Recently I took an unofficial poll and asked friends and family, “What is the one thing that a newly grieving person needs right after their loved one has died? “
Some good answers included: A listening ear; a shoulder to cry on; to know they are not alone; a connection.
These aren’t wrong. In my experience, though, the one thing newly grieving people say they really need is: their loved one back in their arms.
I cannot tell you how many times I wanted to respond that way, when people said, “Let me know if you need anything.” My thoughts were, “Ok. Well, I need Kevin (my spouse) back. Now. Can you do that?”
I never actually responded that way because it would have probably scared some people off; they wouldn’t offer help again. They might even feel slightly offended at my seemingly quick dismissal of their help and my ask of the impossible. It might have made some others tear up, or tilt their head slightly sideways in a “poor thing” interpretation. If I responded in that honest way, it would have been awkward.
If the loved one was sick or suffering, the grieving person can process that their loved one is no longer suffering and is healed. Even in those cases, selfishly yet full of love, we can feel that we still need them with us.
For all of you that lovingly reach out to a newly grieving person and offer, “let me know if you need anything,” just understand that you cannot deliver on their likely biggest need. It’s hard for newly grieving people to think about the tangible things people can actually help with; they are thinking of the big picture and the long-term loss. We just wish we could bring our loved one back, that we could go back in time and somehow change the outcome.
Since we can’t turn back time or bring the loved one back, what are five ways you can truly help?
G – Grace. Understand that they will be tired, distracted, forgetful and withdrawn. Give them some space without taking it personally or judging them for how they act. Give them grace and know that grief is complicated and exhausting. Allow them to be what they need to be right now.
R – Reach out. Send them a card, a text or make a phone call. Offer a specific way in which you would be glad to help, or a specific need that you can fill. “Can I bring you dinner on Tuesday?” or “I’m at the store, what can I pick up for you – I’ll drop it off”. Continue reaching out for months and years to come, letting them know you remember their loss and that they are loved and not alone.
I – Include. Don’t assume that the grieving person is busy or wants to be left alone. Include them in your thoughts and your invitations. It’s possible and completely acceptable for them to decline but making the offer is so important. Allow them to change their mind, too. Invite them even if you think they might have plans or even if you’re not sure they’d be interested. They might surprise you.
E – Ears. Sometimes a grieving person just wants to talk about their loved one. Or, talk about their day and have someone pay attention to them (especially if they’ve lost their spouse). If they mention their loved one by name, don’t act uncomfortable or change the subject. Acknowledge it by repeating their name in the conversation. Don’t try to fix their problems or always point out the bright side; just listen.
F – Friendship. Be kind, comforting, supportive, loyal and fun. Don’t forget the fun. Grieving people want to have fun with friends, too. They are dealing with a lot, they may be struggling, but they want and need their friends to treat them the same as before the loss- invite them, tell them jokes, laugh about funny memories, check in often, be a friend. A lot has changed in their world; maintain the friendship. Sometimes friendships change after a loss, but keep being friendly.