Charlene Rolls | 12 things I’ve learnt about grief

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Charlene Rolls is YOU's editorial director.
Charlene Rolls is YOU's editorial director.

Grief is all around us. Never before in my life have I been surrounded by so much loss and mourning, so much heartache. 

It’s not just on social media. I have so many people in my life who have lost someone close to them, leaving a person-shaped hole in their hearts.

I am incredibly fortunate not to have lost someone in my immediate circle of loved ones, but I’ve been thinking about grief a lot because of all my friends, colleagues and family who have said goodbye to people they love.

I sometimes feel so helpless, standing on the sidelines, unable to do anything in the face of their relentless pain. But I’ve tried to take in as much as possible to be as helpful as I can. 

Here’s what I’ve learnt along the way.

1. They won’t always respond to you reaching out. 

You might think you’re being a great supporter when you send messages to hear how they’re doing – then feel deflated when they don’t respond. 

Did you say the wrong thing? Did you offend them in some way? Were you being too pushy? Did you say something hurtful?

Probably not. They’re not responding because they’re lost in a world of pain and often you’re the furthest thing from their mind even if they meant to respond when they first saw your message. 

Don’t take it personally. It’s not about you. 

2. Parts of the journey is theirs to walk alone.

As much as you want to ease their anguish, there are just many parts of their mourning process that they must do on their own. 

Be available to them whenever they need you but don’t push. You are not going to be able to do this for them but you can be there when they reach out to you. 

3. Appreciate the uniqueness of their grief.

It comes in all shapes, sizes, colours and forms. Some people will cry, some won’t. Some will do it very publicly, others will barely talk about it. 

Some will write private letters to their loved ones, others will address them on social media – some will do both. 

Some will talk to their dearly departed as if they were there and that will bring them some measure of comfort. 

Some will paste pictures on every available surface or make meals that bring back memories.

There’s no prescribed way to mourn someone and just because you would do it a different way, doesn’t mean their way isn’t right or is bad for them. 

4. There’s no sliding scale of losses.

Losing your 70-something parent in your twenties, losing your spouse in your thirties, losing your child in your forties, losing anyone when you’re a young child or teen – all of it is 100% painful to the person experiencing the loss. There’s no such thing as a better or worse loss. 

Even if someone was expecting the loss or relieved that the person is no longer suffering, it’s still hard to let go.

5. They’ll carry their scars their way.

Sometimes it will be invisible. But sometimes it will appear in the form of an angry outburst when they can’t open a can of tuna or they’ve burnt the toast. 

Or it will manifest in a burst of sobs when a song starts playing or a wistful look when the waft of a familiar aroma fills the air. 

The behaviour might at first seem strange to you, but it’s not. It’s those wounds and scars, trying to heal in the face of impossible odds.

Be patient and kind. 

6. They’re not okay.

They may seem okay, they may say they’re okay – but they’re really not okay, especially in the early, fresh phases of grief. How could they be? They’ve lost a part of themselves and no matter how stoic they are, a loss is a loss is a loss. 

Some people may cope with it better on the surface but know that you may need to be a shoulder or a crutch at the most unexpected times because they’re not okay. 

7. Don’t shy away from talking about their loved one.

You may think they don’t want to be reminded because it’s too sad. But even though they might not want to remember the pain, they do want to remember the person. If they want to talk about their loved one, let them. And be fully present and engaged when they do. 

Does it make you uncomfortable? Maybe. But this is not about you. 

8. Don’t gloss over the bad stuff.

Just as you may feel uncomfortable talking about the person, you may be tempted to try to make things sound better. Honestly, you can’t.  It’s shit that someone has died. It’s awful that there’s so much pain. It’s the worst that the person will never come back. 

You don’t have to ram home those messages, but acknowledging it instead of trying to gloss over it is better in the long run. 

9. Move at their pace.

Let them guide you on how they want you to help them (or not) deal with their grief.  If you see they don’t respond to you asking how they’re doing, stop asking for a while. Talk about other things that they may be doing to have some semblance of a life – what books, films, weekend plans or such things.  

But don’t entirely stop asking how they’re doing because some days they’ll want you to do that so they can talk. Just let them know you’re there for them, no matter what.

10. Find practical ways to help.

People don’t often think about the admin that comes along with losing someone. And perhaps in those early days a good way to help is to think of what you can do on a practical level.

They might need help with funeral arrangements but it’s likely the family has it covered. So think beyond that. 

Can you arrange for lunches or dinners for a week? Or playdates/babysitting sessions for a day or two? Or a trip to the hairdresser (safety measures permitting)? Or cleaning out the backyard? Or sorting out the laundry? 

Even if it’s just for the first few weeks when they’re well and truly lost in a fog of grief, ask yourself what you can practically do to help while they’re trying to figure out their new existence without the other person. 

11. Know that it never goes away.

The texture of the grief may change over time but it never goes away. Every holiday, every birthday, every anniversary, every special moment – they will think of the person they’ve lost.  A friend once told me that someone shared this advice with her as she mourned her son. “One day you’ll wake up and it won’t be the first thing you think of.”

They will never forget the person and they might want you to keep their memory alive too. Ask them about the person every now and then – be guided by what they want you to do.

12. Love them. Hard.

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