How to Support Loved Ones in Grief

ImageGrief: an experience that many of us don’t know what to do with or how to react to when we come in contact with it. Before my recent experiences with grief, I really didn’t have much of an idea of how to support others in grief. I had my therapeutic training, but that only goes so far and doesn’t always translate to being there for loved ones. It seems to me that in Western culture, at least in the U.S., we are so far removed from the concept of death that we become extremely uncomfortable when it touches us. For this reason, I wasn’t surprised when many of those close to me had no idea how to support me in my grief after the loss of my mother. For those that did give me support that worked, I was pleasantly surprised. For those that didn’t, I mostly understood.

Below I have compiled a few pieces of advice for those close to someone grieving. These are things that did and didn’t work for me while I was (and continue to be) marching down the grief highway. They may or may not be true for others!

  • Do call and check in regularly. Ask if I need anything, including practical things like food or childcare. Keep calling after the loss happens. Keep checking in and offering help, regardless of whether or not I call you back. Don’t expect me to call you back. Hearing your voice and knowing you are here for me is worth so much, even if I don’t respond to you.
  • Don’t say you “can’t imagine” what I am going through. I know I’ve been guilty of saying this to people before I experienced major loss in my life. Having now been on the receiving end of this one, I can see it really doesn’t help. For me, when I heard this, I felt isolated and separate, as if I was going through it alone.
  • Do express to me your understanding that death is a natural and normal part of life. A friend of mine simply said about my experience, “We are all going to experience that.” Even though he hasn’t experienced it yet, and maybe can’t imagine it, I felt his solidarity with my experience. I felt supported.
  • Do share your grief stories with me. This has been one of the most valuable forms of support to me. Seeing other people who have come out the other side of grief helps immensely.
  • Don’t pay me unexpected visits. Give me space to be in my cave. Call if you want to visit, and wait for my response.
  • Do show up for me, especially if you are a close friend. I was really dismayed that a person I had considered one of my closest friends barely acknowledged the loss I experienced, and simply did not show up. I even confronted her about it. She promptly apologized, explained herself, and then continued to not show up. I was especially disappointed because she is one of the few people I know close to my age who has lost a parent, and she is someone I have felt very comfortable with in expressing these difficult emotions in the past. I can only guess that she either A) hasn’t dealt with her own grief around the loss of her father a few years back and is therefore not comfortable showing up, or B) is not as good of a friend as I once thought she was. I haven’t felt very compelled to reach out to learn which one it is. Okay, excuse the rant! Any feedback will be appreciated.
  • Don’t give me the sad face the first time you see me in passing after the loss. Seriously, this is the worst. I’m at the grocery store, in a great mood, weeks after my mom died, her death being the last thing on my mind at the moment. And there is my friend, who sees me and immediately associates me with all things tragic. The overly concerned, “How are you?” Well, I was just great, until I ran into you! I am absolutely sure I’ve done this in the past. I remember bringing it up to a friend who’d recently lost her dad the first time I saw her out at a concert after her loss, and she told me straight up not to talk about it. Understand, with grief come myriad emotions. It is not just about depression and despair. For me, there has been a surprising amount of joy in the release of my mom’s spirit. So, don’t project your idea of what grief is onto me. Instead, when you see me, greet me with an uplifting smile. Let me know how happy you are to see me. Tell me you heard about my loss and are available to talk or help out in any way. Pay attention and respond to my response. If I just nod and smile and say thank you, move on to the next subject.
  • Do share your memories with me. In the time of my mom’s passing, family and friends gathered together on several occasions. It was such a treat for me to hear stories about my mom from those in her generation, stories I had never heard that helped me get to know her in ways I never did before. Another extended family member sent me old pictures of my mom. These stories and mementos are such a sacrament, like healing salve on an open wound.

That’s all I’ve got for now. Please gift us with your contribution to this list, because I know that everyone has a different experience with grief. Thanks for reading!

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Positive thinking: Finding light in the darkness

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“I will love the light for it shows me the way, yet I will endure the darkness because it shows me the stars.” ~ Og Mandino

I’ve been writing a bit in this blog about my journey through a life-threatening miscarriage to the discovery that I had a partial molar pregnancy, which is basically a pregnancy that can become cancerous. After the miscarriage, I had to get weekly blood draws to follow my hormone levels, to know that the tissue from the pregnancy was completely gone and was not continuing to grow and spread. Really fun stuff, right?

This week, my doctor told me that my blood tests are showing me as officially not pregnant, which means I am in the clear. It has been eight weeks since I originally learned that the pregnancy was not viable, and the ordeal is finally over! It was a terrible, horrifying experience, and I am eternally grateful for it.

Why? Because I learned so much. My awareness grew in so many directions. You know the cartoon where the light bulb appears over the person’s head when he/she gets an idea? Well, this was like thousands of light bulbs flashing inside of my head, all at once, as the realization of impermanence hit me. I feel so much more spiritually connected right now, much less afraid of death. Right now, that Dark Mother is my ally. She holds my hand and that cold chill I feel on my skin wakes me up and reminds me to live each moment as if it is the last. 

One of the most powerful therapeutic tools that I know is the Reframe. As defined by wikipedia,Cognitive reframing consists of changing the way people see things and trying to find alternative ways of viewing ideas, events, situations, or a variety of other concepts.” I constantly use this with my clients when I see them getting stuck in complaining, playing the role of the victim, or getting stuck in anger and judgment. I constantly use it with myself when I get stuck (which is at least a hundred times a day).

The questions to ask: Is there another way to look at this situation? Can I turn it on it’s side, upside-down, or backwards? Can I turn myself over and look at it again? Maybe put it away, take a break, do something pleasurable, and look at it again, in new light?

The point of this exercise is to find the positive in an uncomfortable, painful, struggle. It is the realization that you have the power to choose how to see a situation. You cannot control what happens to you, but you can control how you respond, and the state of your mind will drive your response.

The experience: I absolutely abhorred going through the miscarriage(s). I hated my doctor, the way she was very jaded and clinical as she gave me the news both about the miscarriage and about the partial molar pregnancy. I never want to go to that office again. I don’t know if I want to try to get pregnant again. I am still grieving the loss. It continues to be a challenge to be present and happy for my friends who have new babies. I get extremely jealous of pregnant women.

The reframe: I value the experience so much, because it was a huge lesson. I learned from it. And I have so much more compassion for other women who’ve miscarried, a much deeper understanding for people facing life-threatening illnesses. I can be more present for people facing huge crises, including death. My struggles have given me more depth. I know my way through some dark places now, so I can walk with others, shining light. I am not afraid to be there anymore, and I will work hard to stay connected to this courage, to this peaceful knowing that pain is just a sensation and death is just the other side of life.

The cognitive reframe can be extremely useful in changing beliefs about oneself to gain more self-acceptance as well.

Belief about myself: I am lazy and unfocused (true, but…)

The reframe: I know how to relax. I am flexible and open to new ideas. I am creative, spontaneous, and an excellent brainstormer. I work well with deadlines (I feel sooo much better about myself now).

Try it. Every time you find yourself stuck in negative thoughts or actions, or if you are going through a difficult situation, stretch your vision. Stand on your head for a while. And tell me about it! Here are some wise parting words from Groucho.

Image“Each morning when I open my eyes I say to myself: I, not events, have the power to make me happy or unhappy today. I can choose which it shall be. Yesterday is dead, tomorrow hasn’t arrived yet. I have just one day, today, and I’m going to be happy in it.” ~ Groucho Marx

On Being Vulnerable

We women are pros on being vulnerable. In love, we need to trust enough to allow somebody in, to let them plunge into our depths. In birth, we have to break open, wider than we ever felt possible, as wide as the universe, it seems, to let out that life that grew in that secret place inside of us.

In my daily life, I so often disconnect from this inherent vulnerability. I take for granted my partner, our beautiful son, my home, my job. Here I am living in one of the most beautiful places in this country. I have never known true hunger. I have been blessed to maintain steady employment throughout these hard financial times. I am making it. I an even thriving. Sometimes I get caught up in the minute details, the little disappointments or insecurities, and I forget how incredibly lucky I am. And I forget how incredibly vulnerable I am.

Because it could all disappear in the blink of an eye.

I have known loss before. I have felt the shock of something I nurtured and loved and accepted as mine to be ripped away from me. I have seen fate with it’s mocking eyes remind me that nothing is mine, and I have so little control over what happens in my life.

Right now, i am here again, not at the loss, but at the knowledge that I cannot always control the outcome of my desires. I try not to be attached, but I don’t enjoy this place of detachment. I want to love and try with all of my heart to create what I desire in my life, yet I am so afraid of losing. I am so afraid that my heart will be trampled once again.

To be vulnerable, but not a victim. This is the path I want to walk. To trust. To be open to what comes and to let go what goes. Not grasping, but letting this incredible fortune rest in the palm of my hand. To be in awe of life unfolding.