I recently read in one of my MANY books on grief and afterlife, about how people surrounding the grieving person were struggling to do the "right thing" when it came to comfort. One of the things the author talked about was going to a library and finding books on grief and coping mechanisms. Although I know that there is no rule book for grief, and no way that any one person could possibly write the perfect manual, I do think that this is one of the better ideas. And that thought brings me to the pieces that I would add to such a book. I'm typically uninterested in academic degrees alone than I am in such a title playing a submissive to role to actual life experience, and am much more likely to listen to insights about grief from someone who has a PhD in pain. Having said that, these are my thoughts.
SIT AND LISTEN. That's it. It's really that simple. Show up and sit down. But, only do so when you have nowhere to be because grief doesn't understand time or appointments. I would advise you not to give the impression that you are constantly available because, first of all that isn't true, and secondly, you can't be all things to another person at all times. It's just not feasible. It's sort of the "grab your own oxygen mask before applying it to others" airplane rule. And think about it, isn't saying that you can do ANYTHING for the grieving person sort of implying that they could be doing something differently as well? That maybe if they worked harder, prayed harder, meditated more, reached out, etc, etc, etc, that things could be better? Listening also means mouth closed and ears open. This is the hardest part, but the best thing you can do is to just be. Just listen. If, however, you sense a break in the outpouring of grief in which you feel compelled to respond, immediately remove these next few phrases from your brain, thereby making it impossible for them to reach your lips:
"You have to stay strong for..."
"Maybe if you just..."
"In a better place"
"An angel now"
None of these things are helpful, because there is no fix. There is no "all better." There is no "someday." Those possibilities have been erased. Know that if the person you are listening to (not TALKING to) has made it this far in that particular day, it's likely all that they are capable of doing. And the same will be true for tomorrow and for each tomorrow after that.
CRY. I'm often surprised at the number of people who shy away from talking to me because they "didn't want to break down because that's the last thing you need." Interesting. I suppose I might feel the same way if I weren't the one living this, but because I am I can tell you that I've never once been upset with someone for sharing in my pain in that very physical show of emotion. How could you NOT cry? And if crying makes you uncomfortable I suppose it probably is better to avoid talking to me, or anyone else who's grieving for that matter. But know that your tears cannot make this worse. Your emotion doesn't lessen ours or make it go away. The grieving person will be able to let you know when it's too much because they'll simply move on, as they've lost the ability to take on any more. So, just let the tears fall, at least for me. I'll likely be right there with you.
EXPECT NOTHING. This happens to be exactly what a grieving person has to offer. Nothing. Expect that phone calls will not be returned. Expect that your biggest gesture of love and comfort may not be immediately noticed (although I will tell you that it doesn't go completely unnoticed). Expect that the grieving person will say something that makes you uncomfortable. Examples:
"I'm SO angry! I hate everyone!"
"I can't possibly continue living another second."
"I need to drink/smoke/sleep to get through the next few minutes/hours/days/years."
Do you know what your response is to any one of these three things? It's quite simple really. The only required response to anything related to the above statements is NOTHING. Say nothing. That's right. You have absolutely no control over how this moment/day/year/lifetime turns out for this person. You do, however, have a choice. You can hold their hand while they do it, or you can walk away from the pain. And although the latter may sound cruel or harsh, the truth is that it is just as acceptable as the former. Grief is ugly and unpredictable. It's exhausting and relentless, and sometimes that is just too much for someone whose view is from the sidelines. And no matter how close you are to the situation, your view is always from the sidelines, from those cheap seats located in the furthest reaches of the stadium.
CHEAP SEATS. Keep this important aspect in mind as you watch this person navigate their own grief. You may be extremely close to the situation. You may have your own pain to deal with associated with the loss (and if this is true, it is unlikely that you are the one being sought out by the grieving person). And as much as you feel for that person and as often as you think/pray/meditate on their behalf, you are still viewing it from the outside. You have moments when you can "forget" for a time. You can get dressed without feeling guilty for continuing to live. You can drive a car in silence and not be completely blind-sided by a horrifying image that you only wish were a nightmare, but that you know you actually did experience. Those times of mental playback can be so incredibly vivid and can drop you without a moment's notice. The grieving person doesn't have the luxury of experiencing this from the periphery, so remember when you think you have an "answer" or a suggestion that you've rested. You've stepped away for a moment. You've lived. Take that moment of reflection on your view from the outside and be grateful that you missed out on the front row.