Sometimes those on the outside looking in at someone who has lost a loved one may not know how to help or how to respond. When someone you love dies, the world as you know it is turned upside down. It is in that moment and the moments, days, months and years following that the hardest work begins – the healing process. This process requires the support and understanding of those around you as well as a willingness to embrace the pain of the loss. While everyone has their own unique journey through grief, there are some common needs for those experiencing grief.
Need #1 – Patience of Self and Others While Accepting the Reality of Death
It takes time and patience for those grieving and those of us in a support position to accept and embrace a painful reality that is not quick, easy, or efficient. This reality often takes weeks or months and these weeks and months may be unpredictable – tolerable one moment and unbearable the next. Have compassion for yourself and be willing to be compassionate toward those in need of support.
Need #2 – Feel What You Need to Feel
Grief hurts emotionally, physically and spiritually. It does not feel good to be consumed and gripped by overwhelming sadness, anxiety, longing and yearning. It is okay to feel what you need to feel. There may be times when you distract yourself from the pain and other days when you fully embrace the pain. For those in support positions, be sensitive to and mindful of well-intended phrases that may come across to the one in grief as judgmental and insensitive such as: “it’s time to get over it”, “keep your chin up”, “keep busy”, “just have to stay strong”, “accept it and get on with your life”, “think about what you have to be thankful for”. The grief process is extremely hard work. Will the person learn how to integrate the loss of their loved one into a new normal? Yes. But get over it? Never.
Need #3 – Staying Connected
The beauty of memories is we can always stay connected to and carry our loved ones with us. For those grieving, find ways to stay connected to and keep the memory of your loved one vibrant and alive: writing down favorite memories; creating a memory box filled with memorabilia related to the loved one; making a quilt made of the loved ones shirts/clothes; organizing/framing photos; planting a favorite tree or flowers of the loved one; visiting special places. For those in the support network, don’t be afraid to talk about the loved one that has passed. It is often comforting to the ones grieving to know others are fondly remembering their loved one too.
Need #4 – Developing a New Self-Identity
When someone you love dies, the way you see yourself or the role you had in that relationship naturally changes. All of a sudden you go from being a “spouse” to being a “widow(er)”, from being “married” to “single”, from being a “parent” to being a “bereaved parent”. Everything you knew to be a solid reality is now fluid and uncertain. Don’t be afraid to ask for or receive help from your support network. To those supporting, look for practical needs to fill: lawn mowing, leaf raking, errand running, care taking, childcare, etc.
Need #5 – Meaning and Purpose
It is likely after the death of a loved one that questions concerning the meaning and purpose of life will arise. The reality of death can be a powerful reminder of the lack of control we have over life and death. Therefore, finding meaning and purpose in life once again can seem monumental and at times improbable. You may question your faith and be challenged spiritually. The mourning process will help you sort out those questions and find meaning in your continued living and ultimately honoring your loved one by pursuing that meaning and purpose. In supporting those in grief, allow them to ask the hard, challenging questions with loving and supportive responses.
Need #6 – Let Others Walk With You
You cannot, nor should you, do this alone. Leaning on others (whether friends, family, pastor, or counselor) is not a sign of weakness, but of courage and healthy human need. There may be an inclination to isolate from others. While some alone time can be good, extended isolation can be unhealthy. Those in your support system are there to help you and it is okay to ask for help and allow them to help. People in the support network, you must appreciate the impact of death on the one you are supporting and must not see it as something to overcome or an enemy to be vanquished, but rather a necessary experience.
Have you ever heard the phrase, “it takes a village”? Learning how to fully live after the death of a loved one feels like a gargantuan task not even a village can handle. But a wise man once told me the best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. Grief can seem large and looming. Take it one day, one hour, one minute at a time. Through being gentle, patient, and compassionate with yourself and leaning on your support system, fully living will, over time, return. And…if you are not there yet, it is okay. Take all the time you need.
Wolfelt, A. Understanding your grief: Ten essentials touchstones for finding hope and healing your heart. Fort Collins, CO: Companion Press.
Written by Jessica Owen, MSMFCT
Covenant Counseling Center