How to support a loved one who is grieving
I have been meaning to write this post for a while now. This week marks two years since my beloved mother went to heaven, so I figure now is a good time to share my thoughts on this topic. While these are very much my own thoughts, I have spoken with others on this topic and have found that they tend to agree with me on what is helpful and what is not. A lot of what I have to say applies to people with whom you have a close relationship.
The first thing I would say is that if you want to support a loved one who is grieving, do not be afraid to bring up their loss. Many people feel awkward bringing up my mom because they worry it will make me sad. Little do they know that even now, two years later, I am constantly thinking of my mom. She forms the backdrop of my thoughts, and there is really no need for anyone to worry that they will be “reminding” me of my loss if they bring her up. In fact, it is often a relief for me when people bring up the topic because I am already thinking about it and have plenty to say about it, but often keep my thoughts to myself unless asked.
Next, don’t be afraid to be “proactive” in your support. After my mom passed away, many well-intentioned people would say things like “let me know if you need anything at all” or “call me if you want to talk”. While these words were of course well received, I was just not in a place to reach out to others. These types of phrases are passive, and what those who are grieving often need, are more active forms of support. For example: my friend Shannon dropped by uninvited a few days before my mom passed away. We were all sitting on my mom’s bed chatting together when the door bell rang. When I opened the door, expecting to see another family member, my heart warmed to see Shannon’s smiling face holding a bag of home made cookies. Needless to say, I was touched, and although she did not stay long, I felt her support. Many (including myself), would not think to take such a forward move as to drop by someone’s house when their mother is about to pass and tensions are high, but this is why this gesture meant so much. It also meant a lot to see a face who was outside of the situation. A connection with the outside world at a time where it seemed like I had none. After my mom passed away, it was those who made similar gestures that ended up being able to provide the most support. The lesson here I guess is not to be afraid to “impose” – don’t wait until you’re invited.
Third, if you knew the person who passed away, share your memories. I did not realize how much this helps, until I went through it myself. At the funeral and during the days and months that followed, many people relayed stories to my family and I about my mother. Personally, this validated my grief. It was like people were saying “I understand why you are so sad because I know what a wonderful person she because of this, this, this”. It is also validating because seeing someone pass away is so surreal, that your mind almost doesn’t believe that they were ever there in the first place (if that makes any sense). Hearing other people’s memories confirms that your lost loved one really did exist, and really did leave behind lasting memories and a legacy. In my own experience, I was also touched to hear stories that I had never heard about my mother before. It helped to know the way that she had touched other people’s lives.
This article about surviving trauma was recently published on the Sojourners blog. I found the discussion on “firefighters” and “builders” to be right on point, and have pasted it below:
Surviving trauma takes “firefighters” and “builders.” Very few people are both.
This is a tough one. In times of crisis, we want our family, partner, or dearest friends to be everything for us. But surviving trauma requires at least two types of people: the crisis team — those friends who can drop everything and jump into the fray by your side, and the reconstruction crew — those whose calm, steady care will help nudge you out the door into regaining your footing in the world. In my experience, it is extremely rare for any individual to be both a firefighter and a builder.
If you have any other suggestions or thoughts, I’d love for you to share them in the comments below.
I am sure some of you will be able to relate to the kind of extended family i am about to describe. My parents immigrated from Egypt in the late 60s with a handful of other Coptic Egyptians. It was not long after that they along with a priest from Egypt formed the first Coptic Orthodox Church in North America…meeting in a small chapel on the second floor of a church that is still nestled behind the Eaton Center in downtown Toronto. Slowly more friends and families immigrated and congregated…and so, by the time I was born in the late 70s I was born into a community that was tightly knit by its roots of the home they left, the experience of immigration to North America and by their deep faith.
I was born into an extended family that knew me from the moment i came to be until this moment today. Going to church every Sunday throughout my upbringing i would see the same familiar faces, bond with the same friends i had since before i was consciousness of my own being and sense the many people loving me and watching over me and caring for me. Although i have been absent from Toronto throughout much of my 20s and into my 30s these connections were always there and this family would always care for me in my absence. They knew when i was overseas teaching in Southeast Asia, they knew when i was working in Yemen, they knew when I was living out East and through conversation with my parents were always thinking of and loving me.
The gift of this community and family is that it meant there were so many mother mothering each child. So many caring, smart, intuitive, passionate, warm mothers looking out for this flock of Egyptian youth making their way through an upbringing quite different than their own. We were all so lucky to have these moms lovings us in all directions…innately enveloping us.
And so, another such mother, just like my mom, passed away this weekend. It is not that i spoke with her very often but i knew she loved me and cared for me and always asked about me. She visited us in the hospital frequently when mom was sick. And she too has daughters who adore her because there is nothing not to adore. And she too has a congregation of children who grew up with her love wrapped round them.
It is the nature of life. It is inevitable. Our mothers are being taken. And it is juxtaposed by new mothers being given. Many of my Egyptian friends have children but it is only in the past couple of years and particularly this last year and in the coming months that so many of my dear friends from all different nooks of my life have become or are to become mothers. It is such an amazing time to see these sisters of mine become transformed…to see them born as moms.
And so, as always it is strange to feel as though i am watching something unfold beyond myself, beyond any of us. To see this great shift in life take form, where it feels as though changes are being made in order for new spaces to be created, where one things is making room for another without particular question or reason or qualifying manner as good or bad but rather simply being.
And so, much gratitude to mothers for all they have done and all they will do. To the moms that have mothered for so long and to those that are in their first moments. What a precious gift to be a mom and to be mothered be it by one or many.
I recently checked out the movie “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”. Have you seen it? It is about a little boy who loses his dad on 9/11 and his journey through the grief that follows. Near the beginning of the movie, he made what I thought to be an excellent analogy. He said that if the sun were to explode, it would take us 8 minutes to notice because that is how long it would take for the light and heat to go away (based on the speed at which light travels). The boy in the movie says that after his dad passed away, he still felt as though he was in that 8 minute period in which he still felt his dad’s light and heat so to speak. He finds a key that belonged to his dad and spends most of the movie searching for the lock for the key. He says that he feels that finding this lock would help him to extend his eight minutes with his dad.
This analogy really helps put into words a lot of what I have been feeling since my mom’s passing. A few weeks ago I wrote about how I still feel her presence in our home through all the little touches that she left behind. Now that I think about it, I realise that this is me in my 8 minutes. Like the little boy in the movie, I fear what comes after 8 minutes and I find myself trying to elongate it as much as I can. There are a few things in my mother’s belongings that I have wanted to go through and look at, but have decided instead to “save” them for later, because I feel as though that will draw out my 8 minutes with her a little longer.
Without spoiling the movie for you, the boy does end off by saying that he never thought that he would be able to live without his father, and that making it to the end of the 8 minutes taught him that he could and would survive. Though I don’t think I have quite reached the end of my 8 minutes, this experience has indeed been life changing for me. There are people who say that life can be described as “life before losing a parent” and “life after losing a parent”. I think that is such an accurate description. Life will never be the same, but life will continue. This I now know.