotional needs were met. The day my mom was moved to hospice, my best faraway friend sent electronic gift cards for all of the food and coffee places within a few minutes of the hospice home. Thoughtful AND practical! Hours after my mom died, my best friend was at my house and the best shadow for the next few days. Anything that needed done, she did. Take out the garbage, get me coffee, make sure that my family was hydrated, ensure that I had a fresh Kleenex in my hand. All without ever needing a direction from me. People don’t want to intrude or be a burden and I totally get that. Figure out a way you can be useful to your person and do it. I know it is not always possible to show up to services, but I am forever grateful to the people who showed up from near and far to support me.

6.) Don’t ask this person to support you in your grief of their person. There’s a very good chance that the death of your person’s person will also be really tough on you, and that’s okay. Your grief is valid. However, if at all possible, do not rely on this person to support you through your grief. I have seen several things referring to the “Ring Theory.” Basically, it says that there are different rings around the grieving person. The center is the person closest to the grief and the outer rings represent people further away from the grief. Comfort should be pushed in to the center of the circle and you should rely on the people on the rings outside of yours.

7.) Be there. This is a bit of a repeat, but it’s that important. Be there long after the fact though. Honor that your person will carry this with them for the rest of their lives. Be there days, weeks, months, and years after. I vividly remember sitting at my family’s kitchen table hours after the funeral. Everyone had left. There had been all of this hustle and bustle for a few days and then suddenly silence. Everyone else got to move on with their lives, and suddenly I was alone and drowning. Eventually life for your person will move forward, but they will carry this grief forever. Be there on the good days and the bad days, the anniversaries and the crying in an aisle in target because it’s been dreary for a few too many days. My mom loved eating ice cream for breakfast, so on June 29, the anniversary of another year without her, my heart is so happy when people send me pictures of them eating ice cream for breakfast, a reminder that life is sweet and special and that I’m not the only one carrying my mom in my heart. One year on my birthday, my best friend went to my mom’s gravesite as the sun was rising and sent me a picture. I never would have thought to do something like that, but on a day where I felt very alone, I was reminded that I wasn’t. I’ve received cards and notes and messages for no particular reason on no particular day reminding me that my mom would be so proud. Friends, family, colleagues, former students, and strangers have shown up or donated to climb stairs and do hours of yoga in my mom’s memory in hopes that the cancer that so brutally took her from me will someday be a thing of the past. Be there, be there, be there, whatever that looks like for you.

8.) Depending on your relationship with this person and keeping in mind #4, you might feel comfortable sharing resources, be it support groups, podcasts, books, articles, or twitter accounts. Sometimes people ask me if they can share my blog, either because they know someone experiencing similar things or because of how beneficial I have found writing. Share away! If just one person finds comfort in my words, then it is worth publishing my thoughts and feelings on the internet. Heck maybe that’s my silver lining in the thought that everything happens for a reason. A few of my favorite (heavy) things for people feeling all of the feels:

Books: “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed, “It’s Okay to Laugh (Crying is Cool Too)” by Nora McInerny, “The Dead Moms Club” by Kate Spencer, “Tiny Beautiful Things” by Cheryl Strayed, “When Breath Becomes Air” by Paul Kalanithi, and “The Bright Hour” by Nina Riggs

Books that I’m excited to read but haven’t finished yet: “Modern Loss: Candid Conversations About Grief” by Rebeeca Soffer and Gabrielle Birkner, “Everything Happens for a Reason (and Other Lies I’ve Loved)” by Kate Bowler, “The Art of Death” by Edwidge Danticat, “Promise Me, Dad” by Joe Biden, and “Hiking Through” by Paul Stutzman

Podcasts: “Terrible, Thanks for Asking” and “Everything Happens for a Reason”



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