Support in Grief
Updated: Sep 28, 2022
Grief is a natural response to loss, whatever that loss is to us. But our culture sometimes leaves little room for grief. The need to grieve is often minimized or denied. The expectation is that it should be private, quiet and brief. One of the things I hear often from people who have suffered a loss, is that they hear they should “move on with their life,” or they “need to focus on the positive.” Ultimately, they are getting feedback which suggests they just aren’t doing grief “the right way.”
But there is no right way to do loss. Everyone experiences it uniquely. The emotional suffering we feel when something or someone we love is taken away is a very personal journey, and what we need to do in order to recover can’t be simply prescribed.
Culturally, we value optimism and a pull yourself up by the boot-straps mentality. But attending to our grief helps us to be more resilient. And the reality is there are no absolutes about grieving. All losses are not the same, neither is how people choose to navigate grief. There is a misconception that there is a way we are "supposed" to grieve.
These are some of the myths that can undermine a person’s ability to cope with their grief, and diminish our ability to support them.
Myth #1: Grief is a predictable process that progresses through stages.
You’ve heard of the stages associated with the grief process - denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. People do not move through them in an orderly way.
Many move in and out of these stages repeatedly, others go through only some of these stages, and still others may get stuck in one. It can be risky to dictate what a grieving experience should look like because when grief doesn’t fit that process it is just one more thing that makes people feel anxious or out of control. People often simply need reassurance that it is okay to be in whatever space they are in, and that they won’t always be there. It’s so important to look at grief from where they are, not moving them to where you think they should be or tying to make everything okay.
We need to find closure for our grief and it is best to do so quickly.
Grief is not something to “get over” and there is no timeline. While many people start to hear they should be finding closure after a particular period, grief is a process that takes time. Although intense grief often comes to an end, a person’s feelings of loss typically will not completely disappear.
The idea of closure suggests that there is an end to grief and that it is something that can be put away. Yet grief is not something that can be wrapped up neatly and people don't necessarily need closure to heal. While the encouragement to find closure is well intended, what I often hear from people who have suffered a loss is this: “if I start to do better - if I begin to move on – I’m not honoring the person I lost, or I’m diminishing their significance." We don’t really leave grief behind. The feelings of grief often ebb and flow. Healing may involve finding a space in our life for the grief we experience, along side feelings like joy, optimism or gratitude.
A more useful way to think about healing may be about moving towards reconciliation, rather than closure. This is what occurs as we work to integrate a new reality of moving forward in our lives. Reconciliation is a process that
• involves a renewed sense of energy and confidence,
• an ability to fully acknowledge the reality of the loss, and
• allows a person to become fully engaged in the activities of living again.
This is a process that acknowledges both the pain of a loss and the possibility of future happiness.
Myth #3: We should not lean into our grief.
There is often the idea that we should move away from our grief, that this will quiet it. Many people do not give themselves permission to grieve or receive validation from others to do so. But denying grief will not make it go away. However painful, attending to our grief allows us to lessen the power of it. Trying to mask it, or ignore it, can increase anxiety, depression or other physical symptoms – and grief eventually asserts itself.
Denying the intense emotions that come with grief also gets in the way of staying connected with others or getting the support we may need. Many people who are grieving feel their thoughts or feelings are “crazy” or “abnormal.” They can feel like they are falling apart. One of the greatest comforts we can provide to someone who is struggling with grief is to validate that their feelings are normal and that they are entitled to them. When people feel they have to shut down, or put away their intense emotions – and they can’t – they will often isolate themselves.
It is so important to let someone who is grieving know that is normal to be all over the map emotionally: to be angry sad, or confused, to experience a loss of faith or trust or safety, or to be knee deep in envy, resentment or fear. Acknowledging these powerful emotions doesn’t make them more intense, it actually helps to diminish them. Looking at them, exposing them to the light, is part of recovering.
We can carry more than one emotion at a time. Joy and grief are intimately intertwined. If we ask people to put their grief or their pain away, they may also put away many of the positive feelings they have for the person or experience they lost. Our role in supporting people who are grieving is not about taking away their pain, but allowing them to attend to it in a way that also makes room for their joy.
Myth #4: It’s important to “be strong.”
Being strong does not mean pretending everything is okay; and feeling emotional, tearful or unmoored is not a sign you aren’t doing well. Our culture suggests if you’re not happy all the time, you’re doing something wrong and many people equate tears or emotional vulnerability with weakness – even in grief. But strength is not about looking like you have it all together. It is about having the wisdom to ask for, and accept, support. It’s also about maintaining the courage to attend to thoughts and feelings that are often painful, complicated and intense. And it’s about being compassionate enough with ourselves and others to attend to whatever emotions come up without judgment.
Many people who are grieving protect their friends and family from the pain they are experiencing, by putting on a good front and being “strong”. It takes a lot of physical and emotional energy to pretend you are doing fine when you’re not. Very often, what people need is someone who can bear witness to what they are going through without feeling responsible for the helplessness it stirs up.
Society’s message that mourning should be done quietly and efficiently may be more about our own discomfort rather than what is most helpful for the griever. Support may involve just being still with someone who is exposing their struggle to you, meeting them exactly where they are, even if they are on their knees. You don’t have to have any answers, know the right thing to say or make their tears go away.
If you are supporting someone who is grieving, ask them what would be most helpful to them, because support is going to look like different things to different people. Just be still with them. Listen carefully. It is very difficult when you feel like you aren’t doing enough to ease the pain of someone you love, but very often what they want is just for someone to be in that moment with them, however imperfectly you do it.