1300 Miles In, Thoughts on How to Navigate Helping and Understanding Your Grieving Friend

1300 Miles In, Thoughts on How to Navigate Helping and Understanding Your Grieving Friend
July 21, 2018 Heather Starbuck

It’s been over ten months since we lost Matt. As of late I’ve settled into a pit of depression, less of the acute kind as before but almost more persevering sadness deep down in my gut. Of course, to keep me on my toes, this transforms every so often into the throat closing panic attacks that send me wheezing my way down the trail.

I haven’t been writing, I’ve been focusing hard to simply tread water and try to find some joy wherever I can in hopes of pulling myself out of this state. Everything almost feels heavier to carry these days and I’ve come to the realization that I’ve officially hit the period every widow or survivor of a traumatic loss warned me about in the early days. The time when people think your grief period should be over. Theirs is after all, to them this is all a distant memory, last years news. Surely I can’t still be hurting this badly. It’s time to pick myself up by my bootstraps and “take responsibility” right?

If there is any moment where myself and other survivors of a traumatic loss could facepalm, this is it. The other night I was sent a well intentioned, but horribly executed message from someone who I know actually has a lot of empathy and is quite genuine. When I received it I was in shock. After beating myself up for hours, getting talked down from the ledge and going through a whirlwind of self hatred (typical for the bereaved, our self esteem somehow died with them), reflecting on it post crisis mode I realize it comes from simply not understanding the extent grief, how the bereaved feel and what is helpful vs destructive to someone going through this. I’ve spoken to other widows and with resounding affirmation nearly all of them lost nearly all their friends with their loss. And so I am inspired to write this post on what I’ve experienced from others since losing Matt, the good, the bad and the ugly and how it has either helped or made this process that much more difficult.

1. Don’t jump ship. This is the number one thing I was warned would happen, but I didn’t believe it. They say rats are the first to dive off a sinking ship. Someone told me that the other day who also has been through the ringer and back. It’s a harsh abrasive statement… but sadly also true. Don’t be a metaphorical rat. The depth of one’s character is shown with how they react when the going gets tough. If you love them, stick around. Be there. Even if you’re just sitting in silence, it makes a difference. And someday, when you go through a major loss, we all will after all, you’ll have the most understanding guide by your side through the storm, holding your weight and showing you it’s going to be ok.

I’m one of the lucky ones. I have three ride or die friends from childhood and Tara that are staying on board, life jacket in hand, reaching below the surface every time I go under and ensuring I never feel fully abandoned or alone in this. But like others I’ve talked to, I also became acutely aware of how many people simply disappear. Those most genuine about being in ingenuine will run within days, but others drop through the weeks and months, which I think is mainly because they don’t realize they’re still needed.

Pick up the phone, call your friend. Facebook likes and comments are warming but they don’t make me feel less alone or more connected. Sit next to them if you can, be there in the most present way possible. You may say all the wrong things but it won’t matter if you’re there for them in this way, that’s truly what counts.

2. Don’t expect rationality. Nothing about my life right now is rational. It is not rational having to give a eulogy at 26 to the man I was supposed to spend the rest of my life with. It is not rational that everytime I think I’m starting to get back on my feet the bottom drops out AGAIN. Another friend, another trigger, my credit score, you name it. My life is like the tower of doom at Disneyworld right now and the only thing I can really do is hold on for dear life and even then sometimes someone else has to hold me by my collar because I’d rather just abort the damn ride.

People walking through literal hell are sometimes, shocker, going to be reactive. We’re not always going to make sense. That small thing you think we are overreacting to could very well be triggering (or affirming) our complete loss of trust in the world, self esteem, or simply just a flood of pain. Our world is so very different than those who are not walking through trauma so don’t expect us to operate the same way. Remember that our world has been flipped upside down, so what may seem rational to you in your world where the bottom hasn’t dropped, could very well be irrational in ours.

3. There is no time table for grief. Before you start a statement with “Well it’s been XX months don’t you think…” pump the brakes, dial it back , halt and reverse. This is not a breakup. It’s not something we just get over. We carry it. People twenty+ years in are still carrying it. And as someone now in month 10 I can confirm it has not lightened I am just better at hiding it.

4. Never minimize. One of the statements of the above conversation started with “Just because your boyfriend died doesn’t mean (likely inaccurate advice here)”, I have more to say about this phrase and how jarring it is to the bereaved in point 5 but to start in not using his name, this minimized my person, the love of my life, to a simple label and to top it all off a minimized label at that. He was my life partner, he wanted to get married this summer, we were supposed to spend the rest of our lives together, he was not simply some boyfriend of mine. More importantly though… he was Matt, he was a living breathing, amazing beautiful person who we all loved. He’s irreplaceable and to not use his name or appropriately give credence to the depth of our relationship, and hence this loss, is a kick in the gut to someone grieving. Don’t do it.

5. Your advice or critique of the bereaved is not applicable. Unless you are a grief counselor or have gone through this type of loss understand that any advice you give is probably idiotic for the person grieving, particularly if it is critical. The reality is, unless you have gone through something like this you do not know what this person should be doing or how they should be reacting to both the loss and all the other losses that came along with it. You probably cant begin to understand how each day is a mere fight to get up, and somehow survive the day despite every bone in your body not wanting to. We grieve as gracefully as we can. Sometimes it’s not pretty, but refer to point 2 if you’re still confused as to why. It’s hard enough to maintain some semblance of self esteem after losing a spouse, we do not need external parties weighing in on matters they simply have no comprehension of. If you want to help, refer to point number 1, do not to try to yoda us out of our grief. It will not work because your advice in our situation likely has no ground to stand on and depending on the level of depression of the bereaved could cause actual harm.

6. Comparisons. No. Stop. Please. Don’t. Losing Matt is nothing like your 90 year old grandmother getting Alzheimers. And no, I’m not just struggling with this since I haven’t had other losses before, so a statement like that is not comforting. In fact I have, all my grandparents, a cousin, pets and friends. Does not compare, the brutality of this… is not even in the same ballpark so don’t go here, I realize you’re trying to connect, to make me feel less alone but more often than not this minimizes as in point 4. If you’re wondering how to help, again refer to point 1. The only comparisons I find deeply connect are equally jarring, sudden, traumatic losses and even then we survivors know to say to one another that we can’t truly know how the other feels but we relate and are there for them.

7. Don’t try and paint our loved one in a negative light, perhaps thinking it will help us get “over it”. I have thankfully not experienced too much of this but it does happen and is a common thread with other widows I’m talking to at this very moment while writing this. One person said “at least you did not have kids”… this statement is extremely hurtful, and the reality is Matt would have been a fantastic father. Statements like this are minimizing, and as in point 4, often cause more harm than help.

8. Through our loss many of us believe that our loved one’s are still with us. Sometimes, feeling that Matt is guiding me through is the only thing keeping me afloat. Starting an atheist debate or telling me that my loved one is in a new body can be extremely rattling to my sanity. The final point below is a better approach for matters of comforting through religion or otherwise.

9. Lastly for this list, Sheryl Sandberg’s platinum rule: don’t treat the bereaved as you’d like to be treated, treat them as they would like to be treated. As laid out above, it’s unlikely you can even know how that is, I certainly wouldn’t have before all this. Ask. Don’t assume. We’re living in a whole different reality so that’s truly the only way to know what is and is not helpful.

Those are some of the frequent points that come to mind in helping your friend navigate this treacherous sad little path we are on in grief. Remember that while sometimes we’re negative, or quiet or angry, irrational or simply no fun to be around, it’s through these times that we are trailblazing the very path that you someday will have to walk down (hopefully much, much later in life). And when it does, in us is going to be an understanding, compassionate friend helping you navigate and holding your hand while you walk through the suck. But for now. Please be patient with us, please be mindful of what we are still going through even if the grief may have long subdued for you, and please be there even through the crazy. To those who have and continue to stand by me through this, thank you, from the bottom of my heart. I know it’s not easy and sometimes you might want to beat your head against a wall talking to me but it makes a difference. I love you so much.

Get a Purple Bandana to Support Opioid Recovery