Death is inevitable. Someone you know or love is going to die. It could be a friend who experiences loss. Or it could be something you experience personally. It’s not pretty or fun to think about. We don’t talk about it much because it’s hard and scary when death happens.
We don’t know how to interact with people who are experiencing that level of grief. We don’t know what to do when death happens or how to be in the moment with those who are grieving. We don’t know how to have a conversation with them about their grief and feelings.
What Not to Ask…”How are you doing?”
One of the questions that’s most often asked when a loved one dies is, “How are you doing?” It’s a question that’s asked out of habit, but it usually isn’t the best question to ask. If you’re the person who is experiencing grief and being asked this question, it’s hard to know how you’re supposed to answer. We’re really not fine, but it’s kind of expected to say that we are. It’s hard to decide exactly what to say when death happens. Do we tackle it head on or avoid it?
Unfortunately, it’s almost a question asked out of habit. We just don’t know how to act around people when death happens.
Now, armed with personal knowledge, when death happens I ask what I wish people had asked me when I was a teenager and my dad had just passed away. Instead of asking, “How are you?” or “What can I do for you?” I would have loved for someone to say, “Can I just sit next to you?” or “Would you like a hug?” Some kind of human touch or contact would have been great.
I would have really appreciated it if those well-meaning friends and relatives had said, “I know this situation really sucks. Can I just sit with you for a little while? We don’t have to talk at all. I just want you to know that I’m here for you. I just want to be with you for a little while until you want me to leave.”
Make a Difference with Your Words and Actions when Death Happens
At 18, I didn’t know how important the simple act of sharing would have been for me. I didn’t really get it until I was older and saw people who were experiencing when death happens. That’s what I did for them because that’s what I wanted. It gave me the opportunity to be still with them, to offer support. Whether we were touching and hugging or not, it didn’t matter.
It’s habit to ask how a person is; it just pops out of my mouth still. And then I kick myself afterwards. Then I have to say, “No, that’s not what I meant. I don’t want to know how you are. Can I sit with you for a minute? Would you like to be quiet together a bit?” That’s what I do when death happens.
How to Support Those Going through Grief
People occasionally ask me how they can support someone who’s experiencing death and grief, and my usual recommendation is to just acknowledge what’s happening. Don’t let it be the elephant in the room. Everyone knows when death happens. Allow those who are grieving the space to talk about that person—or not. Remember that everyone experiences and processes grief differently. Some people want to talk; some people don’t.
Most people experiencing grief often aren’t looking for anything. Just knowing that someone is actively and lovingly listening is really all that they need. They don’t want your input or advice on how to handle things (unless, of course, they specifically ask). When I was 18, I didn’t want advice on how I should handle my grief or the new baby I had.
Social Media and Grief
When we’re expressing condolences on social media, it’s easy to be passive about it. We can be passive about how we interact with another person’s grief. It’s a different world navigating the grief journey on social media. I’ve heard after the fact that people feel things can go awry on Facebook posts when death happens.
That post asking how someone feels may not have the impact and empathy you were going for. How about picking up the phone instead? Avoid your true feelings being misconstrued.
Storytelling and the Grief Process
How we honor the person who’s passed—or people who will pass—is what my storytelling is about. How do we honor this life we have right now? And how do we honor the life next to us, even if we only have five minutes with them?
I didn’t start processing my grief until about seven years after my dad’s death. It wasn’t until then that things finally slowed down enough for me to think. Up until then, I’d been dealing with everything else, including raising babies.
Wherever you are in your grief journey, you’ve got this. When people say things that make you feel awful, remember that they don’t mean it. They just don’t know what to say. But they love you; remember that.
When Death Happens, Just Be There
When death happens, I make a space for the person I’m with. I give them the opportunity to do whatever they need to do, whether it's crying, talk, or be silent. I honor what they need and do my darnedest not to ask them how they’re doing. I acknowledge what’s going on and ask if they want company.
When people are going through the grief process, they don’t need to manage your emotions. They have enough going on. They don’t need to try to meet your expectations of how fast they should be over this. And give them the space to grieve.