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

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

  1. 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.

  2. 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?

  3. 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.

  4. 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

  5. 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.

  6. 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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