When Susan Budig lost her sister unexpectedly to cancer in May 2003, the Minneapolis-based writer was hurt by how some of her closest friends reacted. “They sent condolence cards after Jaci died, but when I saw them a few months later, they didn’t ask how I was doing or refer to Jaci at all,” Budig recalls. “I’d been through one of my life’s most traumatic events, and these longtime friends, who are dear and thoughtful and loving, were clueless as to how to handle the situation or acknowledge my pain.”
According to Robbie Miller Kaplan, author of How to Say It When You Don’t Know What to Say (Prentice Hall Press, 2004), Budig’s experience is not uncommon. “Most people have good intentions,” Kaplan says, “but they often don’t know what to say or do to support someone who is grieving.”
Grief is a natural response to any significant loss, including the death of a loved one, a miscarriage, the end of a relationship, or even unemployment. Psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross discovered in the 1960s that grief typically follows a pattern of stages, during which a person experiences denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Yet, as Kübler-Ross also recognized, the grieving process is unique for each person and for each loss.
Although there is no right or wrong way to grieve, moving through the process is necessary. It is also difficult and requires support from family and friends. “Learning how to comfort someone who is experiencing a difficult time is a skill we can—and should—develop because we will need it throughout our lives,” Kaplan says.
Death of a loved one
Although it is never easy to watch someone you care about mourn the loss of a family member or close friend, being present after a death is perhaps the most supportive thing you can do. “Death is very isolating,” Kaplan says. “If you stay away, you will isolate the person further.”
What can you do to help? Attend the funeral or memorial service, Kaplan says. Send a heartfelt condolence card, in which you share your memories of the deceased, and offer to help with meals, shopping, or other household chores. Of course, an integral part of being present is just listening rather than dispensing advice or attempting to “talk away” the grieving person’s pain, Kaplan adds. “More than anything, a person in grief needs others who are willing to listen.”
Phyllis Davies, author of Grief (Sunnybank Publishers, 1998), says encouraging a person to talk about his or her fondest memories of the deceased is often helpful, as this allows the person to focus on happier times. “Don’t hesitate to mention the deceased person’s name,” adds Davies, who says she continues to appreciate people calling her son Derek by name 20 years after his death. “This is one of the kindest things you can do. It tells the grieving person that you remember.”
It’s tempting to try to ease a grieving person’s pain by saying things such as “everything will be OK” or “your loved one is in a better place.” But Wanda Jenkins, a contributing editor of Bereavement Magazine, says such statements can actually make the grieving person feel worse because they fail to acknowledge the magnitude of the loss. “The truth is, when someone you love dies, it is never OK,” says Jenkins, who is also a bereavement manager for VITAS Innovative Hospice Care in Lombard, Illinois. “It is just something you learn to accept and live with.” In addition, Jenkins says it is important not to assume to know what a grieving person is feeling, even if you have experienced a similar loss. “I never tell someone, ‘I lost my mother and father, so I know what you are going through,’” Jenkins says. “Every loss is unique.”
Finally, being present immediately following a death is important, but offering friendship and support in the subsequent weeks and months is often even more crucial. This is when the immensity of the loss becomes clear for the grieving person, says Tina Tessina, a psychotherapist in Long Beach, California, and author of It Ends With You (New Page, 2003). “In the beginning, the grieving person is in shock,” Tessina says. “But a few months down the road, that is when the death hits them like a ton of bricks.”
Yet, as Tessina notes, friends and family often want to rush a loved one’s grief because they don’t want to see the person in prolonged pain. But, like it or not, mourning a death typically takes a long time—and it is important to offer support throughout the process. “The most intense experience of grief lasts at least a year,” Tessina says. “Once the person has survived that first year and all of the anniversaries and holidays, things get a little easier.”
Although most people understand and acknowledge the enormous grief associated with the death of a child, this isn’t always the case when someone loses a baby during pregnancy. “Miscarriage can be treated socially as a real nonevent,” says Elizabeth Grill, a clinical psychologist with the Center for Reproductive Medicine and Infertility in New York. “People don’t get it, so they gloss over the loss.” According to Grill, research has shown that the intensity of grief after a miscarriage is more closely related to the psychological attachment the parent felt with the baby than to the length of gestation. So even if the miscarriage occurred only a few weeks into a pregnancy, the ensuing grief can be substantial. “Pregnancy loss is very emotionally traumatic and involves varying degrees of grief depending on the hopes and dreams the parents had for the child and for their own future,” Grill says.
Positive ways of helping a couple who are grieving a lost pregnancy include offering to help plan a memorial service, or planting a tree or donating to a charity in memory of the child, Grill says. “Treat a miscarriage as a death in the family,” Kaplan adds. “Send flowers. Bring a meal. Write a note telling the family how sorry you are for their loss.” Connecting the couple with support groups or others who have experienced a similar loss can also help in the healing process, Grill says.
As with any loss, it’s important not to minimize the experience of the miscarriage. “Don’t say things like, ‘You can try again’ or ‘You can always adopt,’” Grill says. “Really the best thing you can do is to be a good listener.” Also, it’s important to allow the couple time to move through the grieving process at their own pace, Grill says. “It can take several years to go through this.”
End of a marriage or relationship
Divorce is the death of a marriage, and the pain that follows a divorce or the end of any committed relationship is usually significant. “Even if you were the one who wanted the divorce, you grieve for that marriage, too,” Kaplan says.
Yet broken relationships are rarely accompanied by the kind of community support that follows the death of a person. Therefore, doing the same things that you would for someone who has experienced a death is one way of acknowledging the significance of a divorce or breakup. “Offer to watch the kids, cook a meal, or help with what had been the spouse’s responsibilities,” Kaplan says.
Sending a note, calling, or stopping by for a visit around holidays, anniversaries, or other meaningful dates can be helpful, too. “It’s important to keep in touch,” Kaplan says. “Invite the person out to lunch or to a movie, or just call to let them know you are thinking of them.”
And again, listening is one of the most beneficial things you can do for a person grieving the end of a relationship. “During times of loss, people need to tell their grief stories again and again,” Kaplan says. “It is part of the healing process.”
Long-standing debilitating illness
Because Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, cancer, and other degenerative illnesses can eat away at a person for years until death finally steps in, the mourning process—and the need for outside support—often begins long before the person dies, says Stella Henry, a 35-year veteran of the long-term care industry and cofounder of Vista del Sol, a private nursing home and assisted-living facility in Culver City, California. “With Alzheimer’s, for example, we lose our family members twice. We lose them cognitively, and then we lose them through death,” says Henry, whose mother and father both died from the debilitating disease.
It’s during this long process that the caregiver needs additional love and support to deal with the pain and guilt they often feel. Offering to listen to the caregiver’s emotions or dropping by for a few hours so he or she can get out of the house are good ways to lend help. If you’re not sure what the grieving family or caregiver might need, don’t be afraid to ask, Kaplan adds. “You can say, ‘I’ve never been through this situation, and I don’t know what you might need. So please tell me, and I’ll do whatever I can to help.’”
Other losses—including the loss of a job or the death of a pet—can unleash a flood of grief, as well. “No matter what the loss is, people should have the luxury of grieving and feeling for that loss,” Kaplan says.
Different types of losses may call for a slightly modified approach in support. For instance, if a friend is laid off from his job, you should acknowledge the loss but also let the person know it’s not his fault, Kaplan says. “The economy has yet to settle down, and many talented people continue to lose their jobs,” she says. One way of lending support is to help update and circulate the person’s resume. Or, if you have the money, offer to pay for the person to meet with a career coach for an hour or two, Kaplan says.
Such practical assistance can also make a huge difference to someone who is grieving the loss of a pet. As many pet owners know, the grief people experience after losing a companion animal is sometimes comparable to or even greater than the pain they would feel had a human died, says Betty Carmack, EdD, author of Grieving the Death of a Pet (Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 2003) and professor of nursing at the University of San Francisco.
“People who have lost a companion animal are sometimes surprised by the depth of their grief and by how long it goes on,” says Carmack, who has been hosting a weekly pet-loss support group at the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for more than 20 years. “Companion animals are often considered part of the family. Losing that presence in the family creates a huge void.” If someone you care about loses a companion animal, do the same things you would had a person died: Be present, acknowledge the magnitude of the loss, and listen, Carmack says.
Finally, no matter what the loss, it’s important simply to do something, Davies says. “Don’t let your sensitivity toward doing the wrong thing lead you to doing nothing at all.”
Carlotta Mast is a frequent Delicious Living contributor.