We’ve all heard it before, from the well-meaning, tilted-head friends at the funeral and in the weeks to follow: “Let me know what you need.” It is, of course, a kind and often well-intentioned offer, but there is one fatal flaw: it assumes you know what you need. To be fair, on the surface, this isn’t an unreasonable expectation. If a person hasn’t experienced the depths of grief or some other pit of despair, it can be hard to imagine that sometimes you are just so overwhelmed you can’t figure out what you need.
The reality is, no one can meet the needs that may be most pressing in your mind or give you the things you want the most. This is why you may find yourself internally screaming the response, “Yes, I need you to bring my loved one back!” or “Yes, I need you to take away this pain!” everytime someone asks you if there is anything you need or anything they can do. Thinking about any other needs can feel impossible and overwhelming. You may find that you feel like you’re sinking, but it isn’t clear what help would help you come back up for air.
We want to talk about this basic but complex challenge: how do you figure out what you need when you have no idea what you need?
First, remember your needs might not all look directly like grief needs. When you lose someone, your life is shattered. One person disappears and it can feel like everything else falls out of place. We call those other things “secondary losses”. Getting support from others is not always about that primary loss, often it is finding support for one of those secondary losses (learn more about secondary losses here). In some cases, it may be practical, logistical support you need.
When you’re feeling completely overwhelmed, it can be helpful to consider that you have needs in all the different areas of loss you are going through. In others, it may be emotional support – someone to let you cry, remember and listen without judgment. Finally, it may be just support related to your general well-being — things and people who will help boost your mood and reconnect with yourself. As with many things in grief, it is helpful to take it step by step.
Each day we encourage you to increase your awareness around your greatest “pain points”. These don’t have to be grief specific. Anything in your life that is a stressor may be part of your grief or making it more difficult to cope with your grief, so it is important to consider any needs that can ease your overall suffering in a given day. To do this, you will need to become aware of the moments in your day that cause the most pain, bring up complex emotions, are the most physically taxing, the most mentally taxing, and create the most stress. Write them down during the day, either on your phone or on a sheet of paper. If it is helpful, you may want to look at your needs in three categories:
- Practical/logistical needs: Whether it is childcare, grocery shopping, filing taxes, mowing the lawn, etc, there are often countless concrete needs we have. Knowing what these are can make it easier to ask people in your support system for the help or take them up an offer.
- Grief needs: Though all needs may be connected to grief, some are certainly more explicitly so. You may realize your need is for people who you can share memories with, or someone to be comfortable with your tears. You may need someone who wants to help you memorialize your loved one or join you in advocacy work. Whatever the case, you may realize you are feeling very alone in honoring and remembering and it is time to reach out to others.
- Well-being needs: These needs fall somewhere outside of just the grief experience, and are things that simply help with our overall well-being. This can be anything from needing that push to get off the gym to needing someone to be social with (or at the very least, grab a coffee). It can be anything from painting to writing to photography that you know would boost your mood and well-being, but that you keep avoiding.
These are just a few small examples. We realize your needs may look very different. The important thing is to slowly begin increasing your daily self-awareness about what is difficult. At moments that you feel stressed or overwhelmed, make a note of what is creating that experience. At the end of a day, rather than just saying “this day is terrible,” instead outline what has made it so challenging. As you do this over time, you may see trends emerging, areas big and small where some small help from others could make your days just a little bit earlier.
Others are unable to provide support if you can’t tell them what you need, so just knowing your needs is the first step to receiving support. The chart below is basic, but you can print it out and use it to help you to first become more aware of your needs and second, identify who might help you meet those needs.
Whether your support system can or will meet these needs is impossible to predict, but identifying the need and asking for help is the first step. To figure out who the best person to help you, check out this post on considering the strengths of those in your support system here. If you’re having difficulty navigating your support system, asking for help, feeling failed by your support system, or giving feedback, you can check out the recording of our webinar on Navigating Your Support System After a Loss. It is full of ideas for understanding how your support system can best help you meet your needs (once you know what they are, of course!), and how to handle it when they don’t.
As always, leave a comment to share your perspective!