How to help someone who is grieving
Concrete do's and don't's for anyone who has lost someone, especially a parent, this holiday season from the Globe's Kara Baskin. And a wonderful grief support: Hope Lives Here, helping people "make connections with others who are also struggling with loss by providing support in the form of outreach, peer to peer (one-on-one) support, groups (meditation groups, support groups, etc.)"
‘Let me know if I can help!’ and other things never to say to a grieving person By Kara Baskin Globe Correspondent,Updated December 2, 2022, 1 hour ago
The holidays are magical. And for millions of middle-aged people like me (and probably you, if you’re reading a parenting column), they also come with an undercurrent of grief, resentment, and melancholy, often for a parent who has either died or who is aging, disintegrating, or somehow no longer themselves. It’s possible to mourn someone while they’re sitting right in front of you. It’s possible to feel like a child when you’re also a parent, too.
Twenty-six percent of people ages 45 to 49 have lost their mom. Forty-five percent have lost their dad. The average caregiver is a 49-year-old woman providing 20 hours of unpaid care to a parent. Many are parents themselves, who want to be upbeat and present for their kids during the holidays. And sometimes we are! We’re not hollowed-out zombies forever flattened by mourning in need of round-the-clock pity and tending. But there’s a chunk missing.
My mom died last year. I went through last holiday season still in a bit of shock. Now, reality has sunken in. Grief is rocky and amorphous, an ocean and not a road. It’s a wound that becomes a scar — hardened and sensitive, with the bleeding parts hidden but the skin a bit tougher. It still hurts when you touch it. And the holidays are basically an itchy sweater rubbing up against it all the damn time. “Often, the second year is worse because the shock has worn off and people forget about your grief and your loss. You’re expected to be normal now, when really you’ll never be the same again. You’ll always be changed because loss does that to us. Even in the least complicated grief, and even if we use the most healthy grieving strategies, loss changes us,” says Rev. Dr. Barbara Callaghan, senior minister of Lexington’s Hancock United Church of Christ and a previous hospice counselor (who has lost both parents).
Maybe you’re lucky and haven’t lost a parent yet; maybe yours are still actively baby-sitting your kids or bugging you about stocking stuffers. Those of us on the other side don’t begrudge you, but there are times when we’re probably wildly envious of you (as in, this month). So on behalf of everyone who quietly misses their mom or dad, here are some tips on what to say — and what not to say — over the next few weeks (or anytime, really).
Grief faux pas Don’t say “I can’t imagine how you’re feeling.” Oh, how lovely. Your life is just so perfect that you can’t possibly comprehend our sorry state. This is an envy-inducer and will make any grieving person want to knock your thymes-scented candles right off the mantel. Don’t say “let me know if you need anything.” This is a box-checking offer, not a real one. It puts an extra burden on someone who’s already upset. Just do something. Anything. Make it your job, not the sad person’s job. People who have lost a parent want to feel taken care of, not in charge of one more thing. We already feel too much in charge. Don’t say “they’d want you to be happy.” Nothing like feeling as though you’re failing your dead parent ... from beyond the grave! Sometimes emotions are raw and ugly. Let ‘em flow. Don’t grope for fake silver linings. If someone is caring for a parent who’s sick, please don’t remind them that “at least they’re still here.” Ask anyone caring for a parent with dementia or Alzheimer’s if they’re still here. Wait for the answer. Actually, leave out the “at least” phrases entirely. Don’t get all sanctimonious about God. Even if you think God has a plan, we might either (a) not believe that God exists or (b) believe God exists and wonder why he or she is so mean. Saying he or she is “in a better place” is also throttle-inducing. As in, at Christmas dinner? Please don’t. Don’t ask if a widowed parent is dating again (even jokingly). Wrong on so many levels. If we want your help playing mah-jongg matchmaker for a swinging single 75-year-old, we’ll say so. Other behaviors to avoid: Complaining about your own parents ad nauseum in front of us, nonchalantly ignoring a phone call from a parent while rolling your eyes that they call too much, or ghosting because you don’t know what to say and don’t want to be a bother. This is a tough one, because many well-meaning people want to reach out but are afraid of imposing. Trust us: You are not imposing. Silence is loud, and it can be hurtful. Just a “thinking of you” text takes five seconds and is not going to derail our day. It is not an imposition to show you care. We’re not keeping score — but, OK, we’re kind of keeping score! Don’t ghost someone who’s already dealing with ghosts.
On the other hand . . . Write a card. This is especially great if you’re not the “just checking in!” texting type. I have a folder of cards people wrote to me after my mom died. It’s nice to have something tangible, visual, solid. Share memories. I hear this from so many people: If you knew the dead person, talk about them. Share specific memories and stories. It shows they mattered. It shows they made an impact. It shows they aren’t truly gone. Give concrete support. “Let’s go for a walk this week.” “Why don’t I drop off dinner for next Tuesday.” As one parent who lost her dad last month told me, “We have such a tendency to write a pat response — ‘light and love’ or ‘may his memory be a blessing,’ politely online and be done, just as how we act like people are over these things immediately. But these losses can be huge rifts in our fabric of self. If you don’t know the person well, this kind of online response is lovely. But, if a close friend suffers a loss and you acknowledge it like that on [social media], fine. But follow it up with regular check-ins,” she says. Find commonality. If you’ve suffered a similar loss, say so. Misery loves company, especially this season. “When my mom died, I really appreciated the people who reached out directly because they’d experienced similar losses, either losing a mother, having them in hospice, or loss due to pancreatic cancer. Especially hearing from people who I didn’t know well and those who knew my mom, like her co-workers. I knew that they understood what I was going through more than someone who hasn’t gone through it,” one grieving parent told me. Make annual holiday donations in their memory. This is especially nice if you’re not a natural reacher-outer. It’s a low-key way to show support. Or drop off an ornament with a note. Or a plant. Or a pie. Point being, you don’t have to talk. You just have to do. Remember that one day, it will be your turn. I’m not writing this to be mean: It’s just a fact. Chances are your parents will die before you. You will suddenly cope with that uncoiling, gravity-less feeling of true adulthood. Think about what you’d want other people to do when it does happen. Now go do it for someone else.
Kara Baskin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.