It’s been a while.
Though I may talk more on why I took a break from writing for most of this past year, the short version is…I didn’t feel like it.
While writing has been a helpful processing tool for me in the past, the past year’s level of grief was something new for me, and the whole thing felt too heavy and disorienting for me to be able to distill into comprehensible sentences.
Plus, I just didn’t feel like I had anything to say. The disorienting nature of grief left my head feeling simultaneously empty and like a swirl of a million-billion thoughts, all of which were too foggy and distant to pinpoint for any sort of remotely clear discussion.
So, I just took a break. Which I think was the right decision.
However, in the past few weeks, I’ve felt prompted to share my grief experience on two different occasions and was also approached by a friend for advice on how to care for someone going through an intense season of loss. I also took a class on grief, crisis, and trauma, and I think maybe it’s all just coincided with a period in my own processing where I’m able (and wanting) to look back and try to understand it all a bit more now.
On one of the occasions of sharing my grief experience, I typed up some notes to share with a group who would be working with people going through loss. I realized afterwards that maybe since it was already typed up, it would be a good opportunity to ease back into my own writing practice. Perhaps there’s a chance it would be helpful for others to read too, either as preparation for unknown seasons of grief ahead (hopefully in the far distant future), or to help better care for friends and family who experience loss.
I do want to note that there are, of course, no universal rules for things like this. Not everything will apply to all people.
That being said, I think one of the first comforts that manages to make its way through the fog of grief is that there does seem to be more of a universal nature to it than might be expected. Grief, as it turns out, is not always wildly original in its tactics. As confusing and unexpected and strange as it can be for the individual, there’s no reason for it to be lonely (although it does often feel that way, unfortunately). There is a lot of wordless understanding to be found amongst the crowd of those who have experienced it, a deep and unexpected togetherness that is one of the most powerful comforts, or, dare I even say (carefully) gifts of grief.
Anyway, without further ado, a few comments on grief based on one person's experience with it.
1. Give it a year
One comment that I heard from someone that had lost a spouse was that the first year after the death was a complete blur in which she was just sort of always confused and not sure of how to engage with the world. This timeline was later repeated by others who had experienced the death of a loved one, and, after reflecting on this, it’s something that I realized has been traditionally reflected in many cultures in a variety of ways throughout history (e.g., a widow culturally expected to wear black for a year).
Hearing this timeline comment was very freeing for me.
First, because there are so many uncertainties and so much confusion after a major loss (in all areas of life), having a loose framework of what to expect was helpful.
Secondly, it was helpful knowing that, for at least a year, I had complete freedom to be a little bit of a mess. It removed the potential guilt or frustration I might have otherwise felt for that.
Third, it helped me mentally compartmentalize, understand, rest, and then motivate myself to progress through my grief in a way that allowed me to have grace for myself, but also give myself healthy pushes to engage in more “normal” life again when the time was right.
Of course, a strict one-year framework will not apply to all cases. To be honest, I think I probably took a little longer than that before I felt capable of engaging with the world semi-normally and picking up many of my regular practices again.
It also does not mean that all grief will be gone after a year. That could not be further from the truth. I’ve come to accept that grief will just always be a part of my life and who I am now. My mom is not going to magically appear in my life ever again and I will never not hate that and intensely ache over it. It just means that after one year I’ve got something of a grasp on how to integrate this fact into my life and who I am while still being able to function emotionally, mentally, physically, and just as a regular person who has to pay bills and cook meals and live normal life.
2. Set routines
In my class we talked about how it can be helpful for a person in grief to set a daily routine or even have someone check in with them about their eating and other regular-life habits. This is very true! I heard multiple people say that it wasn’t rare for them to realize late into the night that they had only eaten one meal that day. The same thing happened to me many times.
An Elisabeth Elliot quote I found helpful, which my mom actually also held onto as her illness progressed, was simply: “Do the next thing.”
When in the midst of depression and/or a place of deep grief, waking up in the morning and thinking on the entire day ahead can be extremely overwhelming. This can be one of the most humbling and difficult parts of grief, especially for those of us who may have held the precarious belief that we were fairly strong people, or have been raised to be independent, hardworking, and tough. You may have done all kinds of difficult things in your life on your own, and suddenly the thought of making yourself breakfast is so exhausting and overwhelming it just makes you want to turn over in bed and cancel the entire day’s events.
At this point, the quote, “Do the next thing” is very helpful. Instead of thinking about everything ahead in the day, I would just think about the next most immediate thing I had to do. Sometimes this doesn’t even need to be as much as “Go make breakfast.” It could just be, “Stand up and get out of bed.”
The other thing that was helpful for me was making a list and including everything on it. That meant even basic things like making my bed, brushing my teeth, cooking supper, etc.
I can see some people potentially finding a list like this even more overwhelming, but for me it had the opposite effect, making the day feel more manageable (alternatively, a person could make lists hour-by-hour, instead of doing the whole day at once). And getting to cross each task off the list felt like a little reward and encouragement that maybe I was capable of more and had more in me than I felt like I did.
3. Don't try to fix it
I think often when someone close to us experiences a profound loss, we feel a deep compulsion to want to just fix everything for them. We want to be able to wave a magic wand and make everything all better, for them to be blissfully and completely pain-free once again and forever.
But however hard you fight for this, there is just no way it’s going to happen. And we probably all just need to get over that. The only thing that would actually take the pain away would be if you were able to bring the lost person back. And since you can’t – since no one can – feebly fumbling about with other quasi-solutions just tends to fall pretty flat and not be that helpful.
What would be more helpful is to just acknowledge that the situation is the worst, and it will be the worst for a long time, and nothing will change that. And to also acknowledge that the person is feeling a lot of pain and that that pain isn’t going to magically disappear anytime soon.
Basically, to just acknowledge the reality of the situation and to not try to sugar-coat, silver-line, or quick-fix anything about it.
From that point, what is most helpful is to make sure the person knows they aren’t alone in what they’re going through. Just do whatever you have to do to make sure they know they’re loved and cared for and have a community of support around them. Small gestures, little cards, texts, whatever it is, just to make sure the person knows they’re cared about, liked, loved, valued, thought about, and not forgotten.
Focus on this, not on fixing anything, or even necessarily on addressing the grief itself (leave space for that, but you also don’t have to feel obligated to address it every time you meet) and that will often be the best way to genuinely care for the grieving person.
One of my personal favourite gestures shortly after the loss of my mom, and a great example of how to do this well, was a care package from a friend that included (amongst other thoughtful items) a bottle of multivitamins. There was just something so wholesome and genuinely full of care and concern in that – only a friend that was truly thinking about your holistic wellbeing would think of sending vitamins! It made me feel extremely cared for and loved, probably all the more so for being a bit out-of-the-box.
4. Find what works to fill you
One suggestion that came up in my class that I wanted to pass on and affirm is the helpfulness of podcasts, an audio Bible, music, and audiobooks.
This really deserves more explanation and probably a full post of its own, but I found it more or less impossible to read my Bible or focus enough to pray for quite an extended time after the loss of my mom. I’ve heard others share this struggle as well. The only way I was intentionally able to absorb anything spiritually filling was through listening (and actually probably through watching a few specific movies and videos too).
I found Tim Keller’s podcast channel from his church to be extremely helpful, and think I’ve probably memorized some of his messages on grief from how many times I've listened to them. There are a few talks by Corrie Ten Boom on YouTube that never fail me either. In fact, I still like to listen to both of these speakers as I fall asleep.
My mom actually used to find this helpful too during her hospital stays or during nights she couldn’t sleep. These can be a great resource for many situations!
5. Grieving people require a lot of grace
Each person in the group connected to the loss may process grief in very different ways, and this can be challenging.
This struggle can, in some ways, be compounded by the message that, “Each person’s unique way of grieving is valid and okay, and we want to support them in it no matter how it looks”. While this message is often true and can be helpful, it can also be confusing when grieving processes and needs directly contradict one another and each person feels desperate to have their grieving process prioritized (not to mention that some grief processes can be straight-up damaging to one’s self and others, but that’s another story).
Compounding all this is the fact that, when in deep grief, sometimes we can be so overwhelmed with our own feelings and can be struggling so hard with how to deal with them, that we aren’t always as sensitive or even aware of what the others around us are experiencing, how they are struggling, and how our actions may be profoundly hurting them.
Fortunately, with time and a bit of creativity and grace, most of these things can be worked out. Looking back, I have more sympathy for all of us in my own circle and realize that any less than sensitive actions were just part of each person’s grief process and not something meant to personally hurt anyone. Still, navigating everyone else’s grief process alongside your own can be a challenge, and one that I was not necessarily thinking about before going into things.
6. Sign up for the meal schedule
As cliché as it may seem, the church lady classic of bringing meals is very helpful. Anything that eases the burden of trying to manage normal life really does make a big difference.
7. Focus on sustaining the person, not solving the problem
While there are things that can be learned that make us better helpers at these times, there’s so much about grief that is so surprising and confusing and likely sounds very strange to outsiders. No one can fully convey what it’s like, and remembering what our own misunderstandings were before we experienced it can sometimes be an obstacle in getting us to unload with people who haven’t gone through it. We remember being in your shoes and the confusion, occasional discomfort, and helplessness you’re probably feeling as someone who desperately wants to understand and help but feels a great chasm of disparate experience laying before you.
This is not at all to make anyone feel inadequate or like they’re useless in situations like this, because that’s absolutely not true. The best way you can help just may be different than you think.
As I’ve alluded to a bit already, one of the good things that has come out of this time is the people who have gone through similar situations that started coming out of the woodworks and reaching out to my sister and I as soon as we lost our mom. Meeting them was always such a comforting experience; there was just so much we didn’t have to explain to one another. Even if I did start saying something about what I was dealing with, the other person would often finish my sentence or exclaim an enthusiastic, “Yes! I felt exactly the same way!”
This is why it can be so helpful to get people in grief connected to other people who have gone through similar things.
A common thread I’ve heard amongst many of those who have dealt with grief is the feeling that you’re going crazy. Like I said, there’s so many things that you go through, feel, ways you react, and ways you feel towards God that are very surprising and confusing, and would not have been anything you would have predicted of yourself before. One of the biggest comforts while going through grief can be hearing that, actually what you’re feeling is exactly the same thing someone else felt, and that there’s nothing crazy or abnormal about your feelings at all.
My point in all this is not at all to be discouraging to those who haven’t experienced grief or communicate that they just need to step out of the lives of those who have experienced it for a while until the storm dies down. That is not what I’m saying at all. In fact, please do not do that. We very much still need you.
I just think sometimes when we encounter broken situations, we can unthinkingly insist on pushing ourselves into the position of the agent that is the direct source of deliverance (which, at least speaking for myself, I think can sometimes be just as much about making myself feel better as it is about helping the people who are broken).
It is not shirking your responsibility or letting someone down to humbly recognize and accept when you aren’t the one who has the right power to solve their situation. Or to accept that what you can do is something much smaller than you wish it was.
Like I said before, this does not mean you completely back out of the person’s life - not at all! Though they may not solve the situation, the "small things" that you can do may actually be exactly what sustains the grieving person as they go through the unavoidably long process ahead of them.
So please do go ahead with everyday gestures of care and attentiveness that ease the burden of managing normal life. Bring the person out occasionally for helpful distractions, or bring snacks over and listen to them talk. Or don't talk and just watch a movie. Whatever it is, simply let them have the freedom to be sad while making sure that at least they’re not alone while they are. It’s really just about ensuring the person has the support and resources to be sustained as they heal, as best as you can tell, however direct and prominent your role is or isn’t in that.
The final thing I want to say is just that, there’s a reason no one has written a definitive manual on all the do’s and don’t’s of grief and how to support someone in it. Even though these are some rough insights, it isn’t a straightforward process, and people do have a variety of needs and reactions and feelings – even just one individual will react to the same things differently on different days.
We all need so much humility and grace for others and for ourselves as we walk alongside one another in brokenness and loss. We will all make mistakes, both on the side of those grieving and those who are supporting them. This is not a test we’re aiming for 100% on, we just want to get through it together, however best we can. You don’t need to know everything to say and do, you just need to learn to be okay with sitting in grief, with sitting beside people in tears, with hearing unexpected reactions, with not knowing answers, with brokenness lasting much longer than you thought it would, and just generally a lot of initially uncomfortable situations. None of them are going to kill you, and if you just stop to breathe a second while you’re in them, you’ll usually realize that no one is actually physically getting hurt by anything that’s happening. Usually what is happening is some very messy baby steps in healing.
And, again, this is a much longer post for another day, but do pray for those of us in grief. I know the admittedly overused (and likely under-acted-upon) “thoughts and prayers” sentiment seems pretty trite these days, and is even, perhaps rightly, almost looked down upon, but I really do believe there is a lot of power in holding people up in prayer, and power in prayer for guidance on how to best love them. Don’t forget to do this.
I realize this was quite a word-vomit, and ended up being a lot longer than I meant it to. Perhaps that’s as good a sign as any that my old and usual ways slowly starting to re-emerge. It does feel good to feel able to write again, and I always so appreciate any of you that read these ramblings (especially if you’ve made it this far) and comment or send messages back with your own wisdom on the matter.
Finally, thank you as well for all the ways so many of you have shown me and my family love and support over this past year and few months. The year really has been rough, but we’ve truly seen some of the very best out of the people around us in that time as well. Of the good qualities and examples I listed above, most of them have been learned by experiencing them through you. So thanks.