How to Support Someone Who Is Grieving

Greetings from Griefville. This column consists of three parts.

Part 1: Grief is the worst

Five years ago I lost my cousin Charlie to lung cancer. He went to the emergency room with pneumonia, and six weeks later he was gone. It was a cold, dark January that lasted about 300 years.

A few months after his death, my mother, Holly, was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. After several years of declining health and uncertain diagnoses, she finally had answers — and a poor prognosis. By the end of the year, she would be fighting for her life in intensive care.

Thanks to a bilateral lung transplant, my mother survived. But I’ve experienced a lot of trauma and loss in a short amount of time, and the grief weighed heavily on my heart. It’s only in the last two years that I finally feel like I’ve got more good days than bad days.

And then, at the end of August, I lost a close friend in a car accident.

Grief is bad stuff. Sticky, caustic, volatile, suffocating, disfiguring stuff. Trauma like the one I’m experiencing releases grief tsunami-style. It’s so overwhelming that sometimes there are no words. It can feel like drowning.

Literature Recommendations

stages of grief

The grief of living with a progressive chronic illness is more like a dripping faucet in the heart that cannot be fixed. It’s slower and more predictable, but made of the same material. It’s constant. If you try to clog the faucet, it will eventually come out sideways or flood your home.

Regularly acknowledging and processing grief, both privately and with others, is crucial to staying afloat.

Part 2: It gets worse

In 2020 I wrote a column to help people better support someone through a crisis or grief. In summary, we must first use our imagination to empathize with the person. With empathy, we can better discern what might be helpful to say or do.

I’ve talked about platitudes not being helpful. Platitudes are familiar phrases or feelings meant for quick comfort but feel shallow and dismissive. They often embrace the experiences or beliefs of a grieving person, and instead of being comforting, they can be debilitating and isolating.

Part 3: It’s getting better, if only temporarily

Since I devoted so many words to platitudes in my previous column, I want to dedicate more words here to things that might help someone who is grieving. You’re the only one who can judge what’s appropriate in your relationships, so adjust the following.

Don’t assume they want to be left alone. We often stand back so as not to disturb the mourner. We know they dread the question, “How are you?” So sometimes we say nothing instead of finding another way to start a conversation.

We can probe in a gentler way. My best friend recently sent a text message that said, “Only thinking about you. How is the weather in your heart today?” It was the perfect way to check in. I knew I was not alone in that moment and her question allowed me to connect my inner experience to nature through metaphors.

Ask them if they would like to talk about their loss. Sometimes it can be helpful to speak out about the specific things we are grieving for. In the case of a chronic illness, this might seem like skills that we lose as we get sicker. It could be future plans we have made or goals we have to give up. It can be time we spend in certain places or with people we love. Especially with COVID-19, many of us are sacrificing group activities or time spent with our community to prioritize our health.

Acknowledge your pain. Tell them: “I hear you; See you soon.” Remember that you don’t understand your loss. Even if you’re grieving the same thing or person, your grief is unique for each of you. Say, “I don’t understand, but I can try to help myself imagining her pain.”

If nothing else? just be there To borrow the language of my friend, the poet Jess Janz, make room for “all the unspeakable things/ … speak in the/ language nearby because/ there aren’t always words for things.”

Be brave enough to be present with someone’s pain. It’s okay if you don’t know what to say, you just need to bear testimony. You can say, “I’m comfortable sitting in silence with you when you don’t want to talk about it. I might not know what to say either, but I’m with you.”

Try these the next time you have a friend in need, or send this to someone who will be of support in your grief.

Note: Pulmonary Fibrosis News is a news and informational website about the disease only. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. This content is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always consult your physician or other qualified healthcare provider with questions about any medical condition. Never disregard or delay in seeking professional medical advice because you have read something on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Pulmonary Fibrosis News or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to stimulate discussion of issues related to pulmonary fibrosis.

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