The Right Way to Grieve and Support the Grieving
By Out of the Darkness
Grieving is a topic most of us wish we could ignore, but is an absolutely universal process. We will all grieve a loss and we will all support someone who is grieving. It’s not just about death either, but about any kind of loss that one experiences. This can mean losing a job through termination or retirement, your worldview shifting, the end of a relationship, or simply growing out of an old identity. Anything that causes a break with something or someone on which you previously based a part of your identity can trigger grief. This post will be broken into two parts. The first is for the grieving. The second is for people supporting a grieving person. This is not meant to be a substitute for real medical advice or an all-inclusive guide. It’s an overview, meant to shine a light into a process that feels murky at best. Take what is helpful and leave the rest.
For the Grieving
Despite the name of this post, one thing needs to be made very clear. There is no WRONG way to grieve. We’ve all heard of the five stages of grief, and damn near everyone who has been through it will say it’s bullshit. It is. That model has been replaced with a seven stage model.
If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably intelligent enough to look at the pretty picture and get the idea. The main thing to remember is that these stages are not a straight line for most people, and that it is possible to move back and forth between stages at any given time or to feel like you’re experiencing two stages at once. That is normal and it’s okay. You are allowed to be both angry and depressed. You are allowed to be both testing and bargaining. You are allowed to be none of the above and in between stages, or too emotionally exhausted to deal with any of it right now.
The second thing to remember, especially as it pertains to death, is that you start grieving as soon as you actually get the news. If you found out two years ago that you or someone you love has a terminal disease process, you started grieving two years ago when the reality of the situation came to your attention. Sometimes people in this situation find that when the loss is final (in the case of death, the death actually occurs), that they don’t really feel anything or that they’re at peace. And then they feel guilty, because they feel at peace or because other people keep making them feel like everything shouldn’t be okay when it is. “What’s wrong with me that I don’t feel the least bit bad right now?” There’s an excellent chance that nothing is wrong with you. You’ve just already had a chance to grieve the loss before it occurred. That’s okay, and it’s healthy. When the people around you keep expecting you to feel bad, just try to remember that they haven’t had a chance to grieve yet, or don’t know how to support you right now. You can’t let their expectations define your experience.
There is a point, however, at which grief becomes overwhelming and destructive. Some people get stuck at one specific stage of the grieving process and just can’t move on. (The most common stages to get stuck on are shock, denial, anger, and depression.) They forget how to do anything else and just can’t deal with life any more, and this goes on for longer than a month or two. This is when you need help. It’s time to see a professional grief counselor, a therapist, or perhaps a member of your preferred clergy. If you happen to be in the military, your chaplain is trained to help with grief issues. Don’t let yourself linger too long in any one stage of grief, and don’t be afraid to get help. It doesn’t matter if you’re grieving the loss of your job or the loss of your wife. Your grief is real, and it is important. If you fail to deal with it, it will destroy your life.
For Those Supporting the Grieving
The absolute first thing for you to remember here is to shut the hell up. This isn’t about you. This isn’t about your normal or even your previous experiences with grief. When the grieving widow throws herself over her husband’s casket, you stand the fuck back and let her sob and scream out her pain and loss. She needs to do this, and you’re an asshole if you stop her. You’re literally stunting her ability to grieve. If your best friend starts screaming about how much of an asshole his dad is for dying and leaving him, you shut the fuck up. If your cousin starts trying to make deals with the gods to get his girlfriend back, shut the fuck up. If your coworker just got diagnosed with terminal cancer and seems to be pretending that nothing has changed, shut the fuck up. Rule number one is always to shut the fuck up and let people experience their grief.
Never, under any circumstances, tell someone that this experience is part of God’s plan when they are grieving. Even if you believe it, and perhaps especially if you believe it. It doesn’t help, and in that moment, you’re telling the person that God wants them to suffer. You’re telling them that God wants to take away things that make up their identity. You’re telling them that God is cruel. Later, when they’ve worked through the grief, they may be in a position to understand that they are better and stronger for having lost something. While they’re still grieving, there is no reason good enough. There doesn’t need to be a reason either. Part of living is learning to accept that bad things happen and we must adapt and overcome. Don’t build a wall between a person who needs a deity and the deity by telling them that whoever they worship is cruel.
If you have to shut up and can’t give them a reason for their suffering, what can you do? You can listen. When they’re ready to cry it out, you can hold them and let them cry. You can take up a fundraiser to give them financial resources if they’re needed. You can bring over meals, or invite them over for meals. You can help clean house or run errands. You can babysit. Basically anything you can do to lighten the burden of life so that the person you’re supporting can devote emotional resources to actually doing the work of grieving is a good idea.
Now, if this has been going on for quite some time (longer than a month with no forward movement) and the person you’re supporting has just completely lost the ability to function, or is burning every bridge around them as fast as they can light matches? You need to be willing to step in and gently but firmly tell the grieving person that they need help. You can get them the name of a grief counselor or take them to their bishop/priest/religious authority figure. You can be there for them and help them find the resources to get the help they need.
Grief is a universal experience, but it’s so incredibly unique. Every person will grieve several times in their life, and they will support people they love through grief several more times than that. There’s no wrong way to grieve, but there is a destructive way. There is a wrong way to provide support, however, and lots of people get that wrong. They mean well, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Don’t be afraid of grief. Be prepared for it.