How to Help Someone in Their Acute Phase of Grief
Updated: Dec 18, 2018
A few weeks ago, an old friend reached out to me saying that she had seen SSFYL and needed advice. She had just lost her uncle in a similar way to how I lost my dad and wanted to know what she could do for her three cousins, his daughters. It's a type of question I've been getting asked frequently. Long story short—there is nothing you can do to completely take away the person’s pain. Don’t put that pressure on yourself! You are not expected to solve your loved one's troubles when they are suffering from a loss, but there are certainly ways that you can support them. While every loss is different, there are some basic things you should know when you’re mind is spinning with, “How can I help my friend through this really difficult time?” I reached out to Sam Charleston, a 28-year-old from Philadelphia, to give me some additional insight to this question. Sam lost her father to cancer in October 2014. As if that didn’t make her an expert in the topic enough, she also became a host for The Dinner Party in May 2015 and continues to host to this day. The Dinner Party is a national non-profit group that connects adults in their 20s and 30s with others in their region that have suffered a serious loss. The group gathers once a month for a casual evening to discuss memories and questions, and also share tips and tears. Together, Sam and I offer you a few things that can help you better support someone in their acute phase of loss. Share your memories, and ask about theirs
Gianna- Tell them what their loved one meant to you. Hearing that my dad could make such an impact on the lives of the people around him could make my broken heart smile. The days and weeks after my father’s death are foggy for me to look back on, but I do vividly remember some of the cards with written memories, or the stories people told me at the funeral. Even now, it can completely change my day when someone tells me a story about my dad. I hate that I can’t build more memories with him, but through the memories of others, I know he lives on.
Sam- I really loved when people said my father’s name. There's something so visceral about hearing your loved one's name out loud. It feels like a way of keeping him present and relevant. I always appreciate when people ask me questions about him. It's a forced opportunity to remember him and speak about him the way I want him to be remembered by others, too. I feel like he's closer to me when I tell stories about him, and it helps when people take an interest and encourage me to be vocal about what I'm already thinking. It becomes a helpful release.
Help with the little things
G- A lot of people send food or flowers, which is very helpful and appreciated, but being there for your loved one by helping with the little things that no one else thinks about will go a long way. For me, I had just moved in with my boyfriend when days later my father passed. I sat in my apartment, drowning in boxes, for weeks. Waking up was a task, eating was a task, there was no way in hell I had energy to unpack and organize. I was lucky to have friends and family that came over and helped me unpack one thing at a time, or helped me put stamps on the thank you note envelopes to mail out. Those were the things I needed most.
S- The old adage “actions speak louder than words” rings true here. Tiny gestures have significant impact on how we move through life, and I think reminding someone to take care of themselves during the hard time, and physically being there to help them do that, is huge. I have learned that when someone I love is in need, its best to find a way to help them without always having to ask. Sometimes it's just about showing up with a cup of coffee and saying let's go for a walk. Sometimes it's about grabbing a friend and saying, guess what, it's time for a pedicure. Sometimes it's just about the doing - small, baby gestures that go a long way. None of those things fix heartache or bandage the grief, but they help.
Check in about specifics, or with no expectation of response
G- Let the person know you’re thinking about them and that it’s okay not to respond. It may seem silly, but in the time of grief, returning a text message turns into a huge chore, especially when you have 50 of them waiting in your inbox. I loved receiving the messages from everyone, but with it comes an overwhelming pressure to respond. I didn’t want people to think their messages weren’t meaningful. When people would reach out and say, “Good morning, thinking of you, hope you have a great day, call me if you need,” it alleviated that pressure.
S- Check-in and ask, "how are you today?” or "how are you feeling about x?” When the question is specific and personal to me and how I really am, it's so helpful and comforting. I'm not always going to have a positive answer, but it's very helpful when the person on the other end asks anyway, and allows me to be honest and authentic in return.
Sit in silence
G- Being there for someone can be as simple as showing up and doing nothing at all. Sometimes, that’s the preference! Grief has a way of making you feel incredibly lonely. Losing someone rips a gaping hole in your life, and even though I was surrounded by family, I felt so alone. I wanted to invite people to come over because I didn’t want to be alone, but I also didn’t want to talk about it anymore. Be the friend who understands that your presence is all that is needed, and that sitting in silence is okay.
S- Isolation is easy, but it's harmful. I am always so grateful when friends and family make a point to include me and encourage me to be an active participant in my life. It takes a lot of effort and powering through discomfort, but it's ultimately rewarding and incredibly necessary. It's a two-way street, and takes a lot of personal effort to force myself to participate in certain activities and immerse myself in certain social situations, but I find that a little push from my friends and family can be extremely helpful.
What things have you done that have really helped a friend in their tough times? Or what did someone do for you that proved to be helpful?