Caring For Someone Who Lost A Loved One
Updated: Jan 4
This article is for the supporting cast, the people who love someone who lost a loved one. It is very challenging to care for someone who is in so much pain. It is hard to know what to do, to know what to say. All you want to do is help them, but you may feel helpless in doing so.
In my times of need, I was blessed with a community of friends and family who were there for me. I am so appreciative of the love and consider myself extremely lucky.
I am writing this to share the perspective of someone who is and has experienced extreme grief and provide some perspective on what it is like to those who have not yet walked this walk.
It is important to know that everyone grieves in their own way. Different stages of grief occur at different times for different people. But one thing that I noticed is fairly universal is the initial shock period, especially for those who lost someone “too soon.” This is by far the most painful part of grieving and the most challenging for those trying to care for the griever. I will be focusing on this period for this article.
When the moment finally happens, when the reality hits that you will never see or speak to your loved one again, the pain is immeasurable, almost unreal. This lasts 2-8 weeks or so but may be longer or shorter depending on the person. For the griever, the pain connects them to their loved one, which is very important. They don’t want to feel okay at this stage because okay without their loved one feels wrong.
As someone supporting someone in this state, the goal is NOT to make them feel better. The goal is NOT to reassure them that everything will be okay. Because it won’t be, at least not in the way that they think is “okay” while in this state.
I remember feeling angry at the idea of being okay again. The pain connected me to my mom, connected me to Karina, and I was nowhere near ready to consider letting that go for some time. As much as it hurts, I needed it.
You might see your loved one suffering, with gut-wrenching pain and utter disbelief. It is hard to watch. Your instinct will be to relieve that pain, to help them feel better. Unfortunately, at this time, you can’t, and trying may make them feel worse or disconnected.
The goal is, then, to give them what they need to completely fall apart and feel all the pain. Create a container, so they don’t have to think about anything other than their grieving. Allow them to feel safe as their life seemingly crumbles. Sit with them. Tell them you love them. Bring them food. Take care of any logistics that need to be done in their life. Give them a shoulder to cry on and tissues to snot into.
Falling apart, becoming a complete mess, I believe, is an important part of the process. When the love is so fresh, the pain is so intense. But, as described in Grief and Grieving, that grief is just love without a destination, and the process of reclaiming that love is painful. So, in caring for a loved one, allow them to feel it all as you sit with love and compassion for them.
In my two walks with grief, I noticed some very common things that people said to me that didn’t really help. I recognized and appreciated that they were coming from a place of love and were genuinely trying to help me, but didn’t understand the state I was in or what I really needed.
Here are a few phrases that I heard, what made me feel, and what would have been a more helpful approach.
“Let me know if there is anything I can do for you”
I heard this a million times. In this instance, I recognized they wanted to help and didn’t know what to do. But unfortunately, this question is relatively meaningless to someone in this state of intense grief. You are essentially asking me to think about my own needs and delegate them to you to fulfill. It is almost impossible to do this, especially for someone who isn’t comfortable asking for help. Imagine being caught in massive waves, tumbled and flipped around, unable to breathe or even know which way is up, and then being asked to solve a math problem. It kind of feels like that to hear this from someone.
“Would it be helpful if I brought you dinner tonight?”
Don’t make them think more than a yes or no. If you are close to them and know they need to eat, just tell them you will take care of their food, so they don’t have to worry about it. Everyone needs to eat, so this is an easy one. Flowers, gifts, notes, or any other gesture that shows you love them are helpful, as long as you are not asking them to help you help them.
“Everything is going to be okay.”
In this state, the last thing a person wants to think about is the future, feeling okay without their loved one in their life. The pain is unimaginable, and the loss is unreal at this time, so trying to conjure an image of future 'okayness' could lead them to feel worse.
“I can’t even imagine what you are feeling right now. I am so so sorry.”
This pain feels like the loneliest feeling in the world when you're in it. You can’t imagine anyone else feeling so horrible. Even if you can’t fully empathize, do your best. If you can cry with them, do it. It feels comforting to have someone cry with you sometimes.
“Time will heal.”
I don’t believe this to be true. Time is just a container, grieving is what will heal. Feeling the pain, recognizing it is a reflection of love, and reclaiming that love with intention will heal. Time may only dull the pain, but healing takes showing up to grieve. I didn’t understand this when my mom passed, so I ran from the pain with drugs and alcohol. Giving someone the idea that time heals might say, “just run away for a while, and eventually, time will heal you.” Having done this with my mother's passing, it doesn’t work that way. Grief waits patiently, and the longer you take to address it, the more it settles in and becomes harder to dig out.
“You are so brave for facing this. I love you”
The night that Karina passed, I don’t remember all too much of the hours afterward, but one thing that stuck out to me that provided a bit of stability was something my oldest brother said over facetime. He said, “you’re a fucking superhero.” In doing so, he recognized all that I had been through and the ultimate strength it took to watch my person transition out of her body. That provided an extra boost of strength in the moment and has stuck with me for months.
Ultimately, there is nothing that can be done or said to someone who is in this intense state of grief that can take away the pain. All that can be done is to make them feel loved and supported, that they are not alone on their new journey with grief. Make their life easier, and be available for them.
With some time, as this intensity passes, you can start comforting them with loving guidance. You can then offer them books, articles, or videos that address loss, grief, and healing. You can gently assist them in seeing the beauty of life again without their loved one. Just be patient and compassionate.
Ultimately, there is no perfect formula. Everyone is different and will react in different ways. So take my words as just one perspective, and do your best to use your intuition on how to help someone you care about. The bottom line of it all is simply love. Give so much love in whatever form that takes for you and your relationship with the grieving person. They will come up for air eventually, and they will appreciate you for the rest of your life for your love in their time of need.
I would like to share my undying gratitude for those in my life that supported me through this time. To my dad first and foremost, who took the brunt of my weight, my brothers for their continued support, Karina’s family and friends for coming together to grieve with me, my friends for their continued love through it all, my staff at Riffs who HELD IT DOWN for 6 months giving me the gift of space from work to be with Karina in her final months and time to fully experience the loss after her passing, and the entire community that sent love, cards, oils, gifts, flowers, and food for months. I will never forget and am forever grateful.
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