Grief is complicated. It is uniquely personal and, at the same time, a universal human experience that accompanies moments of loss. When someone you love is grieving, they may experience feelings of deep sorrow that can significantly disrupt their daily life. While studies of grief only became prevalent over the last 100 years, it is clear that grief manifests differently in each person and may include unpredictable emotional, psychological, and physical pain.
Despite grief being a deeply personal experience, it is also something many of us have in common, especially in recent times – with the pandemic, mass shootings, violent acts of racial injustice and transphobia, civil unrest, and other losses. Thinking about grief on both these individual and systemic terms, it is important to understand how grief impacts our loved ones. And because grief is such a multifaceted experience, it can sometimes feel difficult to know how best to approach a person who is experiencing it.
If your loved one is experiencing physical symptoms due to grief, it can be helpful to offer to take some things off their plate. Prepping meals and helping with chores not only shows support in a tangible way but also gives your loved one the time and space to process their loss. Collaborating with their social group or place of worship (for example, on a Meal Train) can create a network of support and safety, easing your loved one’s responsibilities. Providing support can also alleviate the added stress of your loved one assuming tasks associated with the person who passed away.
The feelings that come with grief can overwhelm an individual’s mental wellbeing. Studies show the brain must create new neural pathways after a sudden death or ending of a relationship. For instance, if your loved one is experiencing the loss of a longtime partner, child, or spouse, their brain is adjusting to the physical manifestation of loss. The brain remembers the feeling of a hug or sleeping next to someone else. It can take time for your loved one to cope with the loss and adjust to a new way of living.
Grief comes in waves.
While the forcefulness of emotion that comes with grief may lessen as time passes, grief itself never truly disappears. As you support someone you love who has experienced loss, you will likely help them navigate and overcome recurring feelings of deep sadness, confusion, anger, yearning, and even hopelessness.
As the days and years go by, your loved one will need ongoing support. Here are some ways you can continue to show up as life goes on:
- Listen to them as they share their thoughts and memories about the person they lost and invite them to share a favorite story about the person.
- Observe and honor significant days in the life of the person who passed away such as birthdays, anniversaries, and the anniversary of the day they passed away.
- Accompany your loved one to the memorial site of the person who passed away, a park or other place of nature, or a religious service (if in keeping with their religious tradition and their personal preferences); let them decide and set the pace.
- Engage in activities that remind them of the person they lost, like listening to their favorite music, watching movies together, or visiting meaningful places.
- Reach out to them on holidays, acknowledging their loss during these times.
Grief isn’t just about death; it’s about loss.
While grief is most commonly associated with death, feelings of loss can come from many other life events, such as a divorce, breakup of a friendship or romantic relationship, loss of a home or job, or other traumatic experiences that can leave someone feeling a profound sense of loss within themselves or their community.
If someone you love is grieving due to a traumatic event, it’s important not to downplay their feelings. Here are some supportive statements you can offer:
- “I’m sorry to hear and see you are in pain. Would you like to talk about how you’re feeling?”
- “It seems like you’ve been isolating yourself since this event. How about going for a walk together? Are you up for it?”
- “I understand this event made you feel scared and vulnerable. Would it help to write or audio record your feelings to process them in a secure space?”
If you find yourself as an emotional support human for someone experiencing loss because of a traumatic life event, you may feel at a loss as to how to help them with something you have not experienced. Encourage the person you love who is experiencing this grief to seek out professional counseling and support groups, as these resources are made to help people navigate complex feelings.
Need more help with the right words to say?
While grief is a tough hill to climb, Horizon Foundation is dedicated to bolstering emotional support humans along their journey of helping their loved ones sustain their mental health. If you need additional tips on what to say to someone in your life who is experiencing some of the feelings that come with grief, check out our ideas for getting the conversation started.