Julie Lay – Helping with Loss
Julie is a Communications Director at the American Heart Association. Tattooed on her right wrist are the words, “Be the change.” These words inspire her to be kind/do good for others every day. Julie likes wine, but only the kind made from grapes, not the kind that comes from her two beautiful children who she loves 100% of the time and likes 98% of the time. Her husband works in an elementary school and her two cats work in the sunniest spot they can find in the house.
How to Help Someone Dealing with Loss
Often in the face of grief, the grieving find themselves alone. Some right after the loss, others months after, when the loss finally starts to really hit them. In my case, after the sudden and tragic loss of my brother, I found myself completely alone. But the people around me didn’t do it out of malice or spite. They did it because they didn't know what to do to help me. Rather than say the wrong thing, they said nothing at all. I get it. I do. Most days.
What I really want to do is help others help people who are experiencing loss not feel as alone as I did. No matter the circumstances of someone’s loss, they need you. Even if you weren't close before, they need you. So be there. For them. Even if they are a virtual stranger. In the long run, strangers were some of the people that helped me the most.
Most of this pertains mainly to sudden, tragic loss, but it can help you help someone that is experiencing any type of loss.
They may need some space in the beginning.
When loss first happens, it is often impossible for the grieving to comprehend what is going on. They have no words and are often just blank inside, erased by what has happened. They may need some time to be able to speak with others. Let them know that you are there for them, but don't be offended if they don't return your call, even if you were very close before the tragedy.
Call. Call again. Then call again. Then call some more.
They may not want to talk in the beginning, but don't stop trying to reach out to them. And trying. And trying. Because by the time they are ready to speak to people and need someone to talk to, most people have stopped trying. And the grieving are most likely not going to call you when they need help. So keep calling and emailing and texting and trying. Because even if they don't pick up the phone, they feel better knowing you are there and that you care.
Understand that their loss may be different.
This is one of the biggest things to realize when helping someone deal with devastating loss, like sudden, unexpected loss, the loss of a child, a suicide, murder, etc. No two people grieve the same and there is no greater demonstration of this than when dealing with the tragic loss of a loved one. There are a few things to note on this topic:
- Don't give advice. Unless you have walked a mile in the grieving's very specific shoes, advice can just make them feel that the way they are grieving is wrong.
- Don't compare their loss to your own. Comparing a natural death or one that happened later in life can alienate someone grieving tragic loss and make them feel even more alone.
- Consider avoiding general condolences. "It was just their time", "God wanted another soldier", "Everything happens for a reason" and other general condolences can really hurt in the case of devastating loss. I found that, "There are no words," helped the most. Because there aren't.
Don't avoid the topic.
Understandably, when someone experiences loss, their friends and family are at a loss of what to say, so they say nothing. This can make the grieving feel that their loved one's life was not important. It also takes away a much-needed outlet for the grieving. It is better to say something than to say nothing at all.
If they bring it up, don't clam up.
When the grieving do bring up what happened, no matter how horrific it was, don't clam up or change the subject. There is nothing more painful than opening yourself up only to be shut down by the person you finally felt comfortable talking with.
Get their mind off it.
Though pretending nothing happened is not the way the go, sometimes going out and doing normal things can help the grieving cope. Things that are a bit out of their comfort level might even help because they have to concentrate on the task at hand and not their loss. So, take them ice skating, or enroll in a painting class. Just include them.
Ask how they are doing.
People are often afraid that if they ask a grieving person how they are doing, they will trigger thoughts of their loss. Believe me, they don't need a trigger. They think about it every minute of every day at the beginning, every other minute of the day in the middle, and every third minute of the day after time has passed. All asking will do is show the person that you care. And don't just ask right after it happens. Ask next week, next month, next year, next decade. Forever. They will love you for caring and remembering what they have been through/will always be going through.
Know that it takes a long time.
By the time the reality of what has happened sets in, most people think that the grieving should be "over it". Give the person time to grieve. The loss of a loved one is a lot to process. It can take months or even years to even understand what happened enough to start grieving the person's loss, let alone if it was a violent or unexpected death. Remember that they will be a little broken. Days, weeks, months, years from now.
And because it is important,
Text. Email. Call. Again. And again. And again.
Keep trying. And trying. And trying. Because knowing you are there for them will be the thing that helps them the most.
Julie and her brother John, who inspired this post.