Looking for some ideas on what to say or do when someone you care about is grieving the sudden death of a loved one? It doesn't seem like there is really a "right" thing to say or do, though there are some things that can help ease the burden. Like most things, healing from the death of a loved one is a personal journey. But there are some things that you can do to support someone you care about thru the process. You can't take their pain away, but you can help to ease their suffering. Or, at least not make it worse.
It is just really difficult to know what to do or say, especially if you haven't experienced the horrible pain of suddenly losing a loved one. I hadn't. Not like this. Not like my brother. Looking back now, I realize that I really messed it up with so many of my friends before it happened to me. I share my personal story as a way to thank the super-humans in my life. And, so maybe you can be there in a way that can only be learned from experience. And maybe you won't mess it up with your loved ones like I did before.
The best way to honor their memory is to heal. --Anonymous
Around 11am on the morning of Saturday, February 11, 2017, my heart was ripped out of my chest. Or at least I wished it would have been. It seems like actually tearing my heart out would have hurt less than the words that bellowed thru the phone that morning: "Ian died!"
Ian was my baby brother. He was unquestionably my most favorite person in the world. The person that I loved more than any other single person. Ever. Then, with just two words... 7 letters and an exclamation point that Saturday morning, the only thing that was left of him were my memories. It is a pain that brought me to my knees. To say it was shocking now feels like an understatement. With 7 letters and an exclamation point, my world was forever changed.
This wound is mine to learn to heal, recovery is my work now. As impossible as it seems some days, I am the one that honors his memory by healing from his death. There is little that anyone can do or say to take this pain away.
But.... through the haze of all this pain, I noticed some truly amazing people in my life. People that faced their own discomfort of trying to figure out what to say or do and patiently stood next to me as I fell apart. Many of them were grieving themselves. Still, they were the super-humans that put my pain and suffering ahead of their own awkwardness. And to them, I will always owe my debt of gratitude.
It is because of their love and support that I am able to do my work now of healing. And, we all deserve to have some super-humans in our lives.
Because you are reading this article, you are likely one of these super-humans. Or at least there is the potential for you to be. There is no "right" thing to say or do. But there are some things that can make it easier for those trying to make their way through grieving the sudden death of a loved one.
Tip #1: Help with Logistical Decisions
As the horror convulsed thru my body, I realized I was alone in my apartment. In Southern California. My mother and the rest of my family seemed a world away in West Michigan. How was I going to get myself across the country when I couldn't even get off of the floor?
Then, like so many other times in my life, my uncle showed up. "Jonc.... there is a flight out of San Diego first thing tomorrow morning. I will cover the flight with my miles. My wife and I are flying in from San Francisco and we will meet you at the gate in O'Hare to bring you the rest of the way home. Can I book this flight for you?"
To be honest, there isn't a whole lot that I remember between the first phone call learning that Bubs was gone and walking off the plane at O'Hare on Sunday. And let me tell you... the moment I saw my uncle and aunt that Sunday morning, I collapsed into their arms.
My uncle is a "take charge" kind of guy. And when he saw a way to ease my burden, he took charge gently, skillfully, and assuredly. The only decision I had to make was to say yes or no to the flight time. I didn't have to decide connections, which airline, how to get from the airport to my parents house, or how to pay for the flight. It was the easiest part of that day and probably the most impactful thing anyone did along the way. In a period that is filled with hurt and pain, my uncle & aunt's generosity of time, coordination, and miles will forever be spotlighted as one positive memory on the darkest day of my life.
When someone you care about has suddenly lost a loved one, I know now that it is possible to gently, skillfully, and confidently ease the burden of some of the basic logistical decisions that must be made.
Tip #2: Go the Extra Step to Ease Other Life Stress
Once my flight back to Michigan was booked, I had to figure out how to get to the airport and what to do with my nearly 20-year-old cat. It was hard for me to ask my friends for help. Asking for help is definitely not something I am good at doing. When I do ask for help, it comes out abrupt and awkward which sure as heck doesn't make it easy for people to help me. Add to this that I am known to be passionate and particular even without the extra stress of losing my baby brother. In the past, some may have even called me "a handful" from time to time. "A handful" was an understatement as I tried to piece together my shattered heart this time though.
It wasn't graceful, but I did ask for some help. Fortunately, my friends' responses were graceful.
Driving myself to the airport was not an option. I could barely walk, let alone drive safely. But the hour drive to the San Diego airport is always a lot to ask of someone. Plus, my flight left at 6a on Sunday morning. When I sheepishly asked a friend to make the early-morning drive to the airport, she responded softly, "Yeah, of course. What time should I pick you up?" And just for the record, she had to help me make that decision too.
As three of my neighbors rotated the responsibility of taking care of my cat over the next week and a half, they did more than just feed her and clean the litter box. They spent extra time with her. They also sent me regular updates and pictures, so I didn't have to wonder if she was OK. It was one less worry.
If someone you care about has lost a loved one and is able to muster the strength to ask for help, then help if you are able to do so. It is possible to help them, even if the request doesn't come out gracefully or clearly. It might be difficult for you to do, but I know now that it is possible.
TIP #3: Give Them Love, Even If They Can't Return it Yet
The outpouring of love and condolences from friends and family was overwhelming.... in the most heart-warming way. Every text, Facebook message, email, and phone call brought a little warmth to my heart. Literally hundreds of friends showered me with love and warmth during the weeks following my brothers death.
Just at the moment I was feeling all alone in the world, I would hear that familiar ding of my phone. Or the screen would light up with another friend sending me and my family their prayers. This continual outpouring of love made it really difficult for my crazy mind to start making me feel like I was alone in the world. Even if I wasn't able to respond to them yet, I still noticed and felt their presence standing next to me.
When someone you care about suddenly loses a loved one, they will probably never wish you hadn't sent them the love. And, if they do, don't pick that pain up. It is their anger to work thru, not yours. Keep loving on them any way. I know now that it is possible to love someone who is grieving, even if they can't give you anything back in return. Yet.
TIP #4: Love Them Just They Way They Are... Even if for Just a Minute
So.... I am emotional and intense in my normal, "calm" state. When this is combined with suddenly losing the person I love most in the world, it isn't difficult to guess that spending time with me probably wasn't easy. My history of healing from Rheumatoid Arthritis has taught me how damaging suppressing my emotions is to my health. And I was a largely unsuppressed emotional wreck.
Add to this that all decent human beings struggle to see others hurting. It becomes a great opportunity to try to exert power in trying to fix or control the situation to ease this pain. This usually only makes it worse and does more harm.
One of my best friends from medical school just so happened to have a trip planned to visit me right after I got back from Michigan. I had plans to launch a new line of services and she was coming to help. As can be expected, pouring my heart into a new project was nearly impossible. It isn't surprising that we started to get behind schedule and I started to feel the stress. As this stress continued to build, I went into full melt-down mode.
My friend looked lovingly at me as though she knew my pain (because she did). She calmly asked, "What can I do to help?"
When someone you care about suddenly loses a loved one, I know now that it is possible to love them just the way they are.... even if it is just for a minute.
TIP #5: Empower them with Professionals and Support Groups
The pain, sadness, anger, and depression had made it difficult for me to even get out of bed. Or really, to do nearly anything for myself. On one very dark Sunday morning, my father called me and said, "This is rock bottom, Jonc. I don't tell you what to do very often, but you have to go to an Al-anon meeting." In all my pain, I couldn't see what was happening to me, but he could.
All of his years of "working the steps" allowed him to very clearly see what I couldn't admit to myself. The guilt, remorse, and shame that I felt over my brother's death was overpowering me and standing in the way of grieving him. And somewhere deep down, I knew that the best way to honor Ian would be to heal from his death.
My father didn't tell me to "get some help". He didn't tell me I was sick. OK, he did tell me I was sick. But then he quickly followed it with exactly where to go for a bit of serenity. And before we hung up that morning he said, "I love you, daughter." In those Al-anon rooms, I found other people who also had their lives torn apart by addictions. I found other people that had also lost their most favorite person in the world to this devastating disease. I finally found a way to lift some of the burden that I had been too ashamed to admit was there.
When someone you care about suddenly loses a loved one, I know now that it is possible to empower them to help themselves.
TIP #6: Invite Them to Specific and Healthy Activities
When people would ask me what I wanted to do, the answer was always "nothing". Because let's be honest, that is what I wanted to do. Nothing. I didn't want to get out of bed, I didn't want to talk to people, and I sure as heck didn't want them looking sorrowfully at me as they asked "Whaaattt happened? How did Ian die? He was so young."
And I definitely didn't feel like I deserved to have any fun.
But when a friend called and said he was coming down from LA to visit and wanted to play disc golf, my first thought was, "Yes, actually, I would love to go throw things right now." When other friends asked to go to my favorite restaurant, "Yes, actually, that food always tastes delicious." When another friend had a stand-up comedy performance in Hollywood, "Yes, actually I would like to go hear people tell jokes." When other friends said they wanted to buy me dinner at this cute restaurant in Venice, "Yes, actually, I haven't eaten in days."
When someone you care about suddenly loses a loved one, I know now that is possible to pull them out of their cocoon with suggestions of healthy activities. Even when they say they want to do nothing. Or they aren't all that pleasant when they do show up.
TIP #7: Show the F*#k Up
Seriously. This is probably the most important thing that you can do for someone you care about who has suddenly lost a loved one. Really. Just. Show. Up. You can call, send a text, or just show up at their front door. No matter how awkward you may feel, just show up.
To say that I was a wreck the night of Ian's wake is an understatement. A "wreck" would suggest that there was a way to describe what I was experiencing that day/night. Periodically, there would be cracks in my armor and my emotions would come out. But mostly, I resorted by to my childhood defense mechanism: I showed face. I hid behind my armor because it was quite literally the only thing that I could do to get thru the pain that I was experiencing.
I remember looking at a childhood friend through the night and realizing he and his wife (who is also a childhood friend) were still there, but not telling them this realization. Each time, he would look back at me with kindness and say aloud, "Yes, of course we are still here."
As the night started to come to an end, I found myself unable to resist the urge to throw a glass at the last place my brother was seen alive. The glass shattered against the side of the building and I opened my eyes to see my childhood friends, family members, and some of Ian's best friends literally surrounding me. They were to the sides of me and behind me, surrounding me. They didn't criticize me or tell me to stop throwing glasses at buildings or even that everything would be OK. Instead, one by one, they grabbed my hand or leaned into me a little more and asked, "Want my glass too?"
When someone you care about suddenly loses a loved one, I know now that it is possible to just show up and stand next to them.
Some Things Matter. And Some Things Don't.
Death has a great super-power: there are no do-overs. You don't get to try it again.
The sudden death of a sibling/child/parent/best friend is shocking and traumatic. And it hurts like no other pain that I have ever experienced in my life. Mostly because that person is gone forever. You never get to make your amends with them. You never get to tell them all of those things you wish you would have said. You never get to try to help them in another way. It is done. That game is over. And this is a burden that can only be lifted through deep personal healing work.
Because unless you did actually have something to do with the sudden death of their loved one, then it isn't your fault that they feel the way they do. So it isn't yours to fix. But I know now that it is possible to help your loved one to make space in their life to heal from the tragedy.
Healing the wounds caused by the sudden death of a loved one is a journey. It is one that has to be walked alone. But it can only be done with support, love, and encourage from the sidelines.
When someone you care about suddenly loses a loved one, I know now that it is possible to be a super-human in their life. And at the end of the day, if you can't help them, at least don't hurt them.
I wanted to acknowledge that life goes on but that death goes on, too. A person who is dead has a long, long story.
- Elizabeth McCracken
In loving memory of my Bubba, Ian Jensen (8/26/82-2/11/17).
My most favorite person in the world.
Oh, Bubs, you have taught me life's most difficult lessons.