Before we get into it, we want to acknowledge that today’s topic may feel a little heavy to you. Grief is not something we often discuss as a culture, though it is something that, at some point, impacts us all. August 30th marks National Grief Awareness Day, a day dedicated to raising awareness of the myriad ways in which individuals cope with loss. For our discussion today, let’s start with the basics: What is grief? According to the American Psychological Association, grief is “the anguish experienced after significant loss, usually the death of a beloved person.”
The impacts of grief are often equated with depression, though the two are different, and can require different resources and support. This difference feels important to name considering it’s likely that all of us will experience grief at some point in our lives, and that we will also support a loved one who is experiencing grief. When we see our friends or family in pain, it can be difficult to feel like we can offer adequate support, and often the biggest barrier to showing up to support our loved ones lies in not knowing what to do or what to say. There is no roadmap to grief, but there are some core things to keep in mind when you are supporting a loved one through grief:
- Leave space to listen, and space for silence: First, we want to remind you that there is no one perfect thing to say to someone experiencing grief. Supportive silence can be more affirming than any words. Let your loved one know that you are there to listen if they want to share how they’re feeling, and that you will still be there even if they don’t want to talk.
- Be practical: As your loved one navigates grief, there are a lot of practical aspects of their life, like laundry, food shopping, caring for children and pets, or mowing the lawn that still need to be done. Coordinate with others to provide as much practical support as you can. These seemingly small gestures can remove some worry and provide some care.
- Be specific: While it can be tempting to offer general support to a loved one, saying something like “Please let me know if you need anything,” they may be too overwhelmed to know what they need or too exhausted to ask for it. Instead offer specifics like, “Tomorrow I will pick up the kids from school for you and bring over some dinner. Would that be alright?” or “On Wednesday, I would love to come over and do your laundry. I’ll stop at the grocery store first for some staples. Is there something you’d like me to pick up for you?” Be prepared to follow through, but also to respect their boundaries if they reject an offer of support.
- Practice patience: Grief doesn’t happen on a singular timeline and everyone processes it differently. Feelings of grief can pop up unexpectedly, or last longer than you thought they might. Let your loved one know that you support them in their grief, beyond the initial moments of loss.
- Take care of yourself: To be a good support for others, we need to make sure we are taking care of ourselves along the way. Ensure that you are physically caring for yourself, especially during stressful times or when you have a lot of caretaking responsibilities, by eating and sleeping adequately, staying hydrated, and practicing self-care. Seek a therapist or support group if you feel that you need a processing space of your own. This may seem selfish when someone else is in distress, but is crucial to making sure you can continue to support your loved one.
Dr. Mary-Frances O’Connor, a Psychology researcher who published the first neuroimaging study of grief in 2003, talks about how grief feels like “walking in two worlds at the same time,” and notes that grief alters the pathways in our brains, changing how we think and how we show up in the world. Remember that every experience is different, and that we all deserve support as we navigate the hard things.
Grief changes everything while being one of the most human and unavoidable parts of life. If you or a loved one is experiencing grief and could use resources to support your healing, we would love to be a part of your support system. Just dial 844-YOU-OKAY to reach our free, confidential support line for Tampa Bay.
We’ll see you next month,
Your Team at Tampa Bay Thrives