Here’s what you don’t expect when suffering with the grief of losing someone you love; that suddenly the majority of the people you spend time with (family, friends, coworkers) are afraid of you.
“Afraid of me?”, you wonder, because really, what is more frail or feeble, than a person in the throes of grief?
It may not appear that they are afraid of you. In fact, it’s likely they don’t realize it themselves.
But consider this: prior to the loss of your loved one you may have felt that you had a mostly supportive group of friends and family. And I think for most, our hope is that when bad things happen in life, it’s going to be those closest friends and family who will be there to support us.
And then…surprise! We lose a loved one, and suddenly the network of people we can turn to shrinks.
How could that be? Don’t they know that their support is needed now more than ever? What could possibly make it so that the people we care about retreat at the time when we need them most?
One idea: Because they’re scared.
1. Scared of what’s happened to you, and what it means to them…their life and their mortality and the fragility of those closest to them. If it can happen to you, it can happen to anybody.
2. They’re scared of how this loss has changed you. Will you still be the same fun, warm and optimistic person they know and love?
3. And most of all, they are scared of saying or doing the wrong thing.
Your loss and your grief has made them feel powerless. They want to help, they want to take your pain away, but they don’t know how. They feel completely unskilled and incapable of stepping in and saying or doing anything that would make a difference. More than that, they’re afraid of saying something that will make you cry. A lot of people mistakenly think, “what if I bring it up when they’re not thinking about it and then I upset them?”. Of course every griever will tell you – they’re ALWAYS thinking about their loss.
I had an interesting experience when I was presenting to a group of bereaved recently. We talked about how challenging it can be when friends withdrawal after the loss of a loved one, and when I said, “I find most people would rather their friends say the wrong thing than say nothing at all”, I was met with an almost unanimous disagreement.
“I’d rather a person say nothing at all!” one woman said, as the rest of the group nodded along. “I’d prefer someone just give me a hug or hold my hand,” said another.
I couldn’t disagree, of course, because for this group in particular, they had a lot of experience with people saying things that were more hurtful than helpful.
To clarify, I explained that the grievers I had worked with in the past expressed appreciation for those friends or family who reached out and attempted to show support, even if those attempts were rather clumsy or inefficient.
This continued as its own debate, but ended for this group of grievers in the realization that perhaps those who want to comfort them just don’t know how. As confusing and complicated a time as it is for you, so it is for the people who want to comfort and support you. Because they’ve never been through this, or because they don’t feel like they have what it takes to walk someone through something as big as the loss you’ve had.
Most grievers will readily admit that after a loss they have no idea what they need. So along those lines…if we don’t know what it is that is going to help us after a loved one has died, how can friends and family know? Can we recognize that in most cases, when it feels like no one cares, maybe it’s just that they don’t know how to help or show they care?
Following our “debate” and discussion, the group and I came to a conclusion.
Whether we feel we have the energy for this or not, if support has scattered – reach out.
You may not know what you need or how to vocalize it and that’s okay. Find the people you want to be a part of this grief journey with you, and let them know where you are at, what this experience has been like for you so far and how lost, isolated and confused you feel. Educate them on the process. Tell them that you don’t know what you need, or how exactly they can help, but you know that you want them to be a part of it.
Some will say that as the griever, they shouldn’t have to be the one to reach out. And they’re right! Of course they don’t have to.
But if (when we’re ready) we can find empathy for those in our lives who want to help and don’t know how, we are more likely to widen our net of support, and give those special people who mean so much the opportunity to love and support us in a way that they are so desperate to do.
Perhaps one of the reasons this can be so confusing to everyone involved is that grieving our loved one is so often done behind closed doors. By speaking their name, and creating ways to honor and remember them and by inviting those we love to be a part of this process we can invite them along the journey with us. Check out our Tribute pages, for ideas on how to keep your loved one’s memory alive.