What to remember when you're talking to someone who's grieving
By the time we hit our 20s, most of us are lucky to describe the extent of our "funeral experience" as watching a gold fish circle the toilet.
And unless you had some extra credits to burn in college, you likely didn't take a death and dying course. This means 1. a lot of us are interacting with grieving friends and coworkers for the first time in our 20s or 30s 2. we're probably super ill-equipped to deal with it.
Maybe your parents lost their parent (your grandparent), but you might not have played an active support role, especially if you were dealing with your own grief. Maybe your friend's mom or dad lost their spouse, but you only really had to see it peripherally when you went over to play. In these situations, we're not always forced to sit in the middle of it — next to someone at work, at the bar on a Friday with your friends — which means we don't get a ton of experience.
This means also we get a lot of shit wrong. We say the wrong thing, act the wrong way, or try to be supportive and end up being a total jerk. To avoid these situations, the best you can do is educate yo'self.
I asked my boyfriend what topics he'd like to see covered, and the first one that came to mind was suggestions for things you should remember if you're talking to someone who is grieving. So my first, and overall piece of advice: you can't get everything right, but you can try.
It's often appreciated if you're honest.
Sometimes you will just have no idea what to say. Sometimes I still have no idea what to say! And the most important think you can do in those situations is just tell the person.
Here are a few things I've heard, and my response to them.
"Dude, I have no idea what to say. I can't imagine what you're going through." First half: Thanks! Second half: Not true! You can imagine it, it just takes more effort than people usually put in. When you hear of someone's loss, you might think, "Oh shit, that's gonna happen to me one day," but there's a really good chance you haven't thought about what it'll be like for more than a minute. Instead of, "I can't imagine what you're going through", consider asking them what they're going through. This will make them feel less isolated than a statement that reflects, "Jeeez this is so out of the ordinary... k, bye!"
"I'm so ill-equipped to handle this, but tell me what you need." First half: Thank you! Second half: Omg whaaa yasss! Considering how little formal education we get about these subjects, how could I expect people to be well-equipped to handle this kind of thing? Well, now I do. There are resources out there, and asking someone what they need, how you can help, or where to start researching how to support are incredible things to hear from a friend.
You can bring up their loss "out of the blue".
Unless the person you're speaking with JUST lost someone, there's a really good chance they've been left in the dust by friends, colleagues, and even family members who stopped acknowledging their grief, going back to their own lives.
This is hard, because there's another really good chance that that person hasn't moved on — if it's been a while, or even a few years, there's an even better chance that things are getting harder. So! Unless you've got some serious cues to avoid the topic at all costs, speak up. Ask them how they're doing — six months, a year, two years later, the answer to that question might still be, "I'm alright, but some days are hard," and most importantly, you'll probably be met with a "And thank you for asking, because no one does anymore."
Give the person you're talking to the chance to accept your offer to talk or push you away. If everyone a grieving person interacts with dances around these subjects, then they rarely get to express what they're going through, comfortably and in a welcoming environment. So open the door, and give them the chance to run through (or slam it in your face).
Any day can be a hard day.
One of the biggest misconceptions I face is the belief that grief just ends one day. For some people, it does. They've processed, accepted, and moved on. For many people though, that's nowhere near the case. I was once talking to Intuitive Grief Coach Rachel Ricketts, and she said stopped me when I said something about my grief "coming out of the blue". These things don't just "come out of the blue"; they're in there somewhere, it's just likely that you're coping, managing, or pushing them down to get through some really hard times.
When you're grieving, you will find "random" days, times, weeks, years, and milestones hard. It's not just about dates that meant something in the past; the fact that you've kept living could mean sadness at anytime, in any place, and in front of anyone. Tuesday morning at 7:35 am can be just as hard as your dead loved one's birthday. Christmas Eve, when they would have cooked your favourite meal, will be just as hard as the "random" moment that you start crying at your desk on a Thursday at 3:47 pm.
Unfortunately, I've been asked, "Is your counselling helping? Are you getting better?" and have had to explain that this is not how grief works for everyone. It is fluid, complicated, and comes in waves. It can show up in the middle of the night, in the middle of a date, or in the middle of the most glorious, sunny, beautiful Saturday afternoon. So when you're dealing with someone who is working through their grief, understand that some days will be better than others, then it might just be really hard for a stretch. You can't always fix everything, but you can try harder to ask the right questions, or avoid the wrong ones.