Let’s face it. There’s no manual for how to show up for someone who’s grieving.
While a comfortable wish, this simply isn’t the case.
Grief is messy and complicated, as well as downright uncomfortable to sit in. And the tendency to want to avoid the pain associated with grief is human and understandable.
At the same time, doing so can create a situation in which the grieving person feels unseen and not validated along her/his journey.
Here’s a simple truth to remember as you offer support: your discomfort is real, and so is the grieving person’s grief.
One of the first ideas I like to address as I interact with grieving hearts, as well as those supporting those who grieve, is naming the reality that an understanding of grief can never be assumed. We live in a pain- and death-avoidant society, so much so that addressing death and dying — both inevitable processes — seems unreasonable.
While unclear what the exact prevalence of grief is in America, the vast majority of individuals have experienced grief. In other words, the impact of grief can’t be underestimated. Therefore, the likelihood of walking alongside someone who’s experienced loss is high in one’s lifetime.
So, how do you show up for someone who’s grieving?
At this point, you might be saying, ‘We belong together, but …’
“How do I find the right thing to say?”
“What if I make a mistake (do it wrong)?”
“How can I help fix the problem?”
“I can’t help at all. Only time will heal things.”
Each of these questions makes perfect sense.
It’s important to dismantle each one, however, as they sometimes prevent loving family and friends from actually showing up in a grieving person’s time of need.
First, there is no right thing to say when someone dies. I’ve learned over the years, both in professional situations, as well as personal ones, that one’s presence (beyond knowing what to say) is incredibly powerful. Second, you will make mistakes as you support a grieving friend. Why? Because you’re human, plain and simple. Third, grief is not a condition that needs ‘fixing;’ rather, it’s one that should be freely and openly witnessed. Finally, you can help; and while one’s processing of grief can shift over time, time alone doesn’t heal a grieving heart.
So, let’s dive into a few strategies for how to show up for someone who’s grieving.
I’d like to offer a six-part framework that I created to do just that, the GRIEVE Framework.
G: Give yourself permission to learn along the way. As mentioned, supporting someone who’s grieving is challenging and can be overwhelming at times. Be gentle with yourself as you learn new ways of interacting with a family member or friend navigating grief. You’re not perfect, and the grieving person doesn’t expect perfection. So breathe and proceed. The fact that you’re attempting to show up is incredible in and of itself. You’ll continue to grow and learn as you take steps to offer support.
R: Respect the wishes of those who are grieving. As you inquire about the grieving person’s wishes, be sure to listen. Sometimes, in an effort to offer support, it’s not uncommon to override the grieving person and insist on offering support in a particular way. Do yourself a favor: take note of what’s important to the person who’s navigating the grief process, and follow her/his lead. Trust the grieving person to guide you to what’s most important for her/him.
I: Invite support. Offering support can be exhausting. As such, remember to obtain support of your own. You may discover as you support the grieving person that you, too, need a listening ear. In addition, you might find that obtaining assistance with practical tasks is beneficial. Know that as you walk alongside a grieving family member or friend, you’re not alone.
E: Explore the relationship. Following my dad’s death last year, I had a strange encounter with a distant neighbor who I’d only spoken to on walks with my Beagle. Needless to say, I was startled when upon my dad’s death, this neighbor insisted upon visiting my home to make dinner for me. In my home! Of course, I politely declined the offer. However, this act on my neighbor’s part isn’t that uncommon. As you consider the role you might play in supporting a grieving heart, reflect on the relationship itself. Are you a close friend or acquaintance? What type of interaction did you offer prior to the experience of loss? As you consider the nature of your relationship, you’ll likely discover the healthiest and most appropriate ways to support the grieving person.
V: Verify needs and desires. Be sure to check in with those closest to the grieving person (assuming it isn’t you) to ensure that you’re actually meeting the person’s grief needs. All too often, we can make supporting a grieving heart about our needs without realizing it. Contact close family members and/or friends to ensure that your efforts will not be in vain.
E: Expect things to wax and wane. The grief process, as well as one’s coping and adjustment to the process, ebbs and flows with time. What may be helpful to a grieving person today may not be as beneficial in the weeks or months ahead. Expect shifts, and be prepared to pivot as needed. And as a small caveat – do your best not to take anything personally, especially if your efforts are not immediately recognized.
As you show up for someone’s who’s grieving … remember, there’s no one right way to show up.
The most important thing, however, is that you do.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Feel free to share them below.
For a more in-depth review of support strategies, click here to gain access to my free mini-course, “How to Show Up for Someone Who’s Grieving.”
Learn more about managing your lifestyle, love, leadership, and loyalties to God, self, and others by clicking here: https://mekelharrisphd.com/.
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Dr. Mekel Harris is a Memphis-based licensed psychologist who loves helping other perfectly imperfect folks navigate life's challenges in order to grow in lifestyle, love, leadership, and loyalties to God, self, and others.
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