After the death of my infant daughter Leyden, I was shattered, hopeless and lost. I would wake up with knots in my stomach, barely find the energy to put on the clothes laying on my floor and count down the hours until I could say I survived another day. I often would start driving and forget where was going. I locked myself out of my apartment more times than I can count and finished several showers to realize I only shaved one leg. Each night I laid in bed, surrounding myself with her pictures, stuffed animals, clothing and cried until I was too exhausted to remain awake anymore. I avoided phone calls, couldn't handle going into stores or crowded places and had scars from pinching myself when needing to hold it together in a public setting. I knew to the minute, how long it had been since Leyden died and my world seemingly stopped. I couldn't imagine living my life as anything but "Leyden's mom."
I realized that in order to get through, I needed to actively work at managing my grief. I read and researched the topic of grief, began working with a grief counselor, attended bereaved parent groups and even traveled outside of the country to see a world renowned grief speaker and author. I learned, unfortunately, there is no quick fix. But, by better grasping the intense emotional roller coaster of the grief process, you are more equipped to manage and support others, through the healing process.
Grief is an extreme form of pain, loss or trauma and it brings to surface all the little idiosyncrasies we possess. The amplification of our quirks, coping strategies and emotional triggers results in unique expressions and processes for the griever. While there is no secret cure to getting through grief, there are ways in which you can support someone through a difficult time.
1) Offer support on their terms.
Even the best intended support can feel overwhelming to a person grieving. If you goal is to help someone, make sure that you are doing so in a way that works for them. Each day, hour and sometimes even minute can bring changing emotions through the grief process. By offering to support in a way that feels right for the person you are helping, you alleviate the stress that can come with support that conflicts with the needs of the griever. Think of the activities, comforts, or interests of the person. Ask what and when feels best for them. You may be really great at making meatballs, but if your friend or family member has lost their appetite, or is over-eating from emotional pain, meatballs might not be the best option. You may find long walks healing but if they are too physically exhausted or being outside feels unsafe, that won't meet the goal of supporting them. Become curious and it will help you assess the best options.
2) Say Something.
Human nature and the unease around grief tends to leave us unsure of what to say or at times, not saying anything at all. I can't tell you how many people avoided eye contact, redirected their walking path or distanced themselves until I seemed "normal" again. As hard as it is, remember that the person you want to support just suffered a loss. Feeling distance from friends or family members only compounds the loss, making it that much worse. Rest assured that saying something is not going to suddenly remind them of their loss. They haven't forgotten. And they want to know you haven't forgotten either. If you aren't sure what to say, a couple of suggestions are "I just want you to know I am thinking about you." or "I am not sure what to say, but please know I care." or "I think of ________ all of the time, he/she really made a great impact on this world. If there is anything I can do, I am here." If all of those feel too heavy- try "Here for you."
3) Have reasonable expectations.
Capacities are immediately limited when facing traumatic situations. The person you are supporting is the same person but carrying an extreme amount of stress. He or she will not have the same ability to plan, commit, communicate and process (among many other things) as they previously did. Although I love concerts and football games, the thoughtful offers I received to either of those were literally so overwhelming that I couldn't accept the invitations (though I appreciated them). Recognize the limitations your friend or loved one is managing and don't take it personally if they don't seem interested in a gesture you made to share support. Even better, without telling them what their limitations are, help them identify their own. The person grieving will at times think they are ready for a step they may not be. Even though I knew concerts and football games were too much, there were occasions I thought would be comforting that turned out to be unanticipated triggers. I left a wedding, a girls dinner and family gatherings overwhelmed, full of tears and struggling to breathe.
4) Be Patient.
Grief is TOUGH. The grief process is not chronological- it's more like a web or circle of swirling emotions that will randomly pop up at different times for different lengths of time. Particularly with out-of-order deaths, or sudden deaths, the entire world surrounding the griever feels shaken, backwards and unsafe. The constant feeling of being on egg-shells can make the griever anxious, irritable, snappy and not overly pleasant to be around. They may inadvertently push you away- but don't let them. More than ever, they need to know they are loved and know that they are not alone. Sure, space may be necessary but you can still share support and connection through a little breathing room. And remember, that things will eventually shift. I chose the word "shift" here because it is important to know that the pain of loss and grief does not go away. Rather, the griever strengthens their resiliency muscle, learns how to manage the hard days and will rebuild in their own way, at their own pace. For the duration, your patience will contribute to their ability to do so.
5) Sit with the discomfort.
So often we are uncomfortable with the uncertainty and unpredictability of loss- as well as the feeling of being powerless in supporting others, that we desperately try to skip through it. This could look like avoiding acknowledging the pain, or downplaying the impact. Be careful not to let your discomfort of watching someone grieve push you to try to "solve" their pain or fabricate a finish line. Things like "They say it will be better after a year" or "Once you are through the holidays it'll be fine" aren't overly helpful for the griever. They may provide you with a sense of relief imagining your friend or family member in a less broken state but rushing their process or trying to find the end, won't help them. Instead, try really being there with them, in the messy and uncomfortable world of grief. If they cry, let them cry. Encourage them to let it out. Sit with them, hold their hand, say nothing or if you want to verbalize something, acknowledge their pain without trying to solve it or find the end point- "I can't imagine how you are feeling- I am sorry this is so terrible- I am here with you."
6) Know your type.
One of the best lessons learned from my grief counselor, Kendra, was about the different types of supporters. This helped me because when I learned to identify what I needed at any given moment I then knew who I could get it from. She outlined four types. The first, the "doers" are people who like to do things. This could be making a photo book, building something, grocery shopping, managing a "to-do" list etc. The second type, the "listeners" are people who are able to listen quietly, actively and patiently while the griever processes the loss, the death, the life and all the other thoughts swirling around in their exhausted and overwhelmed head. Listeners do not hush or tell the griever it is ok. The third type, are the "distractors" who offer a break from the grief by distracting activities or conversations around other topics. Typically these people aren't too closely connected or associated with the person who passed. And the last, as Kendra called them, were the "x-ers." The x-ers are not good for the griever. They either can't listen, give too much advice, become involved because they need to be needed or are drawn to the chaos and drama that surrounds grief. These people can best support by staying far away. By knowing your type (and yes, you can be a hybrid of these) you can offer supports that are in your wheelhouse and will help the griever. The diversity of support is necessary. And tailoring it to your own personality will increase your level of comfort which is going to best support the griever. One of the unanticipated gifts received throughout this process has been exposure to so many beautiful and diverse expressions of love and support.
One of the most painful and scariest parts of the grief journey is the fear of your loved one being forgotten. I still struggle with worry that Leyden will not be remembered. I cannot tell you how overcome with joy I am when I get a text message on a random day because someone was reminded of Leyden. I have been so humbled with friends and family who have found permanent and passing ways to celebrate her love, life and light. However you choose to do so- find ways to let the griever know that you remember the person who passed away and that they made a lasting difference. For me, this has been the greatest aid in the healing process. (thank you, family & friends).
Don't forget, it is not your responsibility nor is it possible to heal your friend or family member. You can however positively contribute to their healing process. Support them in a way that is authentic and let the griever set the pace and boundaries for their needs through their grief journey. Do the best you can to share support without putting too much pressure on yourself; grief and loss, is far from easy, for anyone. Take pride and acknowledge your efforts to help. Read up on grief, check out local resources, share ideas or thoughts. When in doubt, choose compassion and kindness. By doing so, not only are you helping someone you care about, you are making this world a more gentle place. What a great tribute that is to honor the person who passed.
Knowing my pain and fear of no longer being Leyden's mom, my friends and family would often comfort me with reminders, hugs and reassurances that is how they would always view me. They spoke honestly and from the heart. Regardless, it took me a long time, and only when I was ready, to accept that perspective. I have lessened my attachment to belongings that make me feel connected to her and replaced them with an emotional connection and embracement that while it may not be in the format I would choose, or with the life milestones I long for, I am Leyden's mom. And her impact, love and light is something I carry within me every single day.