Maybe you grew up in one of those communities where, when someone dies, everyone brings the family food because that’s at least something. At least the grieving family won’t have to think about what’s for dinner and will take comfort in a steady stream of lasagna, chicken pot pie, and spaghetti casserole. We have a few social norms like that in place for responding to death—we go to the visitation/ viewing and funeral, send a sympathy card, and maybe even send flowers. That’s just what we do.
We don’t really question why we send so much food to people who have likely lost their appetite. In fact, the casseroles stop coming long before the ache of the loss is quenched. Then what? And what about the things that happen in life and no one brings casseroles?
What about all the other “deaths” in life?—the death of hopes and dreams when things don’t go according to plan and we find ourselves choosing to end a relationship, the birth of a child who will have to fight the world’s stigma about genetic differences, or realizing we really won’t ever have that connection we long for with our parents.
What about the losses that are rarely witnessed?—like the long awaited pregnancy that doesn’t make it passed the first trimester (again), the loss of trust due to childhood abuse, or financial betrayal.
What about the ongoing challenges that people do know about but it’s awkward or almost “taboo” to mention?—like the parents who have a child caught up in addiction, the spouse who becomes a fulltime caregiver, or the loved one experiencing significant mental health challenges.
What about the thresholds we cross in life that are supposed to be “good” but are actually hard or confusing because we have unexpected feelings?—like the start of a new school year, an empty nest, a move, or retirement.
We typically don’t have social rituals, a playbook, or even an app for that. Yet every single one of these things has something in common: GRIEVING.
Grief is the normal and natural response to loss. It’s the complex and conflicting feelings we have in response to the end of or change in what was familiar. If we think we only grieve when a loved one dies, then we are going to be trapped with our feelings and at a loss with what to do about everything else life throws at us.
Here are 4 things that you can do whether you are the friend wanting to be helpful or if you yourselfhave experienced any of the 40+ losses that can occur in a lifetime.
1. Name the Loss. Sometimes there has been a clear event but often the loss is more ambiguous, intangible, or hidden. For example being laid off from your job is not only a loss of tangible income but also a loss of identity and security. Words are powerful. In future blogs I’ll elaborate on helpful and unhelpful things to say when someone is grieving. For now, realize there is a power in asking and naming what the losses are. Be curious to hear/think about the subtle layers of the impact of what’s happened and changed.
2. Give Permission to Grieve. We don’t need to compare our pain—there will always be someone in the world experiencing “something worse” but that doesn’t make our pain in the moment hurt any less. In fact, we have learned a lot of messages and methods —to keep busy, to be strong—that limit the natural grief process but and at best only work short term. As a Grief Recovery Specialist©, I often say, “Grief doesn’t just go away; it finds someplace else to live for a while.” Eventually unresolved grief will show up in our body, our health, our habits, or our loss of energy and happiness. Telling yourself or your friend, “I think you are grieving and that makes sense to me.”
3. Seek Support. Well-meaning people often say unhelpful and even stinging comments when we are already hurting. Culturally we have not learned how to support ourselves or others when experiencing grief. The good news is that learning a new way is not difficult! You can feel less alone and less helpless. The Grief Recovery Method© is a unique approach to grief developed and used by The Grief Recovery Institute for over 30 years (learn more and see their videos). It changed my personal life and my counseling practice. Porch Light Counseling will be offering a Grief Recovery Support Group starting on September 8th. Come to the free information meeting on September 1st if you want to know more for yourself or someone you care about.
4. Send Casseroles! Food is not a bad option either! It certainly is a way to show you are thinking about the person and you want to help. Let’s expand the tradition for other losses and life changes. Let’s learn the helpful messages to say or write in a card and avoid the clichés. Here’s my unsolicited plug for Meal Train (I love it!). It’s an amazing resource that makes organizing easy—it can prevent the crisis of 10 lasagnas AND did you know you can even coordinate things like lawn care, child care, or long-distance gift cards for new parents or someone going through a hard time? What I really mean by this point is let’s not feel limited or like our hands are tied. Let’s learn what it means to rally our supportive communities…because eventually it will be our turn, and we can do hard things together.
Tamara Hanna, LPC, specializes in grief recovery, couples counseling and spiritual trauma. She is facilitating a Grief Recovery Method Support Group beginning in September to help participants move through grief and loss as well as develop skills to support others. For more information, click here.