Over the past several years, I have been on both sides of the grieving process. I have been the person grieving the loss of a loved one. I have been touched and loved by those who knew how best to support me through the days, months, and years of grief. I have also been the close friend, relative, and distant acquaintance to others who were navigating the uncharted waters of grief. How we communicate with someone who is grieving directly relates to how well-supported the grieving person feels. I use these five reminders to help me stay present and supportive when someone I know and love has experienced a loss.
Make the call.
It was the first year anniversary of the death of a young relative. I wanted to reach out to his mom to let her know I was thinking of her. I paused, though, worrying. What if too many other people were calling her? I didn’t want to bother her. What would I say when she answered the phone? Would my call add value or distraction to her day? Then I had a new thought. What if most people she knew wondered these things and talked themselves out of calling her that day? I picked up the phone and made the call. She answered on the second ring.
Listen well, say little.
I recognize that there is no way to predict how a person is feeling or what the person is thinking when I reach out to connect. She may want to talk about her experiences and memories of her loved one, or she may not want to talk at all. All I need to say is, “Hi.” If I feel a need to say more, I can offer, “I wanted to let you know I am thinking about you.” Let her guide where the conversation goes from there.
Keep personal sharing to a minimum.
As humans, we naturally work to relate what someone is telling us to something similar that we have experienced. When we hear something a grieving person shares, we often think of something similar in our own lives and may want to share the story as a way of relating and showing our support. Yet a grieving person’s brain is already consumed with integrating new information. Other people’s stories can feel like a distraction or even an irritation. This may continue to be true for months and even years after the initial loss.
Honor the altered attention span that comes with grief.
When a person is grieving, there is nothing anyone can say or do that remotely compares to the magnitude of what that person is currently navigating. Be respectful of this. If the person who is grieving asks how you are, offer an authentic but succinct answer. I was most grateful to those who reached out to me when I was grieving and who were able to listen to everything I needed to say without expecting me to return the favor. I loved them for realizing my brain felt hijacked, and that I needed to heal before I could return to our usual relationship and be a good listener.
Check your baggage at the door.
The loss of a loved one touches everyone in some way. Even if we are removed from the situation, we have our own experience and reaction to the loss. Before I reach out to a person who is grieving, I check in to see how present I am able to be with that person. If I am consumed with my own experience and perspective, it is easy to misinterpret the communications I receive when I reach out. Before I call or visit, I take a moment to quiet my mind, make sure I am grounded, and set the intention for being completely present with the person. When my own mind is quiet, I am more able to hear what the other person needs.
The greatest gift we can give a person who is grieving is accepting where she is in that moment. Sometimes our presence is enough, and nothing needs to be said. Sometimes, a listening ear is appreciated. Sometimes, just knowing that we cared enough to call makes a difference in that person’s day. In the end, the less we ‘do’ and the more we can just ‘be’ with a person, the more likely we are to communicate and connect in a way that is appreciated.