How to Be Mindful of Someone Else's Grief
August 10, 2018
October 12, 2017, is the day my world changed forever.
It was a Thursday and just so happened to be my little brother’s birthday. I wrote an embarrassing but loving post on Snapchat wishing him a "Happy Birthday," and I thought that'd be the highlight of my day. But, little did we know, the day was about to become one we'd never forget.
At 1 p.m., I got an unexpected call from my uncle. He never calls me. That’s when I knew something was wrong. He asked to speak to my mother, who just walked in, so I handed the phone to her. The whole time they were on the phone my heart was racing and I could feel a panic attack slowly creeping up on me. Then, out of nowhere, my mom turns to me and says, “I’m so sorry.” My stomach sank to the ground and I could feel tears rolling down my face. My worst nightmare was coming true as she said, “Your father has passed away.”
And just like that, I felt like someone knocked the wind out of me.
I couldn’t stop crying.
The only thing I could think was, "How could he leave me?"
It was supposed to be us against the world—and now I was totally alone. I'd never felt so alone. And for the first few weeks, I didn’t understand what was happening.
Fast-forward to 2018
This October marks the one-year anniversary since my dad died, and I still can’t believe it.
There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t think about him. The thought of him not seeing the person I’m growing up to be hurts more than you can ever imagine.
To be honest, I still struggle to talk about my dad without crying. I literally cried while writing this. But one thing I’ve learned in this past year is that some people have no idea how to talk to a grieving person—especially if they've never experienced grief firsthand.
So, here are a few conversation starters I found helpful when I struggled to talk about my dad’s death.
1. Ask Them: What Do You Need?
Everyone grieves in different ways. Instead of assuming you know what someone needs, take the time to find out.
I know for me, all I wanted was for someone to listen. Just listen. Nothing else. I’m the type of person who needs to talk through my emotions to truly understand them. But for some people, it’s easier to shut everyone out when they’re dealing with tragic events. (Unfortunately, I’m guilty of this, too.) And for others, all they want is to have someone stay by their side.
Luckily, your loved one can tell you what works best for them and what doesn’t. Let them tell you what they need.
Maybe they need space for a few days or want you to help plan the funeral service. Whatever their needs may be, it’s important you make them a priority. They need a support system, and you have the power to give them that.
And if they don't know what they need yet, just make it known that you're available. They can call you and you’ll be there ASAP. But remember, everyone copes at their own pace, so don’t pressure them to reach out to you.
2. Ask Them: How's Your Day Going?
This question is vital because asking someone “How are you?” can feel counterproductive and inappropriate. Why? Grief is all encompassing, and how someone's feeling right after losing someone they care about is most likely heavy.
By asking them about their day, you’re giving them the chance to focus on the small wins they’ve accomplished. Simple things like getting out of bed or washing dishes can feel impossible when you’re first dealing with grief. So when they tell you they accomplished small tasks like finally putting a load of laundry into the wash, it’s important to acknowledge those small victories. They might not even be aware of how significant those wins are.
Unfortunately, some days will be better than others. Even after six months or 10 years, the pain your loved one feels will never go away. And that pain will be even more visible during monumental moments like graduations and weddings. During those times, they might feel alone and depressed, so do them a favor and remind them of all the small wins they’ve had. Remind them that the fact that they got up today and are ready to start a new day is a true sign of their strength.
3. Ask Them: Would You Like to (Insert Something You Know Will Put a Smile on Their Face)?
Of all the people in the world, you probably know what makes them smile the most when they're upset. Take advantage of that!
If you know a favorite restaurant always brings them joy, then see if they’re up to going. And if they’re not, have the food delivered to their house, pop in their favorite movie, and have a spontaneous movie night. Small gestures like these are what your loved one needs. Having a constant reminder that you are loved despite how alone you might feel is an amazing feeling. Trust me.
The first few weeks after losing someone is when you struggle the most with your happiness. You constantly battle with guilt because you’re unsure if it’s OK to smile again.
I know I still struggle with this every day, and it’s almost been a year since I lost my dad. So, be patient with your loved one and let them know it’s OK to be happy. And if they don’t believe you, just show them.
I know that worked for me.
When I was at my lowest, small acts of kindness from the people around me really helped me carry on. For my birthday last year, my then-manager (who helped me so much immediately after my father passed away) got me two Harry Potter books. Why? Because I mentioned I wanted to spend time re-reading the series over Christmas break, but I was missing some of the books. Those books were exactly what I needed, as was his thoughtfulness—he remembered the small little detail I told him weeks ago.
Your actions are powerful. You can completely turn someone’s day around by remembering the smallest detail about them. But, more importantly, you have the power to make them smile again. To make them feel happy again, even if just for a small window of time. I know for me, that's made so much of a difference as I move forward without my dad.
If you (or a loved one) need help navigating grief, text Crisis Text Line at 741741—it’s available 24/7, it’s confidential, and it’s free.