Good Grief Support Isn’t Just a One Time Thing

Let’s have a conversation about grief support.  Actually, scratch that, let’s not have a – as in singular – conversation about grief support. Instead, let’s begin an ongoing dialogue. This is part one of the conversation, which we can revisit and build upon far into the future.  Does that sound feasible?  Tolerable?  Reasonable? Good, because this is how grief support should always be – ongoing and evolving.

Unfortunately, people wishing to support grieving family members and friends often conceptualize their job all wrong. Instead of envisioning grief support as an ongoing need to be met, many times people think of it as something to be checked off a to-do list.  Send flowers – check.  Go to the funeral – check. Make a vague offer of ongoing support – check.  Okay, looks like I’m done!

Now I love checking things off my to-do list as much as the next person.  As an avid procrastinator, I know how good it feels to say – “That’s done!” – and to put the task behind you. But, as we all know, good grief support doesn’t work this way. If a person’s grief is ongoing, then it follows that grief support ought to be ongoing as well.

If you don’t believe me, believe the 1,200 grieving people who recently completed our informal survey about good grief support.  We asked people which responses from family and friends were most helpful in their grief and which experiences had a negative impact. The results showed that three of the four most common experiences negatively impacting grief related to avoidance and/or inaction from family and friends.

Specifically…

  • 68% said that people seem uncomfortable talking about their grief
  • 58% said people avoid bringing up their loved one
  • 57% said people have disappeared since their loss

It seems to me that the negative impact of these experiences could be somewhat alleviated if supportive family members and friends conceptualized their role as ongoing as opposed to finite.  Now I know talking about grief isn’t easy, especially if you’re worried about saying the wrong thing or if you aren’t comfortable with emotion in general, but the only way for individuals and, for that matter, society as a whole to get better at talking about grief is by doing it. The awkwardness passes; I know because I am a very awkward person so you can trust my authority on this matter. You can also trust that once the discomfort passes (if it ever even existed) there will be the opportunity for things like connection, openness, the sharing of memories, help, and support.

I am sure many of you are now convinced that I am right about everything, so please let me offer a few additional suggestions as you move forward in your role as a supremely supportive person.

Know when you’re providing ongoing support when you’re really just checking boxes.

It can be confusing, sometimes a person thinks their offering ongoing support when they’re really just checking boxes. It can be tempting to say to yourself, “I offered general support. They know I’m available. They would reach out if they needed someone.” – or – “I offered very specific support and they didn’t take me up on it. The ball is in their court.” 

Remaining abstractly available isn’t the same as engaging in ongoing support. Nor is offering specific help and then telling yourself the ball is in their court when the person doesn’t respond or accept. There are many reasons why a grieving person might not respond to offers of support or reach out to ask for help. So, for at least the first few months after the death, just assume the ball is always in your court. You don’t have to be aggressive with it…but…you know…gently toss it around once in a while.

Beware of diffusion of responsibility.

Diffusion of responsibility is a social psychology concept that says people are less likely to take action or responsibility for something when multiple people are present. For example, if I’m one of two people on the street and the other person yells ‘help!’, I’m likely going to respond because I’m the only one there to do so.  However, if we were in a crowd of people I may be less likely to respond because I assume someone else will, perhaps someone who is better in a crisis.

Grieving people are often surprised when they find they have far less support than they might have expected and some of this may be explained by diffusion of responsibility.  It’s not that people wouldn’t help or don’t want to help, but they may assume the person already has the support of other people, perhaps people who are closer or who are better with grief and emotion.

Don’t assume a grieving person has all the support they need simply because you know they have plenty of family and friends.  It never hurts to check in.

Follow the grieving person’s lead.

If the person you are trying to support doesn’t respond, leads you to believe they need a little space, or declines the type of help you are offering – that’s okay. Try not to take it personally, it’s not about you (most of the time). Be open and accepting of their response, don’t get offended.  Remember, everyone grieves in their own way and at their own pace. Unless the person outright tells you to bugger-off, keep checking in. Make a mental note to text the person in a few days or a few weeks (this, I will allow you to put on your to-do list). It’s always nice to let the person know you are thinking of them.

When in doubt, follow the helpful grief support instructions below. 

grief supportSubscribe.

June 21, 2018

8 responses on "Good Grief Support Isn't Just a One Time Thing"

  1. Karen , I’m later to this blog but like others have immediately felt heartache for you and concern.
    I hope you’ve been able to talk to your family. My dad died coming up to 3 years ago and I relate to much of what’s been written before but what’s not been said is how I worried and ached for my mum. She is a strong lady I know that, she’s a mother of 5, she had a high level job in the MOD, she cared for my dad, with us, while handling everything else. but I worried about her reliance on a glass of wine, I worried about her sleep but most of all my heart broke to think of her having to live all her retirement years without her life partner, and to be honest my mum and I didn’t get on that well before all this, but I still cared deeply.
    Please do not think twice about expressing your emotions and taking what love and joy you still can from your family.

    Jennifer I hope you too have been able to find the support network you need.

    Mary, your daughter is not forgotten. I know it feels like that, and as we know people deal with grief differently so it might be that others are avoiding bringing it up either to save themselves or you the hurt but do not be afraid to share photos, memories and cry darling,

    WW you write it so well, and Sheila some tender encouragement there. I am no expert, I just felt like I needed to respond to everyone offering support and looking for it.

  2. It is extremely hard when the person you thought loved you the most doesn’t check in on you. Two years ago I lost my 24 year old son and my spouse who happens to be his step-father, thinks I should be ready to move on. At first I tried to get back to my life and do the things we had done before, that was a bad idea. I really think it made him think all was well. When in reality I was probably in shock and just going through the motions and it caught up with me. He was supportive at first, but then started commenting how hard it was for him to watch and started comparing to things that he hadn’t even experienced himself, like losing a spouse. He literally said it, well it’s just like losing spouse, the way he said it would make you think that losing a spouse was not a big deal, I was appalled. All grief is hard and one grief should never be compared against another, you have no idea how a person grieving is feeling and certain comments just makes the griever pull away from you. I agree it probably was hard for my spouse to watch me go through this, but I know for a fact it is harder to go through it than to watch, I have actually done both. There is definitely a helplessness associated with both. Certain comments just don’t help the person grieving and I would if your not sure what words will help don’t say anything, just be present. I accepted that some people would make comments not knowing what it would do to me, I always try to take it with the intention it is meant. They don’t know and they really are trying to help. If it is bad enough I might say something, but that is rare. It’s a lot harder with a spouse I just thought he would know better or he would see how it affected me and try to find out what to say, I tried to share how it made me feel, but the comments didn’t stop and attitude also started showing up, it all ended up getting the best of me ans now I’m just angry and hurt. I know he was hurt by my son’s death too and I would be more than happy to talk about that, but when certain comments are made it leads you to believe that their attitude is, that they are tired of it and want you to stop, get on with, start living again, it is time. Trust me I’m tired also, grief can be hard work.
    So now, I do my best to take care of myself and one way I decided to do that was to not let my spouse “help” me anymore. Of course you can probably guess how that effects your marriage. I guess in the long run that’s okay too.
    I am able to have some good moments and I am very thankful for them, but I am still at a point where the grief shows up at unexpected times, you never know where the trigger is. I have accepted that grief is just part of my life, I know it is a part of everyone’s life, and I allow myself the time to grieve. I haven’t handled this the way my spouse would like me to, but I can’t help it. I have to do it my way and if that means I have to do it without him so be it. I don’t need anyone judging me while I am doing this, it is hard enough without that. Guess I needed to rant a bit. Thanks for forum to do that. I do love the articles, keep up the good work.

  3. I lost my youngest daughter nearly a year ago, nobody talks about her anymore. It was a horrible traffic accident. I just wish she wasn’t forgotten.

  4. Unfortunately, my support system has become non-existent. It’s like everyone checked off their checklist and went back to their lives. My problem is I have no life to get back to. My guy of 15 years passed away just 6 months ago.

    I’m coming off a full year of being the sole caregiver to a dying man, becoming the only officer of his corporation in an industry I once knew nothing about, watched him die a horrific death in my lap and now get to deal with the estate, his family wanting their money, closing his business, cleaning out and selling his home and oh yeah a girls gotta pay the mortgage – so back to work I am. I miss him, I miss our life together and I miss me… the happy person I was with him.

    Where did everyone go? I could use a hand, all the people who said ‘call me if you need anything’…are the same people telling me how busy they are and asking aren’t I happy that things are back to “normal”. Really? ’cause I’m not busy at all and sorry, I must have missed the memo where at 6 months – everything is back to normal and over.

    So once again, I find myself all alone taking one day and activity at a time trying not to feel completely overwhelmed! But seriously, I really could use a hand, a glass of wine, or heck someone to clean the bathroom before the open house… where’s palliative care for the one left behind?

  5. Sheila BongiovanniJune 22, 2018 at 8:56 pmReply

    Karen, don’t even go there. No one who cares about you minds if you need to talk. Anyone who does isn’t a friend anyway.
    My husband of 32 years also died from Cancer and the treatments they tried to do to save him. The first night he went to palliative care he passed in his sleep with me and our son there, asleep. It’s been almost 3 years and I still have days.

    You’ll feel better here and there- don’t expect to be extra strong because you’re a nurse . I was an RT and I was still the patiebt’s wife, vulnerable and human. You were a friend, partner and probably a bastion of strength for him. Give yourself time to heal. And grieve.
    I know it gets better- it’s so hard at first. In a while you’ll even find yourself laughing about a good memory of him or something you shared with him.

    I hope this helps a little.

  6. Love this blog.

    Do you have any thoughts on a situation where grieving people exhibit unhelpful behaviours, or act in a way you cannot tolerate? Like blaming others for a person’s death, or repeatedly lashing out. In the same vein, any thoughts on what works when two people who normally support each other are grieving at the same time, particularly if one is a normally unacknowledged experience?

    Keep up the good work

  7. Karen – Condolences on the passing of your spouse. We lost our adult son almost 2 1/2 years ago. Losing a husband / lifelong partner is different than losing a son or daughter, and everyone grieves in their own way. But I can relate to many of the feelings you expressed. Less than 2 months is very early in the grief process and healing takes time. It is much healthier to talk about your feelings and let the tears flow. Stuffing your emotions down and trying to hide your sadness may intensify the pain. Don’t worry about what others think. Or better yet, find a grief support group where you can freely express yourself and everyone there will “get it.”
    For most of the first year, I awoke every morning at 3 am and sleep was a rare commodity. I know it doesn’t seem like it now, but it will get better. Be gentle with yourself.

  8. No matter how prepared you think you are…you never are. I realised that after my husband passed away 7 weeks ago. I was stunned, in disbelief & simply couldn’t believe he’d gone. A few weeks later I just wanted to die because I knew he’d be waiting for me. My husband had cancer & the last 2 weeks of his life were spent at a hospice where I stayed with him 24/7 and there was never a time he was left alone as there was always either myself or one our children there with him. I’m still struggling & I’m terribly lost and alone. I’ve got family living with me but it’s not the same as having my life long partner of 43 years beside me. Grief is so personal & dealing with it is so difficult. I feel if I keep on talking about him to others they’re going to tire of my conversations & days when I’m teary I’m worried that people are going to say “there she goes again”!
    I’m back at work but even there I’m struggling. I’m a nurse and the first week I was back there was a gentleman who was palliative & all I wanted to do was run away. I even found it difficult to walk past his room.
    So here I am sitting on the side of my bed & its 12:30am, unable to sleep. It’s a ritual each and every night where if I’ve been asleep I’m awake at 1am.

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