How to be There for Someone Who Has Suffered a Loss

How to be There for Someone Who Has Suffered a Loss

It's been nearly three weeks since my family suffered the tragic and traumatic loss of my older brother and my youngest niece. As I sat and began to prepare myself mentally for going back to work again, I started to reflect on how nerve-wracking re-entry into the world can feel after a loss. The fascinating part, to me, is that the anxiety comes less from going back to a normal routine, and more from the concerns over what people will say and how I'll manage to react or respond to it. It's certainly helpful to keep in mind that most folks who are commenting or attempting to offer words of support are doing it out of love, but sometimes it can still be challenging to know how to handle the things people say.

After my Dad died unexpectedly from a stroke two years ago, I recorded a podcast episode called "Moving Forward after a Loss" where I discussed the grieving process itself, ways to be supportive towards those hurting, as well as some things NOT to do if you're attempting to be there for someone. It felt appropriate after what I've experienced recently to add on to those thoughts a bit through this post. I'd suggest taking a moment to listen to that podcast if you have the time, but in the meantime I'd like to offer a quick breakdown of some things to avoid doing or saying to someone who has suffered a loss, and especially a traumatic one like what my family is going through.

  1. Don't Pry.

    From my perspective, this is probably the most important one when it comes to dealing with a traumatic loss, which is why I'm listing it first. Curiosity is a natural thing so it's understandable, but your curiosity doesn't matter more than our desire for privacy, respect and the space to heal. Trauma is complex and challenging. It's hard enough to get through our days when working with such intense circumstances, but having people - especially ones we aren't particularly close to - decide that they want to ask questions and pry for details to satisfy their own curiosity is absolutely awful. You really have no idea how someone who has been traumatized will respond to your line of questioning. It could be triggering in any number of painful ways.

    Simply put: fuck your curiosity, keep your questions to yourself.

    If we are ready to speak on details of whatever we've experienced, we'll let you know. Otherwise, it's ok to say "I'm here for you if you ever want to talk about it", but please mean it. Don't offer that as a throwaway sentence, because attempting to reach out for offered support only to be shut down is painful too. It's completely fine if you aren't in a headspace yourself where you feel comfortable trying to support someone dealing with trauma, just offer your condolences and a hug or whatever feels right to you, and then leave it be.
  2. "Time heals all..."

    If you ever say this to someone who has suffered a loss, especially a traumatic one, it tells us quickly is that you have no idea what the fuck you're talking about. Myself, my family and many of the people I've talked to who have lost someone they love, find this to be one of the most irritating and isolating sentences that we hear often. Time doesn't heal shit. These aren't broken bones that will be corrected after a proper setting, this is heartbreak of an immeasurable kind. This will hurt forever. The only difference is, over time, we become more accustomed to handling the way it hurts. We learn to accept that pain as a part of our lives, hopefully recognizing that it lives right alongside the joy that can be accessed through the present moment or through reflecting on loving memories.

    I read something once that described grief in an interesting way: Imagine a small box with a giant red button in the middle of it. The button is labeled "PAIN". After suffering a loss, a large ball gets placed in this box and as you move throughout your day, it touches that "pain" button frequently. It's almost impossible to exist without hurting. Over time, with a healthy support system and the right mindset and routine, the button gradually becomes smaller, but it never goes away. You may find that you can go days, months or even years without the ball going anywhere near the button, but when that button is pushed the pain is no different than it was the first day. It is excruciating and it's ok that it's excruciating. I lost my older sister Tanya in 2008, and some days I can talk about her with nothing but smiles, and other days just the thought of her can bring me right back into those initial feelings of grief and despair. If we didn't love them so deeply, it wouldn't be able to hurt as much as it does. That pain is a part of the legacy we've been left by those we've loved and lost, so please don't attempt to diminish it by claiming something as simple as passing time can change it.
  3. Avoid Comparisons.

    It is entirely understandable to want to relate to someone you're speaking to, but there is a time and a place for it. If someone tells you they've recently suffered a loss, especially a traumatic or unexpected one, that is NOT the time to tell them that you understand how they feel because of something that happened to you. You may think you can relate, but all situations are so different, it's likely that you can only relate on a somewhat superficial level, if at all. After my sister died, and after this recent loss of my brother and niece, I heard the same thing multiple times. "I know how you feel, my grandmother/grandfather died years ago and it was awful." In no way do I intend to pretend that losing a grandparent is an easy thing to handle, but please don't compare this to the loss of someone to an unexpected tragedy, especially if the person/people who died were young. It is yet another thing that can lead us to feeling isolated in our grief and the feelings associated with it.

    Another form of comparison that is incredibly frustrating and upsetting is when folks comment on how we're doing compared to how they think we should be doing, or compared to how they think they'd be doing if the roles were reversed. For example, after my sister died, I was devastated. I struggled to get out of bed most days and could barely handle caring for myself in the most basic of ways. After a few weeks, I was convinced to go out dancing with some friends of mine. I was at the club having a good time, experiencing my first feelings of semi-normalcy in a while, when someone I knew saw and approached me. They immediately offered their condolences, which I appreciated, even though I think I would have preferred to skip them at that moment. Then, they started talking about how they were "so impressed" by me, because if their sibling had died, "omg I'd just be broken and couldn't imagine doing anything." That fucking hurt. The message I received was that I was uncaring, or at the very least that I didn't have the same relationship they did with their siblings because I'm clearly doing fine and they wouldn't be if it had happened to them. I avoided going out for a while after that, and was worried that if people saw me even smiling that they'd assume I didn't care about my sister the way I did. Please, don't tell us we're doing great and you wouldn't be. Please, don't tell us we should be doing better or worse. Don't tell us how we should be feeling or acting. Let us honor our emotions by rolling with them and riding the waves as they come.

I realize some of this may seem strongly worded, so if you happened to respond in one of the ways I've listed above, please don't worry. I won't hold it against you; I'm not mad or upset at anyone. I'm just doing my best to prepare in advance for returning to the working world by giving some feedback early (and I love the word "fuck"). I'm 20 weeks pregnant and don't have the same levels of patience I typically do (hormones + grief is a wild combo), and I don't want to respond aggressively to anyone offering support - even if they're overstepping. I understand that the vast majority of people are just trying to help in some way, so if I do lash out in any way out of frustration please don't take it personally. I'm doing my best, just like you.

This post has mostly been focused on what not to do, because like I said, I'd really love to avoid these types of exchanges in the days ahead, but I don't want to leave you with just that. After my Dad's passing I put out a tweet asking folks what some of the best and worst things someone could say to them while grieving are, and I want to direct you to that thread of responses now. Go read through that thread and you can hear from other folks what helped them during hard times, and what hurt them.

I appreciate all of you so very much for the countless ways you've all tried to be there for me and my family in the past weeks. Some folks sent in offline tips so I could safely take time off work, some sent small gifts from my wishlist to bring smiles and others sent more maternity clothes so I could stay physically comfortable. All of those things were wonderful and so appreciated. Every kind word I've received in response to my tweets and through DMs and texts have meant so much to me - especially those of you who included "you don't have to respond to this" in your messages.

I'm so grateful for this community and all the kind souls in it, and I look forward to working, laughing and crying together more in the future.

Let's continue to manifest dope shit.

Much love,

Photo by David Monje on Unsplash

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