• Dylan Gregory

An Open Letter On How To Support the Grieving


“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing. At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.” C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

I can pin-point the exact minute everything changed. In fact, I can't forget it. It happened so fast. In the blink of an eye someone I loved was gone forever. It's a part of me, and if I've learned one thing this past year, it's that it always will be. And that's OK.


But that's why this conversation is important.


I've heard an endless monotony of phrases since it happened.


"you've got to push through"

"she'd want you to be happy"

"everything happens for a reason"

"death is just a part of life"


Chances are, if you're reading this article, you have too. You may have even said one of these things. And that's OK, too. We cannot understand that which we have yet to learn.


Death and Grief and Trauma are dirty words in western society. They are stifled in stigma and uncomfortability. They are often known as being synonymous with weakness, insanity, brokenness, and ruin. They are seen as inconveniences to be surmounted rather than the raw, life-changing moments they truly are. And that's just plain wrong. And we need to start talking about it.


Now.


Not later.


Not when it happens to you.


Not when it happens to your loved one.


Now.


Because right now, this moment, someone is out there feeling very, very alone. The weight of stigma has cornered them. They are confused, or depressed, or maybe lacking meaning, and they are being isolated as a result of this lack of conversation. And I refuse to stand by and let that happen.


This post is not made for the grieving. This post is made for the ones who want to help but don't know how.


And thank you so much for being here. Clicking this link, reading up until this point, shows the depth of your love for the person that is hurting.


Below are the 6 things you should know to support a loved one who is grieving.






1. Grief is not a problem to be fixed, it is a journey to be traveled.


We are brought up as problem solvers. We like solutions. We value happiness and joy and love and avoid anger and sadness and pain. So, what naturally happens when a loved one encounters grief?


We try and fix it.

We look for a solution.

We search for get well quick methods.


The problem?


There is no one-stop shop for grief. It is a journey. It is meant to be. Perhaps one of the greatest lessons of grief is that we cannot fix, solve, or know everything. Your loved one is coping with understanding this. They are coming to grips with the fact that this is a life-long process. They are reevaluating their place in the universe. They're questioning their values, their choices, their beliefs.


So what happens to our loved ones when we try and "fix" their grief?


As a receiver of this I can tell you it is wholeheartedly frustrating. Your loved one is going through the most transformative and emotion filled experience of their life. If you treat their process as a problem to be solved then you do not give them the space to fully grieve. You do not give them permission to be upset, or weep, or vent their frustrations to you. Most of all you alienate them. The simple fact is that they will grieve this loss the rest of their life. Time will heal wounds, surely, and positive coping mechanisms and activities can help along the path, but it will never truly be gone for good. And it isn't meant to.


The grief your loved one feels is a testament to the love they felt for the person they lost. They will never stop loving them and because of this they will never stop grieving their death. It's all very simple.


They are adapting to what we refer to in the grieving community as "the new normal."


You can either choose to join them on this journey and accept it, or make them feel guilty because they are not "fixed." I think we both know the preferable option.


2. Give love, not advice, unless explicitly asked.


Grief is unique to each and every individual that faces it. There is no concrete "cycle," there is no set of stages that go in order, and there is no way of knowing exactly what they need unless you ask them. So ask them.


Instead of saying:

"I want you to feel better"

Say:

"How can I support you right now"


Instead of saying:

"I think you should take a day off work"

Say:

"Do you want my advice or do you just need me here?"


It's so hard. I know that. I understand that every inch of you wants what's best for them. But you need to walk this transformation with them, not tell them how to walk it.


In my experience all I ever want from someone is an ear to listen, a body to hug, and a compassionate "I understand. I love you. This sucks, I get it. I'm here."


You simply being there is more healing, more helpful, and more supportive than you'll ever know. Love them fully and unconditionally with the whole of your soul.


3. Educate yourself. Learn as your loved one learns. A healthy support system is pivotal to a someone who is experiencing grief.


This one is so important. When my grief journey began I had no idea what to do. I couldn't eat. I couldn't sleep. I had nightmares and grief-bursts hourly. I couldn't stop clenching my teeth. I thought I was going crazy.


BUT what's important is: I wasn't.


Pop culture loves a good grieving- average-Joe-turned-psycho story and there's nothing inherently wrong with that until we realize, for most of us, this narrative is all we know about grief. There's no conversation. No understanding. Society largely understands grief based off of what they see on tv, read in fiction, and hear in secondhand stories.


As a result of this most of our understandings of grief are not only flawed, but extremely damaging to those in grief.


A year ago when I looked at the "five stages of grief" I saw that, based on the timeline, I had to have been in the denial stage. I remember looking ahead 3 stages and seeing "depression." My first thought was: there is no way I can handle anything worse than this. I was already so deeply depressed. How could it get darker? How would I survive it?


Thankfully I saw a grief counselor that informed me that the stages are outdated. Psychologists now understand grief to be a cyclically random rotation of the 5 stages.


Did that stop people from asking me what stage I was on? Or referencing which one they thought I was in? Or telling me to prepare for "the next one?" No. Ofcourse not. But that's why we're talking about it now.


If you want to understand what your loved one is going through and help them and relate to them the answer is simple: read the literature. Educate yourself. I am constantly learning new parts of the grief journey, and almost equally frequently I am amazed by how misled we are in our understandings of grief as a society. Some fantastic books on the topic are below.


A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis

It's OK that you're NOT OK by Megan Devine

Tuesdays With Morrie by Mitch Albom

How to Survive the Loss of a Love by Peter McWilliams

Understanding Your Grief by Alan Wolfelt



4. There are not negative emotions, but there are negative coping mechanisms


My entire life I had a disdain for anger. I viewed it as the weakest of emotions, and I literally never showed it unless I felt it was completely necessary.


That was not a healthy way to live.


Grief taught me that. It taught me that anger, sadness, depression, guilt, jealousy, and insecurity are not only normal parts of grief, but normal parts of life.


These emotions are healthy. They are there for a reason. They have a purpose, and that purpose, among others, is release.


The issue comes about when we express normal emotions in negative ways.


There are healthy ways to grieve, and there are very, very unhealthy ways to grieve. I've made a list below for you.


Healthy Grieving Mechanisms

- Turning to faith for guidance

- Tackling complicated feelings with Meditation/Yoga

- Releasing anger at a boxing class

- Short periods of alone time to reconnect with himself/herself

- Open, honest conversation with a loved one

- Weeping when one is sad

- Reading to contextualize emotions

- Joining communities for grievers

- Maintaining rituals to honor their loved one

- Talking about, or to, the deceased individual


Unhealthy Grieving Mechanisms

- Turning to drugs or alcohol

- Reclusive behavior for an extended period of time

- Anger or violence towards themselves or others

- Fear of social situations

- Viewing emotions as a sign of weakness

- Not eating OR over-eating


Please give your loved ones permission to feel the full spectrum of emotions related to their grief. When you join them in their journey, you can help them and greatly increase the chances they use healthy, rather than unhealthy, coping mechanisms.


5. They are not broken. They are broken open.


What you are witnessing is a change of state. Much like ice that has melted, many of the grieving persons foundations have been reduced to a pool of emotion. This emotion is raw, and painful, and beautifully, beautifully transformative. Most wince when I refer to grief as a beautiful process, but I wholeheartedly mean it when I say that it is. They now have the opportunity to realign everything they've ever believed. When the water freezes they may be a completely new person, and that's OK. Remove judgement. Add unconditional love and acceptance. This is not just a mantra for handling the grief stricken, but for life.


Death is a naturally occurring part of life.

Death is a naturally occurring part of life.

Death is a naturally occurring part of life.


Most of us have to opportunity to ignore it. Most of us continue traveling in a vessel we don't understand, playing a game we can't explain, and purely accepting it as it is.





Grief turns that upside down. With grief comes recognition of mortality. With grief comes deep, wrenching pain. With grief comes a knowledge, and appreciation, for life before grief. With grief comes a love for life like nothing you've ever felt before.


The grass. The trees. The birds in the sky.


I used to break into tears when I looked at certain people because I could feel the weight of their compassion and kindness. I could feel their soul hurting and loving the world around them. This is the beauty of the human condition.


The person you love has been torn into two. A space in their heart has been broken open. They are mourning everything they've ever known. The depth of their pain, as we said before, is a testament to their love for the person they lost.


The beauty is that this hole in their heart works both ways. They are not broken, they are broken open.


They may be gentler. They may love harder. They may take big risks or drastically change their career or partake on a journey of the soul. They may practice a new religion or have an overwhelming desire to help others.


They are not the person you knew before. They are their fullest selves. Do not reject them. Listen to them. Love them for who they are. Their path is hard and full of confusion, but from the depths of their pain they have gained a greater empathy and compassion for the human condition.


Remember: you cannot understand grief until you've encountered it.


If your loved one is happy with their transformation and they are using positive coping methods then you have no place to judge their journey. It is possible to love what you do not understand.


6. Going to therapy is a healthy, productive and positive way to handle life with or without grief.


Therapy.

Counseling.

Psychology.

Psychiatry.


Whatever you want to call it.


Is nothing to be ashamed of, embarrassed by, resentful against, or hateful toward. This life is hard. Therapy is not for the weak, it is for the strong. It takes strength to understand you need help.


I'm not sure what people think happens in therapy. They don't zap you with a wand or force you to cry or read you bed time stories.


They are professionals who dedicate their lives to helping other people understand, journey, and survive the difficulties of the human condition.


I have seen two counselors, one spiritual and one grief, over the past two years. I've attended two multi-month long grief groups. They saved my life. Every time life got too dark or hard to bare I had an unbiased support system to guide me back. That is a gift of our time. Use it.


It's okay to not be okay.

It's okay to not be okay.

It's okay to not be okay.


It's okay to ask for help.

It's okay to ask for help.

It's okay to ask for help.


It's okay to seek professional assistance.

It's okay to seek professional assistance.

It's okay to seek professional assistance.



Honorable mentions:

1. Grief is not a competition.

2. Practice non-judgement and unconditional love.

3. Give your loved ones permission to speak to you about their grief.

4. If you want to ask how someone is doing; try "how's your grief?" instead of "how are you?"

5. Seek professional help yourself. It can only help.



IN SUMMATION:


Go forward and love. Love like it's all you know how to do. Smile at strangers on the street. Donate your blankets to the homeless. Take care of your body and soul and mind. Everybody is fighting a battle. Read. Learn. Share. Accept their transformation. Accept their brokenness and their journey. Accept their grief.


One day you may need them to do the same for you.


Grief is a part of life.

Death is a part of life.

Being broken is a part of life.

Being broken open is a part of life.

Loving is a part of life.

Hurting is a part of life.

Healing is a part of life.

Asking for help is a part of life.


Let's start treating the grieving like the warriors they are.

Disclaimer:

This post is for information only. It is a reflection of my personal experience and opinions and not a substitute for therapy. This blog is only for informational and educational purposes and should not be considered therapy or any form of treatment. We are not able to respond to specific questions or comments about personal situations, appropriate diagnosis or treatment, or otherwise provide any clinical opinions. If you think you need immediate assistance, call your local emergency number or the mental health crisis hotline listed in your local phone book’s government pages.

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