Grief is a minefield that feels impossible to navigate, not just for the sufferers but for their loved ones desperate to reach out and help. What to say? When is the best time to offer a hug, hold someone up or break down their emotional barriers? In my experience, whilst I had lots of incredible support from family and friends, I also discovered quickly what I didn’t want: sympathetic looks from almost-strangers, to be labelled by my grief, or to be forced to feel better before I was ready. Here are 3 things I learned that might help you reach out in the right way:
1. Choose your time – and your words – carefully
In the immediate aftermath of someone’s loss, don’t share your condolences spontaneously. On the school run or before a work meeting when they’re desperately trying hold it together is not appropriate. Don’t avoid them either: approach them privately or send a text or card first. Be their armour if you see them struggling when others approach them publicly. Step in quickly, offer protection and support, take them for a coffee, or for a walk. Similarly, be wary of making presumptions about how they’re feeling, or spouting off-the-cuff platitudes like: ‘They lived a good life,’ ‘At least you know you can get pregnant’ or ‘You must be so thankful for your other child/children’. Of course they’re thankful for all those things, but it won’t diminish their sadness. Suggesting so will compound their grief and add guilt and shame to their feelings. Simple statements like ‘I’m so sorry for your loss. This hurts. I love you. I’m here for you,’ is enough.
2. Ask ‘How are you today?’
The addition of that one small word will let them know that you’re not expecting easy, stock answers. It shows that you understand that grief is ever-changing: one day we might be ‘fine’, the next, on the floor. It gives permission to spew the messy truth. Keep asking too: even after a week, a month, a year. Visit regularly. Don’t expect them to ask – instead say: ‘I’m coming to see you at 2pm on Tuesday’. But don’t be offended if they turn you away. Accept any mood: they may want to cry – or they may want to laugh. To feel normal again. Don’t underestimate how important that is.
3. Be ‘the one’
Be a constant in their life. Not just in the short term, but the long term too. Everyone needs someone – other than a partner – who will remember important dates and give extra support at those times. Acknowledging those difficult anniversaries will let them know that you understand that their loss will never go away. Simple gestures and words from special people, offered with love, will mean the world.