Support System Superlatives: A Journaling Exercise

Coping with Grief / Coping with Grief : Eleanor Haley

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You've probably heard this phrase a few hundred times since your loved one's death...

Let me know if there's anything I can do.

Expert advice suggests that those wishing to support grieving individuals should not make such generalized offers because it puts the burden on the griever to identify their needs and ask for help.  This is really good advice, yet many people hesitate to make specific offers because they don't know what their grieving friend or family member needs or they don't want to overstep their boundaries.

Sadly this often amounts to grievers and helpers meeting at an impasse. For grievers, this is an unfortunate outcome because (let's be honest) many of you could use the help.  I don't mean to be condescending, I just know that experiencing the death of a loved one is a logistical and emotional nightmare.

Of course, there are a million reasons why people don't like asking for help, number one often is that you worry about intruding upon or inconveniencing others.  This is usually a reasonable concern, but as I'm sure you've noticed these are special circumstances. Chances are the people who've offered help since your loved one's death actually want to give it.

If you regularly read this blog you know a few years ago my brother was in a car accident and spent several weeks in a coma.  During that time my sister-in-law had some lovely young men come to her door to talk to her about their faith.  She kindly told them that she didn't have time to talk because she has 3 kids and her husband is in a coma at the hospital.  As we've established they were lovely young men, so of course, they asked, "Is there anything we can do?".  My sister-in-law said, "Well, my toilet is broken and my lawn needs to be mowed".  The next day they returned to the house and again for several days after that - by the end of the week, they had mowed the lawn, fixed the toilet, and repaired the ceiling.

How many of you would have politely declined their offer and then stressed about the house falling apart?  I would have! I'm horrible at asking for help.  Watching my sister-in-law made me realize just how horrible.  To do this, I continue to try and get better at 3 things.

1.  Being open to asking for and/or accepting help.

2.  Identifying my needs.

3.  Identifying the best person to help me with my needs.

Let's assume we have accomplished Task #1, you are now open to asking for and/or accepting help.  You still won't get anywhere until you actually know what you need (Task #2).  It can be hard to step back from a situation and say, 'I can't do this on my own'.  It can also be hard to understand what you need when you're stressed, emotional, and overwhelmed.

Imagine you are walking up a hill carrying a carton of milk, a box of eggs, a loaf of bread, and a really squirmy cat (No, the cat can't walk up the hill. He's very lazy).  If only you didn't have that dang cat you'd probably manage to get up the hill without dropping your groceries. A man comes along and offers you help.  Do you immediately ask him to carry the cat, do you stand there unable to decide if and how he can help, or do you defiantly say "no, I can handle the load on my own"?  I know, weird story.  I think what I'm trying to say though is if you didn't ask the man to carry the squirmy cat you need to work on identifying your needs.

Once you've identified your needs you can worry about Task #3, assessing the best person in your life to ask for help.  Think of your friends and family as a toolkit, it's important to find the right tool for a job based on their unique characteristics (their personality, strengths, abilities, etc).  For example, when you want to talk about how you've been questioning your faith, don't call your blindly religious aunt Rita.  If you need someone to babysit your kids for a few hours, don't ask your flaky and irresponsible teenage brother.

This is a journal exercise for anyone who struggles with identifying their needs and utilizing their resources.  Many people know they have family and friends in their corner, yet often feel utterly alone. Mapping out your support system can be a reassuring way to assess who you can call upon if needed.  This activity can also be adapted for children who have had a shift in support system or aren't sure who they can rely on.

support system superlatives

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Psst!  If you prefer to listen to your grief support, check out this podcast discussing effectively using your support system after a death.

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22 Comments on "Support System Superlatives: A Journaling Exercise"

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  1. Valerie Noss  September 12, 2021 at 3:38 pm Reply

    It’s been 20 years sincdy my 24 yr old son died from cancer.Thankfully my hub/father was with us to help, but then he died 10yrs later suddenly from heart attack.Alone now to deal with much unresolved grief.Some people have been so critical since it’s been so long,even taking their belongings I still cherish and receive comfort from! Alot to be sold at flea markets so they will profit from,and astutely inhuman to my feelings.They helped me when I had a stroke, but then recovered,so feel entitled even though I gave them thousands of dollars in cash and gifts for the help.They are my nearest living relatives

  2. Jennifer  December 15, 2017 at 12:40 am Reply

    I have asked a couple of different people for help. They were either close friends of mine or the deceased. They agreed to but then they never came through. Even when I explained how much I needed helo and how important it was to me to one of them. It was a simple task for someone who knows how to do it and would only take 20 or 30 minutes. It was sort of crushing given everything else going on. I’m already hurting and feel alone and this just made it worse. There are lots of people who know about. It-its just a little repair in my car. One of the people that let me down actually owns an auto repair place and was so sincere-sounding when she said, “If you need anything, seriously anything….” I guess its teaching me that you cant really count on anyone but yourself.

  3. Jennifer  December 15, 2017 at 12:40 am Reply

    I have asked a couple of different people for help. They were either close friends of mine or the deceased. They agreed to but then they never came through. Even when I explained how much I needed helo and how important it was to me to one of them. It was a simple task for someone who knows how to do it and would only take 20 or 30 minutes. It was sort of crushing given everything else going on. I’m already hurting and feel alone and this just made it worse. There are lots of people who know about. It-its just a little repair in my car. One of the people that let me down actually owns an auto repair place and was so sincere-sounding when she said, “If you need anything, seriously anything….” I guess its teaching me that you cant really count on anyone but yourself.

  4. Robin  December 3, 2016 at 8:24 pm Reply

    My dad died 10 days ago. The death itself was a relief. The ten days prior were horrific. Is grief different if you lost a loved one quickly? Is there a way to get a handle on what we saw, heard, smelled? My dad had complications after his 2nd stroke, developed sepsis, then had a massive stroke. He ended up in an end of life unit. He was blind, could only say single words occasionally but he knew we were there (would smile when he heard our voices and could answer ques with nod/shake of head). I’m thankful we were able to tell him a thousand times we loved him and play his favorite music for him. I’m thankful it made our family tighter instead of pushing us apart. But there were horrible things I witnessed and I don’t feel able to grieve properly (whatever that means) because I don’t feel quite awake, I’m confusing dreams and reality, and when I think of him I think of those horrors and I can’t breath. I feel so removed from reality. Is this normal?

    • Annoushka  March 31, 2020 at 11:16 am Reply

      I came across this post and it hit home Robin. I lost my grandmother two weeks ago she had two strokes which caused her to become bedridden. She got bedsores and it became septic aswell. I was her carer and closest granddaughter. At the age of 18 I found myself first caring for her. I am 22 and after losing her 2 weeks ago am struggling tremendously to make peace with this. I can relate to your post because there are certain things I wish I could unsee as well. I wish I could remeber her the way she was before her illness. Her death was a relief and I expected it. Just one cannot really prepare for something so horrible. I hope you are well and that you managed to deal with the loss of your dad.

  5. Vicki  July 11, 2016 at 5:26 pm Reply

    I did that with Richard, my daughter’s godfather. We spent all day packing Eric’s things and when the last box was done and I was taking it downstairs, I made it halfway down and set it on the stairs; then from out of nowhere (or maybe from looking at the emptiness in the house when everything was gone) burst into tears that wouldn’t stop.
    It was 9 months after the death, it took me that long to do the house cleaning, but the answer to almost all the questions in this blog is Richard. Eric made him Mindy’s godfather legally. It was in his Will. She was 15 and in 9th grade when it happened. She was in Math class when the attacks on the World Trade Center, where her dad was working, occurred. Richard’s the one who came to her school to tell the principle. I wasn’t even with her when it occurred. I was in the air when it happened; we made a crash landing in the middle of nowhere and were expected to get home from where we landed.
    Richard was always there, staying calm in the middle of a tragedy in which most people were losing it. He’s a Vietnam Veteran and had seen things like it before; worse actually, he once saw someone burned alive in a napalm attack. He stayed level-headed and collected most of the time. I have no idea how, just that he was an Army Ranger before he left the military. They seem to hang together through chaos like nobody I’ve ever seen. They’re even better at doing that than rescue workers. I’m a rescue worker but was never in Special Ops in the military.

  6. Teri  April 21, 2016 at 3:26 pm Reply

    I am a caregiver for my husband.He has multiple system atrophy and is now bed bound.,unable to do anything for himself.He is like an infant.This disease has taken everything from him except his mind.We live alone out of state and have no one to help out.He is under hospice care wich is a big help but otherwise alone. He has 4 children from first marriage who all live away and say they can’t stand seeing him like this so they just stopped coming to see him or even call.I am with him 24/7 and it is wearing me out.He has been bad for 3 yrs but now the past 6 months has been really hard.He is 68 and I am 60.

  7. Dan  September 17, 2015 at 6:37 pm Reply

    Reading some of your resources for bereaved clients of mine and I was overwhelmed that I have grief work of my own to experience. Grateful you contribute such wonderful material on this website. 6 words journal article brought me some much needed peace. Thank you.


  8. Pam  September 9, 2015 at 7:05 am Reply

    Wow.. wow.. wow.. I’ve read all comments and starting to believe perhaps I am becoming a terrible person. I looked after my Dad’s sister for 5 months while she was dying of Breast cancer, I’ll never forget the day I had to do my very first sponge bath….I think we were both feeling very embarrassed at the time. My Aunty said… “Pam it would be a good idea to start with my face first, ( I was starting on her arms haha) and lather the face washer with plenty of soap”.(of course derrrr Pam Lol). Then I cared for my dear mother 18 months later. She was confined to hospital for 5 months before her death….I would shower, feed and take her for walks in her bed for 3 months so she could soak up our beautiful sunshine and so she could see there was an outside world beside her hospital room. It didn’t stop there, now I am going through the terrible grief of losing my eldest daughter of bowel cancer 15 months ago… hurts so much, I thought I could handle it, I try my hardest to hide my emotions but I am struggling real bad…..I think the worst part is my daughter had a terrible xhusband, he just walked of and left her with three young children, house payment and all the Bills. My daughter worked hard managing a take away business to support her children and keep a roof over their heads. Now that she is not here, the xhusband is entitled to it all because his name was still on the deed, even though they were divorced. The children are now aged 16, 18 and 24, their father is taking everthing from them, he forced them to rid of all their mother’s belongings or he would throw it all out. So you can imagine how angry I am feeling….how the law sucks, all those years my daughter worke thinking it was the benefit for her children was all for her xhusband. She would turnover in her own grave if she knew he slept in her bed with all her belongings in the same room. Some people as ar as I am concern have no pride. So sorry for the rant, I am so angry and just needed to put it out there, I miss my daughter so much. You can delete it if you want, I will understand.

  9. Nancy  February 28, 2015 at 5:56 pm Reply

    I am pretty sure I am suffering through anticipatory grief. I am in my head alone 90% of the time. My husband has primary progressive MS willing himself to stay mobile as long as possible. It is beyond my wildest imagination how we got here. I find myself wanting it to be over and it may not be for a very long time. Not clear why I am writing this at all. So much of life is just persevering so I guess that is my lesson. Ha. Looking at the dates on these posts, I guess I realize this may not be a very active site. 🙂

    • Litsa  March 1, 2015 at 11:38 am Reply

      Hi Nancy, this is an older post, but we post new articles on grief two times per week. You can always subscribe to get updates!

      I am so sorry to hear about your husband and it would absolutely be common and expected to be experiencing anticipatory grief. It is complex, as the emotions of anticipatory grief are often intersecting with the stress of caregiving and caregiver burnout. As for why you are writing at all, sometimes there is something therapeutic in the act of writing it self. Whether it is a comment on a blog post or a journal, writing out our emotions can be very helpful. We have a lot of journal and writing activities on here, so if you are interested in doing more writing please check them out. I hope this post was of some small support and that you will find other helpful information on our site.

      • Nancy  March 1, 2015 at 6:14 pm

        Thank you, and I think I have subscribed so will see if I find it useful. I think any time I try to be in touch with someone sympathetic to my situation outside my usual circle it ends up feeling constructive. I benefit from looking at things from a new angle. I am just much too isolated and feel worn out/exhausted from trying to seem normal in public. I do all the usual recommended things to take care of myself, but at some point sadly, it just feels like more than I want to do. Weekends seem to hit me especially hard. Anyway, thanks.

  10. sam  January 7, 2015 at 11:54 pm Reply

    i was doing ok reading this article- found as a link in the article on disenfranchised grief – untill i got to the list at the end. I have still not properly packed my sons things, I have not been able to identify someone to come and sit with me while i go through his clothes pulling his hair off so i can make a lock. his best friend/old girlfriend came by one day, but wasn’t focused on being there. i don’t know if it was just uncomfortable for her or if it was just the fact that she lives to txt…. but i got the feeling she really didn’t want to be here.
    it’s been 5 years now since my son was arrested. he was only 18. he will never get out of prison, never be a real father to his child, never be here for holidays or camping or just to help me in the garden.
    i had been waiting for years to have the freedom of a relationship with him without his father’s interference. i had spent so much time and energy into trying to work with the state to keep him safe at his dad’s (his dad was very abusive and a drug user ) that i put off having another child.
    no one gets it. i have lost the relationship with my son that we deserved, i have lost the close relationship with my grandchild, i have lost the time to have another child (while thanks to biology his father has had and can now mess up another life.) which makes me so angry because of the unfairness of it all. i don’t know whst to do or who to turn to. my husband is not able to handle this emotionally so for the past 5 years all i do is stuff it… i’m getting full and don’t know how much more isolation i can take. i’m seeing a councillor, but he has no grief experience…

    • Litsa  January 8, 2015 at 9:24 am Reply

      Sam, so much about counseling is finding the right counselor. If you feel like your counselor not having grief experiencing is hindering your work with him, you may want to consider a support group that could supplement the work you are doing with your counselor, or find a counselor who is better meeting you needs. We have post on thinking about your relationship with your counselor that may be helpful. A support group is also a good place to make connections with others who are going through something similar and may help with your feelings of isolation. There are support groups around the country for family members of those in prison that may be a good resource.

      I am glad you found our post on disenfranchised grief. Some other posts you may find helpful is this post on ambiguous grief and this post on secondary loss. We also have a series of posts on sorting through a loved ones belongings, which may be helpful once the time is right for you to do this.

  11. Christine  November 7, 2014 at 12:50 pm Reply

    I’m a Bereavement Coordinator for a hospice. This is a fantastic resource for my bereaved! I just sat down and did it for myself and was pleasantly surprised at my answers. I will be using this a lot in the future.

    • Eleanor  November 7, 2014 at 2:40 pm Reply

      I’m glad you found it helpful! I think we noted it in the post but I think this would be an especially good activity to do with a child or teen who has concerns about who they can count on/who will take care of them after a death.

  12. Beth Marshall  May 5, 2013 at 2:48 pm Reply

    I just found your blog- love your writing!! Thank you!

    • Eleanor  May 5, 2013 at 4:10 pm Reply

      Thank you! Glad you found us.

  13. Karla Helbert  April 17, 2013 at 11:13 am Reply

    I love this–thanks so much for sharing. I will use it with non-grieving people as well. Anytime we feel alone, this could be a great exercise for helping us to see just where we can find support we need. Thank you for your blog! I don’t know how you both find the time to put out such awesomeness daily! I am so glad you do!

    • Eleanor  April 17, 2013 at 6:48 pm Reply

      Karla, thank you so much for your comment! I really think MOST of us could use an exercise like this at one time or another. I’m so horrible at asking for help but working on getting better!

  14. Joyce  April 17, 2013 at 10:22 am Reply

    I love this, such solid advice. So glad I found you guys.

    • Eleanor  April 17, 2013 at 6:47 pm Reply

      Thanks for reading Joyce! We’re glad you found this helpful.


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