Warning: Today’s post is about something that will annoy at least half of you. Seriously. I know from experience. I have been annoyed by what I am about to say; I have heard others be annoyed by it; I have been yelled at on social media for suggesting it. Yet I am doubling-down and writing a full post about it. Why? Because it’s just that important. I believe in it just that much.
What could this big, controversial topic be? Helping others to help you.
I know. It doesn’t sound very dramatic or controversial, does it? But it is. Every time we talk about this, some people get grumpy (and we get it, because we have felt that grump ourselves). Usually it takes one of the following forms of grump:
- I am GRIEVING! I shouldn’t be expected to help others help me! They should just do it.
- Once someone says or does something unhelpful, they’re out. I don’t have space for people like that. They’ve shown their true colors, proven they are a bad friend. I voted them off the island. I scratched them off the holiday card list.
What do we say to those gripes?
- True, in an ideal world we would be surrounded exclusively by magical people who knew how to support us perfectly without any guidance. Of course, in an ideal world we would still be hanging out with our loved ones and this wouldn’t be an issue. So instead, sometimes we have to remember that, when grief is new for us, supporting our grief is new for them. There is no handbook. Everyone is just floundering around in the dark. We can decide not to help them help us, but then we’re just left without help and support.
- They’re your friends, your support system. You have to decide. Some people might repeatedly hurt and fail you, despite your efforts and feedback. That might be a serious red flag; Some people may be beyond second chances. That said, as someone who was once voted off of someone’s friend-island without warning or notice for not being supportive in the right way, I can promise you that it sucks. Is it possible I am just a bad person and crap friend and was beyond a second chance? Maybe. But I feel pretty confident I just didn’t know when and how they needed me or what I was doing wrong. Had they clued me in, given me a little feedback about what they needed and what I was screwing up, I would have tried really, really hard to change. Sometimes people love you, and deeply care, and are good people, and they still manage to miss the mark.
Still not sold on helping others help you? Give me one last chance to convince you. There is research. And you know we love research around here! Research has shown that those who lost loved ones to disenfranchised deaths (suicide, overdose, etc.) receive less social support than people grieving other losses. A study of parents who lost children to disenfranchised deaths found that those who learned to give their friends/support systems feedback and guidance about what they needed from them, as well as what they didn’t need, ended up feeling far more supported by those around them. Helping others help them helped! Anecdotally, we have had people tell us the same thing time and again—yes, even when they were pretty grumpy about the idea to start.
If you’re willing to consider helping others to better help you, the next question is how? Today, we are going to share some tips for YOU—tips about what you can do to reflect and communicate. Then, on Friday, we are going to share a second post with tips for THEM, something quick and easy you can share with the people who love you to help them be better supporters.
Tips For You, As a Griever
Figure out what you need. This isn’t always easy. We have written before about how, sometimes in grief, you have no idea what you need. But start by setting some time aside to really think about it, write it down, and consider who is supporting your needs and how. Also consider who isn’t supporting your needs and how. Is it something they’re doing? Something they’re saying? Something they’re not doing or not saying?
Enlist a friend to help your other friends. Thinking about telling a bunch of people how to help and support you (and what NOT to do) might feel really daunting. But research has show that, when people grieving enlist a friend to help educate and rally their support system in the right, helpful ways, it can make a big difference! In this case, you sit that one person down and say, “Hey, this is what people are doing that is helping, this is what they’re doing that isn’t helping, this is what they’re saying that is helpful, this is what they’re saying that is hurtful, this is what I really need that no one is doing, etc”. You then ask that person to spread the word. Ask them to let other people know what you need and how you’re feeling. This can take some of the pressure off you.
Embrace empathy and forgive mistakes… Even when it is hard AF. I once heard a grief therapist say, ‘When people grieve, they have a deep need to be understood by others and very little patience for understanding others’. This resonated so much with my own experience: my own frustration and impatience with others while I was grieving. It took a long time for me to understand that figuring out how to support me was new and scary and hard for them, and that wasn’t because they were bad friends or unsympathetic or dumb. It was because they were just trying to figure it out, and sometimes missing the mark. I wrote an open letter here to my friends who disappeared about it a while back and it was actually really therapeutic.
Figure out who is beyond a second chance. I already linked to this once, but I will link to it again. Because as much as it can help to advocate, forgive, and empathize, you also have to realize there are limits. Some people just have fundamental limitations that prevent them from supporting us in the way we need to be supported. In fact, there are some evidence-based grief therapy approaches that are all about helping people figure out who they might need distance from in their grief.
Remember not to expect one person to meet all your needs. The person who motivates you to get out of the house might not be the person who can listen without judgement… or who you’re comfortable crying in front of… or who can help sort out your taxes. Sometimes we help others support us by knowing how their strengths match our needs, and by not asking them to do things we know they can’t. We have an activity to help you sort this out that we call Support System Superlatives.
Give people feedback. Sounds easy enough, right!? Hmm no, maybe it doesn’t. How do you tell someone they have said or done something hurtful, or that they aren’t giving you something you need, when you are emotionally depleted already and they have no idea they screwed up?
- Step 1: Just say it. Hard as it may be, no one can work on an issue they don’t know exists.
- Step 2: Acknowledge their intent. Often people get it wrong, even though their intentions were good. Maybe they were giving you space, but it left you feeling abandoned. Maybe they were pushing you to ‘move on’ because they want to see you happy, but they just don’t really understand the grief timeline (or lack thereof), leaving your rushed and judged and pressured. Maybe they were trying to make you feel better, so they looked for a silver lining to tried to sugar coat things in a way that just pissed you off. Whatever it was, try to imagine what about their word or action they probably thought was helpful, and acknowledge that. I know, this is hard and annoying. But I warned you this post was going to be hard and annoying.
- Step 3: Tell them what they got wrong. You may want to practice this, to make sure you specifically explain the problem and try not to be too wrapped up in frustration or anger that could lead to saying hurtful things you may regret later. Remember some standard tips for communicating feelings… Changes like replacing “You made me feel…” for “When you did or said X, I felt Y” can shift things from feeling like an accusation to a conversation helping them understand your experience.
- Step 4: Explain what would have been helpful and/or tell them how they can better support you in the future. Simple things like “What would really help me is X” or “Please don’t say X, because I feel like you are trying to rush my grief” can be so helpful.
Educate people. I know, I practically felt your eyes collectively rolling. But seriously, it’s the only way we can slowly change the culture of how people support one another. Check out and share this easy guide with your friends on how to be a good support person. It won’t be specific to your needs (You’ll have to fill in those gaps!), but it’s a great place to start.
Share your comments below (including any tips and advice for those grieving, or those supporting them). Yes, even if you just want to complain about why you hate this post. Don’t worry, I’ve already emotionally prepared myself. And, of course, subscribe.