Supporting Others in Grief

There are ways that death affects us all that we sometimes can’t even describe or understand until that one moment that makes us realize just how connected everything is. We live our whole lives wondering when our time will come or how, but nothing prepares you for when it’s someone else’s.

We prepare, we worry, and we love with all our hearts, and then they break into a million pieces with the words delivered to you by people who typically don’t know you at all. “Ma’am, I’m sorry we lost him.” “He’s in the hospital, didn’t you hear?” “There’s nothing else we can do.”

There are things that comfort you, there are things that break you, and there are things that make you angrier than you’ve ever been. The hug of a friend who has nothing to say but has love to give. The news of losing someone. The words of a doctor said without care for the feelings of the family.

What NOT To Say

The truth is, I’ve experienced all of these personally, except the last example. That one is a story I’ve heard my Mom tell me and one she’s told others at parent panels and conferences. It’s frustrating, because you have this idea of medical personnel that portrays them as strong, kind, and personable. Some of them are, and then some are not. Unfortunately, Mom and Dad had a doctor when Dakota was sick, the second time when his cancer had returned. The doctor was an amazing brain surgeon, but not an amazing communicator.

As they were discussing Dakota and the progression of his cancer, the doctor looked at my parents and said, “Well, you don’t have to buy a tombstone yet.” Yes, you read that correctly. That one bad line has stuck with my parents for years. And I’m still learning other stories about what doctors’ have said to them, even now 26 years later.

It stuck with me too. Maybe I’m not the parent, and maybe this happened years before I was born. But at least I know what NOT to look for in bedside manners. There are some things you just shouldn’t say.

Another one that I personally think of when discussing what not to say is “I understand.” The thing is, you don’t. I don’t care who you are, but most experiences are different, even in the slightest way. We all react differently to different news; we all go through loss in our own ways. You may empathize with me, you may want to understand, but it will never be quite the same as
how you believe it to be.

We All Grieve Differently

Grief is not the same for everyone. I’m currently reading a book that talks about how grief and bereavement has been studied. The original studies on these subjects talk about grief as if everyone goes through it the same way. Everyone supposedly grieves the same, for the same amount of time, and it’s supposed to be “work”. It is talked about as if it has to be gone through for a long time, with therapy and sadness and all of those things being the only way to grieve.

Well, it’s not. Everyone grieves differently. Some may be back to work the next week because they need that structure. Some may not talk to others for weeks in order to figure out their own feelings toward the loss before discussing it with others. We all do this thing called bereavement in different ways, so “understanding” is not as easily done as it is said.

I’ve learned to just let others know I’m there for them. “I’m here if you need me.” “Do you need to call? I’m available to talk.” “Want me to come over? Bring some food? Coffee?” And my favorite, “This sucks, and I’m so sorry.” These are the phrases I use when supporting others in grief.

Admit That It Sucks

We often don’t want to acknowledge just how bad things are when talking with someone going through a terminal illness, illness of a loved one, or a loss. However, we should, because when you don’t acknowledge their loss and their hurt it feels impossible to talk with them and walk with them through their pain.

Being someone who’s lost people, it feels good when someone tells me how much this sucks. It’s almost a small relief of the pain. You feel seen, even if just for a moment.

So next time you talk with someone going through a loss, or anything that’s causing them heartache or pain, make sure you stand beside them and let them feel their pain in whatever way they need. Be there to pick up the pieces if they’ll let you, or be a phone call away when they need space. But always, always make them feel seen.

See another article by Skye: Remembering Dakota: Sibling Loss and Its Impacts – Open to Hope

Read Skye Page’s blog, Mentally Sailing

Skye Page

My name is Skye Page and I am originally from rural North Carolina, but I am currently living in Norfolk, VA on our 31' sailboat. I have been writing for years, mainly for myself, but recently I've been writing about our sailing adventures on our blog, Mentally Sailing. I've also written about grief and loss in order to help me process things that will never truly be understood. I have personal experience with death and grief, having experienced the years after my oldest brother, Dakota, died from medulloblastoma, a brain tumor. His life, and death, lead to my passion for helping others who are experiencing the loss of a loved one and it led to the understanding of just how important palliative care and the difference a supportive community can make for so many people. I want nothing more than to let others know that they are not alone. I hear you, I see you, I am with you.

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