Grief- a nauseating rollercoaster. One minute up, one minute down, the next spiraling sideways out of control. There’s a misconception that grief is linear. You may have heard of the Five Stages of Grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. Five simple steps to heartbreak over the death of someone. If only this were true.
Some believe that grief shrinks over time. There’s this visual I like: picture a marble in a jar. Rather than the marble shrinking in a jar of the same size, the marble actually stays the same size, but the jar grows larger, much like life. Grief, or the marble, doesn’t shrink. My heart still has two holes the size of my friends missing from it, but the love and healing I experienced helped my heart grow.
When I was 17, my dear friend died. It was not the first death I had experienced, nor the first death of someone my age, but it was notably the most painful grief I have ever felt. About five months later, another friend died suddenly. Looking back now- and even in that moment- I recognize how wildly different the two grief experiences were.
The first was suicide, I felt responsible, and I was shut away from grieving with my peers. The second was a car accident, and I had (what I would consider to be a blessing) the opportunity to say goodbye to her in the hospital and attend all services for her. Both were incredibly painful. I grappled with the brevity of life at such a young age. Both deaths were unexpected, both were my age, but their differences in variables (different ceremonies, different time of year, different friend connections, different schools, different memories to remember or to never be formed) impacted the grief experience.
All this to say: no two grief experiences are alike.
While my grief targets the pain of death, there is another type of grief- Complex Grief- that occurs in life changes that aren’t death, like divorce, moving cities, job loss, and aging. Neither grief is more or less painful, they’re just different. Getting into the comparison game of grief is a losing battle. No one wins.
When I work with kids in particular, I have them draw a timeline rollercoaster of their grief journey. The left side of the rollercoaster is where the grief started: a diagnosis or breaking news, for instance. Then I have them draw the ups and downs and twists as they happened along the timeline: a sudden drop of surprise or anguish, the rise as hope comes, then the downhill twist of confusion. Again, there is no linear journey; one can experience any emotion at any point. Underneath the rollercoaster, I have them draw the support beams to the ride. Are the beams thick and strong and plentiful, or are they sparse, thin, cracked? These represent the physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual support a person feels along their grief journey.
After the death of my friends, my family and I were inundated with support. Compassion was bountiful, as were casseroles. But with time, the support waned, and that brought its own complex grief. I hear this is a common experience for grievers.
If you are wanting to support someone grieving, here are some things to know:
“Im sorry for your loss” is hard to hear. It makes the grieving person feel responsible for your feelings. Something better is, “I love you, I’m here for you and will be in the days to come”.
“At least…” or “they are in a better place” can be replaced with “I’m glad that I knew [them]”.
“Don’t be [insert emotion here]”. All feelings in grief are valid and welcomed, even happiness or relief.
“How can I support you” is a good question, but hard to answer. Sometimes it’s a hug, sometimes it’s a prayer, sometimes it’s a care package. What I personally prefer, or could have used at my lowest grief, was action-oriented verbiage. Some examples include, “hey, I’m going grocery shopping and I would love to pick up food for you. I’m sure you’ve had a lot going on. What can I get you?” or “I have a free night and would love to have your kids come over and play with mine, so you can have a night to yourself” or even “let me make the celebration of life arrangements for you, so you can focus on yourself in this time”. Practical help can be just as if not more helpful than thoughts and prayers, though those are important to some too.
Avoiding grief or tiptoeing around doesn’t help. And bringing it up isn’t going to “make them sad”. They are likely already thinking about grief daily, if not hourly. Sometimes grievers want to talk because it helps them process. I know personally that I love it when people bring up my friends. It allows me to brag about the people they were or relive the happy memories we had. They don’t feel forgotten.
The person closest to the grief-inducing event is not the only one who needs support. Consider the event the center of a target. In the first ring are the people closest in relationship or proximity to the event. The next ring are the supporters of those closest to the event, and so on and so forth. The people in the 2nd, 3rd, and ongoing rings should seek their own support as well; gatekeeping the grieving process hurts everyone. I know that at my deepest grief, I was in the first ring, my parents in the second, and my teachers in the third: all of us needed support from people in wider rings. This support can be from friends, family, religious groups, and mental health professionals.
I heard this phrase once, referencing the rings of grief, that goes “care goes in, concerns go out”. It is the role of the inner rings to share their pain with the outer rings, feel emotional and physical support from them. The outer rings’ roles are to listen and comfort. Comfort, as previously mentioned, can be verbal, emotional, spiritual, or physical: prayer, cooking food, arranging ceremonies, etc.
That being said, every ring deserves the time and space for emotional support, but the flow of support should ripple outward. It is not the responsibility of the inner ring to support or comfort the outer rings.
If I can leave you with one message, it would be: grief demands to be felt. If not in the immediate moment, it will make itself known later on, and stuffing only intensifies and festers the pain. To grieve is a gift, albeit a painful one. I have said that I am lucky to have known my sweet friends who died and I am fortunate to have a life that has grown beautifully around my grief. They fuel the person I am today, and how I intend to treat others. I would not be who I am today without them.
Feel your grief. Feel your pain. Get angry, or don’t. There is no right or wrong emotion. But please, feel it deeply, and don’t feel it alone.