I am a fixer. When I see a problem, when I see someone hurting, I have this all-consuming to need to help. I want to give advice. Or buy them food. Or hug them. I just want to fix. It’s a horrible trait and can become quite annoying I know. But those who are close to me know I just love them hard and mean well so they let me.
A year ago this month, my best friend lost her mother. It was unexpected and just as devastating as you would expect. I remember vividly how the panic hit my chest like a ton of bricks when I got the text. I couldn’t breathe. “I have to be there. I have to be there. I have to help her. I have to make it better.” The words played on loop in my brain as I frantically rushed to be with her. But by the time I got there whatever fit of panic she had been in had subsided. I only saw a glimpse of the sadness and the fear that she had buried deep inside as she switched herself to auto pilot. Her mom was unmarried and it was just her and her sister who was in another state. It was time to take charge. It was time for her to be responsible. Call this person. Inform that person. Contact the funeral home. Notify her employer. Handle the affairs. Go through the motions
I remember calling my mom on the way home and telling her, “She doesn’t really need me right now. Right now she is busy. Right now she is surrounded by people. Her phone won’t stop ringing. People won’t stop texting. Everyone is offering to help. But soon they’ll be gone. Soon it will be time to fall apart. And it will be my job to put her back together.” I wasn’t completely wrong. The funeral passed, the outsiders got quiet and she fell apart. But I couldn’t put her back together. I had this all-consuming need to fix the problem. But I couldn’t. The truth is, I wasn’t even sure how to be a friend to someone so intensely dealing with grief. I was left with his constant worry that I would say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing, do too much or not do enough. And it sucked.
Everyone experiences death at some point. I have been blessed enough to have never lost someone so close to me. And when you have never been through it personally, there is no way to understand how it actually feels. You have this ache to make it better for the one you love but you can’t. And what I have learned is sometimes our attempts to fix it make it worse. What I have learned in all our good hearted attempts to make things better we often isolate, offend or discredit the grief of the person who is suffering.
So here are a few things to remember if you are ever in a situation where you are trying to comfort a grieving friend.
1. Shut up.
Its harsh, I know. But in all seriousness. Just. Stop. Talking. When people die,it’s like we as humans start experiencing this word vomit reflex. We start regurgitating pretty words fluffed up with false promises. “She is in a better place.” “You are going to be ok.” “I know how you feel.” “There is a reason for everything.” “How are doing?”
No matter what religion you believe in or what kind of afterlife you picture, there is no such thing as a better place in that moment. A better place would be there, with the people they love. And even if you have experienced loss on the same level, everyone experiences emotions differently so the likelihood that you know how they feel is small. And no matter what they tell you when you ask them, no they are not doing fine.
Instead, say something like “I am sorry you are hurting.” I love you.” Share a memory. Or just listen to them cry. Breathe. Be silent. Because the fact of the matter is, words won’t change the pain. So don’t be afraid to just be quiet.
2)Don’t use the bereaved person to sooth you through your own grief.
Death has a funny way of stirring up emotions not even tied to the loss of that person. Often we are left feeling guilty the way we treated or the lack of relationship we had with the person who died. Or maybe we mistreated the one who is grieving and feel guilt pushing you to be there for them. Or maybe it stirs fear about losing someone you are close too. Or maybe you just are truly grieving for the loss too. That’s ok. You are allowed to feel that way. You are allowed to be sad, angry, guilty, lonely, afraid. OR maybe you are simply exhausted for being there for them. But right now, you need to turn to other people to be your shoulder. If your loved one who is grieving WANTS to also help you with your grief, GREAT! But more often than not in order to soothe our own feelings about death we force out our emotions on the bereaved. In return they are so busy taking care of everyone else’s pain they distract themselves from their own instead of trying to heal.
3)Don’t tell them to be strong.
It often takes every bit of courage one kind find inside to get up and face the world after the loss of a loved one. Life doesn’t stop. Work continues. Bills add up. So they have no choice but to be strong. They know that. They understand that. And quite frankly, its not fair the world doesn’t have a pause button for them to take the time they need. So you telling them repeatedly to be strong is really just salt in an open wound. They have to be strong to face the world so its your job to create a space where they are comfortable being weak. If they want to scream, cry, shout. Ramble every incoherent fear and irrational bit of anger it is your job to let them. It your job to tell them they aren’t crazy or weak and how they feel is perfectly ok. Don’t dismiss their feelings as invalid by requiring them to be strong in a moment when weakness is absolutely justifiable.
4)Except that they may never be quite the same.
I once watched a video where a psychiatrist was drawing a visualization tool to represent how grief affected someone. There were little circles that represented every area of life. Career. School. Marriage. When someone is hit with loss, the grief becomes a circle that consumes all of the other circles. Every area of life is affected. That circle doesn’t really change but overtime, the rest of the circles begin to grow around the circle of grief. Simply put, the pain never goes away. They will never be “over it”. People are just forced to grow their life around it. That experience of loss is now forever embedded into the emotions and psyche of your loved one. It may change the way they think or dreams they have. That’s ok. It is not your job to try to force them to think or behave the way they did before there experience.
I am not sure that losing a loved one will ever be an easy situation no matter who you are or your experience with loss. Death is a terrifying reality. Watching people go through it can be scary and its human nature to want to fix the problem or shield our friends and family from the harsh reality of grief. But remember, we can’t. Your only job is to love them through it no matter what their process looks like.
Dedicated to Janae and Kendra Davis. Yall let God keep molding you. I am inspired. Love yall!
Dedicated to Rebekah Billings and Jordan Williams. I’ve watched you both persevere despite. Love you both.
In loving memory of Janice Frederick-Davis. Hoops and purple all month! Love you forever.