We all know deep down that life is short, and that death will happen to all of us eventually, and yet we are infinitely shocked when it happens to someone we love. It’s like walking up a flight of stairs with a distracted mind, and misjudging the final step. You expected there to be one more stair than there is, and so you find yourself off balance for a moment, before your mind shifts back to the present moment and how the world really is.
Angel and I have dealt with the loss of siblings and best friends to illness, so we know from experience that when you lose someone you can’t imagine living without, your heart breaks wide open. And the bad news is you never completely get over the loss – you will never forget them. However, in a backwards way, this is also the good news.
You see, death is an ending, which is a necessary part of living. And even though endings like these often seem ugly, they are necessary for beauty too – otherwise it’s impossible to appreciate someone or something, because they are unlimited. Limits illuminate beauty, and death is the definitive limit – a reminder that we need to be aware of this beautiful person, and appreciate this beautiful thing called life.
Death is also a beginning, because while we have lost someone special, this ending, like the loss of any wonderful life situation, is a moment of reinvention. Although sad, their passing forces us to reinvent our lives, and in this reinvention is an opportunity to experience beauty in new, unseen ways and places. And finally, of course, death is an opportunity to celebrate a person’s life, and to be grateful for the beauty they showed us.
That’s just a small slice of what coping with loss has taught us, and I’m sure it has taught you some things as well.
But, as Angel and I have recently been reminded, there’s a big difference between understanding how to personally cope with loss and understanding how to help someone else cope with it. When someone you love and respect is grieving the loss of a loved one, the right words and gestures rarely come easy.
So the reminders below are for Angel and me, as we attempt to comfort a dear friend who is grieving. These aren’t universal clarifications, but simple guidelines that give us a general starting point for helping our grief-stricken loved ones cope and heal, gradually. Perhaps you will find value in them as well.
1. A person who’s grieving already knows that time heals wounds, and they don’t need to be reminded of it
When you’re grieving, everyone wants to remind you that time will heal your pain, but no one can seem to tell you exactly what you’re supposed to do and how you’re supposed to cope right now. And that’s all you really want to know.
Because it’s right now that you can’t sleep. It’s right now that you can’t eat. It’s right now that you still hear his voice, and smell his scent, and sense his presence, even though you know he’s not here anymore. It’s right now that all you seem to be capable of is crying. So despite the fact that you intellectually know all about time’s power to heal wounds, if you had all the time in the world right now, you still wouldn’t know what to do with the immediate, intense pain you feel.
Realize this, and treat those who are grieving accordingly. Don’t remind them that time heals. Instead, remind them that you’re with them right now, and that you’ll be available tomorrow too. Remind them that you love them, and that you’re standing beside them through their grief. Remind them that they aren’t going through this alone.
2. Grief doesn’t suddenly disappear, and some days are much better than others
When someone you love passes away (or simply leaves), and you’re not expecting it, you don’t lose them all at once. You lose them a little bit at a time over weeks, months and years – the way snail mail gradually stops coming to an address, and a person’s scent slowly fades from the pillows and even from the clothes they used to wear.
Everyone grieves in their own way. For some of us, it could take longer or shorter. One thing you can be certain of, however, is that grief never completely disappears. An ember still smolders inside our grieving hearts, even when we’ve moved forward with our lives. Most days we don’t notice it, but, out of the blue, it may flare to life. This reality is hard to deal with. We think we’ve accepted that they’re gone – that we’ve grieved and it’s over – and then BOOM! One little thing happens, and we feel like we’ve lost that person all over again.
This is exactly why caring for someone who’s grieving requires incredible patience.
3. The grieving process exhausts and consumes a person, which is why you can’t take their withdrawn behavior personally
Relentless exhaustion is a common side effect of grief. Just getting out of bed in the morning can be an overwhelming and excruciating experience for a while. Also, someone suffering from grief may feel OK one moment and feel completely heartbroken the next, even if the environment around them hasn’t changed one bit. This can result in them canceling plans, departing get-togethers early, or saying no far more often than you’d like. Just remember it’s not about you – it has nothing to do with what you did or didn’t do. These are just some of the prevalent side effects working through the grieving process.
Do your best to not take anything they do too personally. People can only give to others what they have, and deep grief takes almost everything away from a person. All your actions and words should come from a place of love, but that doesn’t mean your grieving loved one will always be loving in return, and that’s OK. When you do not take things personally, you liberate yourself – you open yourself to loving someone who truly needs you, generously, and without letting needless expectations get in the way of the immeasurable amounts of support and affection you are capable of giving.
4. A person who’s grieving still wants to smile about the good times, and it’s OK to help them reminisce
In the long run, grief can devour us, or it can enlighten us. It depends on what we focus on. We can decide that a relationship was all for nothing if it had to end earlier than we expected, or we can recognize that every single moment of it had more meaning than we dared to accept at the time – so much meaning it frightened us, so we just lived, just took for granted the time spent together every day, and didn’t allow ourselves to consider the sacredness of it.
When a wonderful relationship ends abruptly we suddenly see what was there all along – it wasn’t just a hug and a smile, not just a long walk together, not just meeting for lunch and talking about politics, people, and another day at work. It was EVERYTHING – all the little intricacies of life shared by two souls. The answer to the mystery of living is the love and respect we share sometimes so imperfectly, and when the loss awakens us to the deeper beauty of it, to the sanctity of a wonderful relationship that’s been lost, we’re driven to our knees.
When this happens to someone you love – when they are mourning the loss of someone they love – help them focus on all those good, imperfect times worth smiling about. Help them counterbalance the weight of their loss with the weight of their gratitude for what preceded the loss.
5. Grief can be a burden, but also a healthy anchor for healing and living well
As human beings, we sometimes get used to the weight of grief and how it holds us in place. For instance, Angel once told me, “My brother will die over and over again for the rest of my life, and I’m OK with that – it keeps me closer to him.” This was Angel’s way of reminding me that grief doesn’t disappear. Step-by-step, breath-by-breath, it becomes a part of us. And it can become a healthy part of us too.
Although we may never completely stop grieving, simply because we never stop loving the ones we’ve lost, we can effectively leverage our love for them in the present. We can love them and emulate them by living with their magnificence as our daily inspiration. By doing this, they live on in the warmth of our broken hearts that don’t fully heal back up, and we will continue to grow and experience life, even with our wounds. It’s like badly breaking an ankle that never heals perfectly, and that still hurts when you dance, but you dance anyway with a slight limp, and this limp just adds to the depth of your performance and the authenticity of your character.
Just knowing this and keeping it in mind, I think, can help us help our grieving loved ones dance again, gradually.
If you have personal experience coping with grief, or if you’ve helped others cope with grief, and you have additional insights and tips to share, we would love to hear from YOU. Please leave a comment below and share your thoughts with us.