How to Grieve With Friends This Holiday Season
President, The Budd Group
I love the change of seasons, especially fall when the fresh wind ushers out the summer heat and brings new crispness with it. I love the beauty of the leaves changing colors, demonstrating once again their will to live through another season. Fall’s color change is a declaration; it’s an invitation to step into something new.
Fall also feeds my melancholy nature. It’s a time to say goodbye to the summer, after all. The days get shorter, and darkness becomes familiar.
This all reminds me of an unattributed quote I saw on the internet recently: “It’s so strange that autumn is so beautiful, yet everything is dying.”
This fall has been marked by a number of goodbyes for me personally. It’s also been a tough season for many of my friends and colleagues, who’ve suffered losses of all kinds. As we work through these losses while experiencing the seasonal shift–and as the holiday season inevitably exacerbates our feelings of loss–I’ve been asking myself how to be more mindful.
How can I give to my friends what they need as they grieve? How can I really be present for them? I am also faced with questions around how I deal with my own losses and goodbyes. In the darkness, I have appreciated even the faintest of lights. Sometimes that was all I needed. For in those moments of darkness, the light comes through connection.
Choose to Connect
We have a choice to help the ones we love to deal with life. I often want to avoid life’s difficulties for myself and ignore the difficulties of others. Do you? This impulse is a natural, hard-wired thing! After all, it’s our fight-or-flight response mechanism kicking in. But following this impulse is exactly how we lose engagement and miss out on the big joys over time. Embracing the difficult issues, or at least stepping into them, is how you develop a true sense for living, engaging all the seasons of life.
What Do Grieving People Need From Us?
Loss is one of life’s givens. Death certainly causes loss, but relationships are lost due to divorce, career shifts, custody battles, and many other tough changes. And even though loss is something we know will happen to us and those we love, we have difficulty talking about it. Let’s face it: Comforting someone who is grieving is draining and can be awkward.
Understanding our own grief can go a long way toward preparing us for accompanying a friend through grief. I believe that when we understand what grieving people need, and then engage their grief with them authentically, we can be great helpers, learn more about ourselves and strengthen our relationship, too.
Dr. Alan Wolfelt’s book, The Journey Through Grief, is a guidepost used by psychologists and bereavement counselors to help mourners work through their grief productively. Wolfelt believes that those who are grieving the loss of a loved must meet six human needs in order to attain reconciliation. These human needs are:
- Acknowledging the reality of death
- Embracing the pain of loss
- Remembering the person who died
- Developing a new self identity
- Searching for meaning
- Receiving ongoing support from others
One would think that number six is where we come in. But in order to give that support, it’s important to consider the part we play in the first five needs. I know that when I experienced my own losses, it was the little moments when other people connected with me around my pain and helped me to search for a new identity as I grieved that fed my soul. And as I’ve recently accompanied some friends through grief, I’ve noticed their needs to be similar. They need to be engaged deeply.
How to Be in the Moment With Somebody Who’s Mourning the Loss of a Relationship
How do you get beyond the awkwardness of processing the death of a loved one or loss of a relationship with your coworkers and friends? Most of us just don’t know what to do or to say. Our idea of engaging the space is about doing something for that person, rather than tapping into the grief. These are helpful, pragmatic responses. While they seem obvious, pragmatic responses like providing meals or calling to check in can be quite helpful. However, there’s another type of care we can provide, too. This is the care that happens when we decide to step into our friend’s grief along with them, walk with them through a tough season, and engage the experience together.
How? I’ve listed some more authentic ways we can all try to support our friends during a time of loss. As I battle my own fight-or-flight instinct, I hope to use this list to help me better step into grief alongside my friends.
Be real. Ever told someone: “He (or she) is in a better place. It will all be ok”? While that’s a beautiful sentiment and a perfectly socially acceptable response, that’s not the place someone missing a loved one wants to go. They’re grieving, and they don’t want you to point a way out. Resist the impulse to make things better, and instead step into the grief with your friend. Why not just say: “This sucks and I can’t even begin to understand why it happened”? With this honest confrontation of the truth of the situation, we help our friend to acknowledge the reality of the loss and embrace the pain associated with it. We commit to stepping into the space—and the pain—alongside a friend.
Ask questions. Maybe our gut reaction to a friend’s bad news should be to ask a few questions. This encourages friends to share experiences more deeply. Simple encouragements and questions I like to use are: “Tell me more about that” and “I’m glad you’re telling me this.” After a conversation where a friend shares his pain, I will sometimes encourage him to write the feelings down.
It’s not about you. I often start feeling uncomfortable right away when someone I know experiences a loss. That’s because my own stories come up in my head and heart, and I want to shut down and ignore the discomfort. But I have to remind myself, “This is not about you, Yasser. It’s about them, and you need to stay in it for them, to protect them.”
Have empathy for yourself. We’re too hard on ourselves! To get to a level of true engagement of someone else’s sadness, we need to understand our own feelings and be forgiving of ourselves, too. If someone is going through something that you can’t relate to, pretend you are experiencing it in the moment. Shut your eyes and demand yourself to imagine what it feels like. Don’t be hard on yourself, just experience that sadness. What type of questions come up? Feelings? Communicate those questions and feelings to your friend. That’s a real response, and it will open a real dialogue.
Be intentional. We have a responsibility to our friends. As Dr. Wolfelt writes, a support system is an integral step in the process toward reconciliation. Once we’ve established an authentic style of addressing the situation, let’s be intentional about continuing that conversation. This means making time for follow-up conversations, working with a friend who may be experiencing anxiety to make time for talking and receiving support. It doesn’t come naturally. It requires us to put in the extra effort to provide the life-giving, ongoing support that’s so necessary to work through the grief journey.
Your Relationship Will Be Strengthened
It’s okay to not know how to talk about death. But it’s not okay to not talk about it because we don’t know. We have to work through the discomfort to pull our friends and our relationships into a truly life-giving space. If we want to have meaningful and impactful relationships with people, we can’t avoid these painful areas of their lives.
There are many great Ted Talks on grief that shed new light on what it looks like in today’s world. In Laura Prince’s talk, she encourages us to “take death out of the closet and talk about it,” introducing a new plan for societal mourning. For example, she wants to take bereavement support groups out of sterile meeting spaces and hold meetings in nature. Imagine the different perspective this one shift can have on the way we experience grief.
The seasons of life will surely change. I choose to look at the end of fall (when the leaves are all dying or already dead) as a buildup to an even more magnificent spring. As we prepare for winter, I remind myself that when the spring gets here it’s going to be so beautiful and we are going to be so ready for it. Suffering loss is incredibly difficult, and saying goodbye hurts. But walking through the seasons of life with our friends with the anticipation of a better future is a beautiful thing.