Our worlds can become very small after the loss of a loved one. Grief can create blinders that make it hard to see past anything but our own pain and anguish. It can be challenging to get the help we need and to know how to be supportive…in the past we may have turned to friends and family when we’re hurting, but what happens when they’ve also been
impacted by this loss? Can we get the help we need, and is it possible to be supportive when we’re grieving too?
I recently worked with a group of siblings who had just lost their mother. This came two years after their father had died and only a few months after the youngest daughter had lost her own husband suddenly. She and her husband had been introduced by her brother, and those two had been best friends their whole lives.
Though the family tried to stick together and support each other they found it more challenging then they could have expected. Everywhere they looked there was pain. There wasn’t anyone they could turn to who hadn’t also been effected deeply and personally by these recent losses, and this family who had always been so close, suddenly felt themselves fractured and flailing in grief.
This issue isn’t uncommon among family and friends. Think about it – everywhere you turn, every person you see has a life filled with friends and family. It doesn’t have to be a very large group to be impactful – in fact in a small family, the loss of “just” one person is going to greatly change the dynamic of those who are left. While these losses that happen feel like our loss, those closest to us are going to be effected in their own ways too.
When I facilitate a bereavement group we often break down into smaller groups for more intimate discussions. If two people attend together, two siblings for example or a mother and daughter, I always ask the two to separate and go into different groups. The reality is that this small group time may be their only chance to say how they’re really feeling and how they are truly struggling with the loss they are facing, without having to worry about the feelings of the person they came with.
There are several factors to consider when coping with a loss and it can be hard to know how to be supportive. Where do we go for help, and how do we cope with our own loss while still looking out for those we love?
- Acknowledge that while you are grieving the same person, you are not grieving the same relationship. Recognize how truly different it is to lose a spouse vs. losing a parent (while also acknowledging that neither should be trying to qualify who has it harder). Also know that siblings will grieve differently. While they are grieving the same person, and technically the same relationship, it doesn’t mean each sibling shared the same experience or connection with the deceased. This can apply also to a couple who lost a child. The mother/child relationship is different than the father/child relationship. This isn’t to say that one is better, or stronger, but the ways we react to the same loss can be very different. Use this reminder to explain and understand why different members of the family will grieve in such different ways and will have truly varying needs as they try to individually move forward.
- Make space for your own grief. Start by finding places outside of your immediate friends and family for support. This is where counseling and support groups can be so especially effective. There’s something to be said for sharing and opening up to a neutral third party. It allows you the chance to be honest about your feelings. There are some very complicated emotions that come up in loss and some we may actually be ashamed to share with those we love. Or perhaps we feel we have to walk on eggshells – not crying so as not to make someone around us cry. Hiding our true feelings can be detrimental in the long term, which is why it is so important to find an outlet where you can share, cry, tell stories, and vent.
- Recognize that there’s never been a better time for total transparency. Loss can be the elephant in the room…the thing that everyone is thinking about, but no one wants to say out loud. A lot of grievers ask me, “should I be the one to bring it up?”. My answer: absolutely. While it can be so hard to get this conversation going, I think most people are grateful for the opportunity to talk about their grief, especially with those they love. While we may worry that we’re troubling our loved ones with our sadness, the truth is we are giving an opportunity for those who knew and loved this person best to share their grief. Don’t be afraid to just lay it out in the open with those you are closest to. Let them know how much you are hurting, and how deeply you recognize that they are hurting too. Say out loud, “this is hard, isn’t it?”. Let them know you want to be a help, though you may not always know how to be supportive as you are grieving too. Ask “how can I help?”, while letting them know how they can be a help to you. After the loss of a loved one, one of the best ways we can honor them is to say their name, tell the funny stories, and to spend time with those who loved them most.
While there’s comfort in knowing that we don’t suffer our losses alone, it can be hard to find the energy to take care of others, or to know how to be supportive to those we love who are grieving. It’s important to understand the processes of grief and how the nature of the relationship, as well as proximity, play a role in our coping. Our previous blog on “Disenfranchised Grief” can help explain some of the reasons why people may handle the same loss differently. Use this information to understand yourself and your loved ones better.
While at times we may resent having to be strong for others (it’s okay to admit it) know that by doing so, you are opening your own network of support and helping yourself heal and move forward. And finally, and perhaps most of important of all, remember that maybe you don’t actually have to be strong for others all the time. Show them your sadness. Let them show you theirs. Mourn the loss of a person you both truly loved- together.
If you’re challenged to know how to be supportive of those you love while attempting to move forward after loss yourself, know there is no better time to seek outside help. At www.griefincommon.com you can connect with those who have had a similar loss. Let this place be your outlet. Let it be where you make space for your own grief. Do this for you. And know that finding support outside of those you love can only serve to make you stronger as you try to be supportive to them in the days ahead.