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Not another list: How to support someone who is grieving

Whenever I see a new list offering a “how to” guide for supporting a grieving person, I click.

I click to see if - finally! - this is the list for me. Inevitably, I am disappointed and reluctant to share it because there is always at least one step that doesn’t feel right for me.

I have tried to write a list that is specific to my grief, but I have abandoned the exercise too many times to count in the 2.5 years since my son died.

It is not because I don’t know what feels good for me - it is because I cannot know what will always feel like support in every situation.

It is because there is always another caveat to my caveats. There is always an “except when” in that specific but unknowable moment or combination of situations where it doesn’t feel good.

I am also so afraid of the list being produced as exhibit A in a false advertising litigation against my grief.

Lists are linear and generic; people are not.

Lists do serve a purpose though: they give you potential entry points of connection and for showing up, but they were not created with the intent of being implemented with such surgical precision that there is no space for adjustment and feedback.

If you are ready to throw in the towel because step 3 didn’t work last Thursday, buck up, buttercup - grief support is not for the faint of heart.

Who casts a net once and expects to pull up a bounty of fish? You cast again and again and in different ways until you figure out what yields results.

The same applies to supporting the grieving person you love.

When you limp away from step 1 wounded because your person didn’t give you everything - when everything is so deep and tightly held - that only says you were not a person they could trust with their grief anyway.

In that moment, there is one very small and also very big thing you need to know to support your grieving person that I never see on lists…

You need to know yourself.

It is such a kindness to your person to be honest with yourself (and them) about the limits of what you are capable of and where you think you can stretch to reach them. We all have limits; and pretending you don’t is dangerously disappointing if you cannot follow through.

I am a mathematician so let me break this down in mathematical terms. There are discrete points in grief, many in the immediate aftermath (pun very much intended) where casseroles and housekeeping help top many support lists. I will tell you that those things are important - I resent grieving in a global pandemic because we missed out on these most fundamental and almost primal showings of support and community.

There are also the continuous variables in grief which are in all the afters and aftershocks, where anything and everything could get swept up in. The possibilities are infinite.

Both the discrete points and continuous variables in grief are important to support. Knowing yourself means knowing what types of situations you are equipt to show up for. The most loving thing you do for your person is understanding that your capacity for supporting them in grief is not bestowed or endowed to you simply by relationship hierarchy or how much you love them.

Your person is not the same person you knew before their loss and grief, so release them for any expectations or notions of who they were. They may feel so far adrift from everything and everyone they knew anyway, including themself.

When you see a new list offering a “how to” guide for supporting a grieving person, I’d encourage you to click. Click with the knowledge that the list will not have all the answers for your person. Click with the certainty that you will inevitably and unwittingly get it wrong. Click with grace for yourself and for your person. Click with the fortitude to try and try again.

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