Tuesday, April 19, 2016

How to Show Love to Someone who is Grieving

Kind of a heavy topic for a Tuesday morning...but I've felt compelled to write about grieving and how to support someone who is suffering for a long time now. I'm not a grief expert by any means...if anything, my life has been a walk in the park compared to so many in this world. But I have walked through (many times crawled) some very difficult times in this beautiful life. Losing my mother to breast cancer when I was nearly 10-years-old was obviously the biggest blow and was/is by far the hardest thing I've ever lived through. Years later finding out my Dad had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of lymphoma felt like a slap in the face...I was like, "Really, God? Can't someone else deal with this...like someone who hasn't already lost a parent to cancer?"
I think I've gained a lot of wisdom, too, as an oncology nurse. Witnessing patients and their loved ones living through the ups and downs of a cancer diagnosis...and being present when precious people have just been told their disease is advanced or terminal. I feel like I've personally learned a lot about what people want to hear...and what they don't want to hear. What helps and loves and supports...and what doesn't.
All of this is my experience and mine only. These are my thoughts, and I know everyone grieves differently, and everyone experiences love differently. Grief is a hard thing, though...people generally don't know how to act or respond to someone who is living through a hellacious time, and I get it. It can be awkward and uncomfortable, and it's just not familiar territory for a lot of people. With that said, here's what I have learned. I hope it might help someone.

What NOT to say to someone who is grieving:
1) "Everything happens for a reason."
I really wish this phrase could be banned from the English (and every other) language. It's the worst phrase in the history of worst phrases. Let me tell you this...even if you believe this to be true (and that is totally your prerogative), do not ever say this to someone who is going through a difficult time. It doesn't help. It's kind of like, "Oh, my loved one just died, but everything happens for a reason so I know his/her untimely death was meant for some greater good, and we just don't know what that is yet." Nope.
2) "God needed another angel."
"God needed another angel so He caused my loved one to suffer and die?" I don't think so. I understand that knowing a loved one is in Heaven is comforting...knowing you will one day be reunited with a loved one can and does bring a lot of peace. But not at first. Not when things are raw. And this phrase puts an awful lot of blame on God...which in turn can make the person who is grieving even angrier.
3) "Let me know if I can do anything."
People say this all the time, and I know people mean well, but it just doesn't come across as genuine. It's the equivalent of passing someone on the street and casually asking "How are you?" Do you really want that person to stop and tell you how they're doing? Probably not. You say it to be polite. (And keep reading for what to say instead of this.)
4) "I don't know how you're doing it."
The person who is grieving is "doing it" because they have no other choice. The other option of curling up in a ball on the floor and not moving for days on end isn't really possible. At some point you have to wake up, eat, get dressed, and put one foot in front of the other if you want to continue living in this world.
5) "This is all a part of God's plan."
This is a touchy one, and I honestly hear this all the time. I don't like it because once again it puts a lot of pressure on God...which in turn can cause a lot of anger and resentment towards God. Do I believe God has a purpose for my life and for the life of everyone on this Earth? Yes. Do I believe part of that plan is causing tragedy to strike or causing us to suffer tremendous loss? Do I believe part of that plan is causing someone to suffer from a cruel disease? No, no, and no. In the words of Rabbi Harold Kushner: "These events do not reflect God's choices. They happen at random, and randomness is another name for chaos, in those corners of the universe where God's creative light has not yet penetrated."

6) "God doesn't give us more than we can handle."

Well if this is true, I'm sure many people think, "God is giving me way too much credit because I'm drowning here." Plain and simple, this just doesn't help. It makes people compare their pain to others'...and again puts a lot of blame on God.


What TO say to someone who is grieving:

1) "I am so sorry."

These words go so far. They're short and to the point, but they're sincere.

2) "I am here for you, and I love you."

Let that person know you are present (and be present!).

3) "This is so unfair. This sucks."

Because you know what? It is unfair to see someone you love suffer. Be blunt. Be to the point. Let your loved one be angry, and you be angry with them!

4) "I'd like to bring you dinner. What night next week works?"

Instead of putting the initiative on the person who is grieiving ("Let me know if I can do anything.") you're taking the initiative. People who are suffering still have to eat. And if they can't eat there is someone in their house who can. Mainly, it's just the gesture. It's a way to show that you care and love that person. On a side note, try to bring something that can be frozen. Food is a big thing in the South...especially when someone dies. Chances are, this person is getting a lot of food. Also, when someone is grieving or going through a difficult time, telling them to "let me know if I can do anything" puts the ball in their court. And they don't want the ball in their court. They are in survival mode and need someone else to take the reins.

5) "I'd like to take you for coffee/take you to the movies...what day works for you?"

You're showing up for a friend. You're making the plans, and you're helping them get out of the house and escape their reality if only for a little while.

6) "I am praying for you/I'm thinking about you."

I can tell you this from experience. Nothing, and I mean nothing, means more to me than to have someone tell me they are praying for me or thinking of me and to know that they really mean it.

When my Dad was diagnosed with lymphoma, I was paralyzed. I was finishing my last semester of nursing school, and I was in the midst of wedding planning. To make matters worse, I was working on the bone marrow transplant floor and was daily confronted with people suffering in ways my Dad soon would (he would ultimately need a bone marrow transplant).

I have no doubt that the prayers of others are what helped me through that awful time. I was too tired, too angry, and too frozen to pray for my Dad, my family, and myself. Every time I tried to pray I would have a meltdown because it meant facing the reality of what I was praying for...my Dad had cancer, and I wanted him healed. So, maybe this doesn't make sense to some...but I had to take a step back...I needed to zone out and watch a silly TV show or read a funny book so I could escape our situation...and so I could just go forward with life without crying 24/7. I'm telling y'all all of this because...I had the most incredible sense of peace come over me soon after his initial diagnosis. I hadn't prayed for this peace because I was having a hard time praying...but I and we had so many people praying for us...if you're by some chance reading this, and you prayed for my family during this time...thank you...you were a part of the reason a terrible situation became more bearable...and your prayers strengthened my faith in God.


What else can you do?

1) Take the time and send a card.

I still have cards that were sent to my family and me after my mom died. They're something I treasure.

2) Share a Bible verse or quote that means a lot to you.

It may be a verse the person has never read, or it may be one that is just perfect to be reiterated. And many times, when we can't find the appropriate words, we've found that someone else already has.

3) Talk about the person. Ask questions.

I cannot stress this enough! Y'all, if someone has died, the most important thing to their loved ones is keeping their memory alive.

I had a patient one time who told me that his daughter had died at a young age. I told him I was so sorry, and then I started asking questions about her. What was her name? What did she like to do? His face lit up, and he shared several stories about her and about her time on this Earth. When I was about to leave his room, I told him I enjoyed our conversation, and I thanked him for telling me about his daughter. He said, "Thank you for listening. Most people don't ask questions about her." It served as a reminder to me to not avoid what I might think is the elephant in the room. Loss is hard and terrible and unfair in every way...but ignoring it or fearing the potentially awkward conversation (which is usually only felt on our own end) only distances us further from one another...this sweet man's whole demeanor changed when he talked about his daughter, and I could tell that his day had improved...and, because of that simple human connection, my day was all the better too.

4) If someone has died, show up to visitation. Or show up to the funeral. Or show up to both.

I've heard some people say, "Well they won't remember if I'm there or not." And they may not...they are likely in a fog and will have no memory of that treacherous day. However, they will look at the guest book one day. And I can promise you seeing your name there will mean so much. Attending visitation or the funeral (or both) is an act of showing love.

5) Share stories about that person if you have them.

I always try to do this when I'm supporting someone who has lost a loved one. Usually when I send a sympathy card, I include a short story there if I have one. It can be anything you remember about that person that stood out to you and made him or her special. I remember sending a card to one friend who had lost her Dad. A memory of him that had stayed with me was this: when I was in college I ran into him at the grocery store. My friend's parents were in town for a football game, and they were staying with their daughter. We said a quick hello, and then he told me, "I'm getting stuff to make pancakes for my girls." I just thought that was the sweetest. So I shared that simple story and told my friend that our quick interaction showed me what a special person he was.


I hope these reflections might help some of y'all. I'm so thankful that while grief is an undeniable part of this life, there is beauty and grace all around us too. A large part of that beauty and grace is, during a difficult time, discovering that there are people around you, giving their love and support.