I always imagine the many questions in the heart of our friends.
I am certain that “how do you support a grieving friend after the loss of a spouse” would be one of the top three of questions they’ve searched on Google.
No one in our circle has experienced the loss of a spouse, so this is a completely new experience.
I imagine that our families who were also grieving would ask a similar question along the lines of “how do we help relieve this pain that Tolu is going through?” “how do you support a grieving family member?” amongst others.
One thing that I am certain of is this - I may not have moved further along in my grief healing journey if not for the generous support of family, friends, acquaintances, and strangers.
I suppose the role of supporting someone who is grieving the death of a loved one is one of the hardest jobs.
So, I imagine the feelings of anxiety and intimidation that families and friends may have been feeling, all the while trying to be careful not to aggravate the grief further.
This brings out different responses and reactions from individuals. As a result, some people step forward cautiously to help. Some, without intending to hurt the person grieving, say and sometimes do things that turn out not to be helpful and some people completely stay away.
My aim for this post is to share with you a few things out of the many gestures and traits that I have observed in those that I consider as my grief heroes - people who have contributed to moving me along in my grief healing journey whether in big or small ways.
I was already feeling guilty and ashamed about the amount of attention I was suddenly receiving and had ongoing fear of being a burden to others, including my family.
Whilst in deep grief, I would think about what I can do to hurriedly relieve everyone who was handholding me. I knew I was already a burden when I consider all that they have had to abandon to care for me.
I found the following traits similar and I thought I will share this with you just in case you find yourself in a position where you are also thinking of “how you could support someone who’s grieving the loss of a loved one” or “how do you support a grieving friend?”
I hope you find this post informative and helpful as you support someone grieving the loss of a loved one.
Let me start by sharing a confession.
I've shared with you an earlier post about my brother who became the custodian of my phone during the first two months following the death of my spouse.
He did a great job as the gatekeeper prioritising which calls I responded to.
I found some of those telephone calls or messages soothing.
The feeling I had after could be likened to getting a good foot massage which was hitting the right pain points.
I found some projected their fears and anxiety on me, which heightened my grief. Perhaps because of the state that I was in, I also found some cliché.
I was aware that my emotions were raw.
I was conscious that I didn't want to come across as rude to anyone. I also understood that they were reaching out because Chidinma and I must have been important to them and how difficult making the calls must have been for them.
Depending on my mood, I would sometimes engage in further dialogue when I saw things from a different perspective. I guess grief makes you see a lot of things differently. Other times, I just responded in my head.
To help me manage my emotions, we agreed to a traffic light system to colour code the phone calls depending on how it made me feel after the conversation. Green, yellow, red.
The last thing I wanted was an outburst.
So that's my confession of what I did to help me balance my mental health in the early days of grief.
I suppose you are asking in your heart that “Tolu, what about the gestures to avoid when helping someone grieving?” I will share this with you in a different post but for now, let's dive into 4 wonderful traits that I observed in those helping me as I grieved the death of my spouse, Chidinma
1. They acknowledged the situation, validated my pain, and avoided giving advice.
They expressed their concerns and refrained from trying to explain the loss
I don’t remember everything that was said to me over the phone but I do remember the feelings I felt.
What I found in common with those who reached out after the loss of my spouse, that made me feel warm was that the conversation didn’t sound or feel rehearsed.
They offered simple words. Many of them were in shock as I was, however, they acknowledged the situation.
I felt endeared to those who didn’t lay scriptures or Christian language on me because at that moment I felt betrayed and let down by God, there had been many prayers by family, friends and the church offered to heaven on behalf of Chidinma which appeared unanswered.
Sharing scriptures with me in the early days, weeks and months of grief felt like rubbing salt on the wound. My mouth said amen to the prayers, but my heart and head were in a completely different space.
I was just irritated by any scripture anyone shared with me, so perhaps it may be helpful not to be the first to bring scriptures to someone who is grieving. I mean if they bring up scriptures then yes, it's fine but if they don't, I suggest that you don’t.
2. They encouraged me to talk about anything, anyhow, and offered their full attention.
They did this by always reminding me that they were here to listen to me either virtually or in person. They built trust. The conversations were fluid and not rigid.
Speaking to them made me feel like I was allowed to speak on anything I felt like speaking about, I didn’t feel like I was being interrogated by them. They accepted my mood swing. Whilst they allowed my lead, I also found that they used a lot of open-ended questions.
They were compassionately listening and there were times where I went over and over the same thing like a broken record about how I was grieving the loss of my spouse.
One of the questions I struggled with and still struggle with, is when I am asked “Tolu, how are you?”
You looked puzzled. Like “how do you mean?” Let me share more details about this.
I have previously described the emotions of grief using the wave and the beach scenario. There are times when I am consumed by a cocktail of grief emotions (envy, loneliness, fear, guilt, anxiety) and other times it’s a singular emotion that overwhelms me. These feelings varied in duration - sometimes they were short other times, they lasted longer.
When I am asked how I am, it leaves me confused because in my mind I am also asking how much time do you have? Are you interested in the abridged or the unabridged version? Where do I start from?
I found the conversation with those who asked me how I was doing at a certain time frame or asked specific questions flowed easily.
There were questions like
How has your (morning, afternoon, evening) been so far? Depending on the time they called
What has been the most difficult thing for you in the past, say 2 hours?
Has there been anything that made you smile today?
Were you able to go for your walk today? Did anything catch your attention whilst walking?
One important thing to note. Be present and avoid appearing that you have somewhere else to be. Remove distractions too.
3. They offered Practical Support
The primary practical support that I have benefited from is the support of fundraising and the generous contributions of many people. Some who have no idea who Chidinma and I are.
Many gave generously out of the little that they have. I'm grateful. I am grateful for the monetary donations. It went a long way.
Here are some examples of other areas of practical support I have received while grieving the loss of my spouse:
Helped with administration
Registering the death
Notifying relevant companies
Made and dropped different types of food
Helped with chores, mowed the lawn, etc
They provide relief for my siblings who had practically moved in.
Help with the children.
My suggestion is to be as specific as possible when offering practical support to someone grieving because what I found was that I had some relief and it made decision-making on my part easier.
For example, as supposed to saying what do you want us to bring, they would say things like 'we are bringing some food over, we have made Jollof rice, stew………. is there anything else you would like us to add?' Other times it could be 'we’re at Mcdonald's is big mac okay for you?'
4. They stayed connected and available
I found that their consistency in assistance helped in my healing journey. For example, I knew that they were with me on and offline for as long as I needed and I looked forward to their attentiveness which made talking, venting, and smiling easier.
It was almost like they had a rota of who was doing what and when, because I observed the periodically checking in, dropping by synced.
Because of this connectedness, they could see through me and could not be easily misled by my outward appearance.
They were able to tell when the smile was not real and when I acted my voice to be okay whilst I was suffering inside.
One of the things I intend to write in detail at some point is how those of us grieving have learned how to act to be okay when we’re far from okay because we’re tired of repeating the same lines and tired of being carried.
Those of them who are medically trained didn’t know that I knew they were undercover observing me for signs of depression or clinical depression.
There was this one time when one of them expressed her concern for my lack of sleep and suggested I bought sleeping aid and the other bought malted drinks.
I can smile now about this, but I can’t imagine how hard it must have been for them because they had also lost their best friend and watching me as I appeared disconnected, hopeless, and helpless.
Another thing they (family, friends, acquaintances) also did that I always looked forward to was when they shared memories of Chidinma with me.
They would mention her name and bring her up in conversations. I didn’t mind at all. I cherished each moment. Each time they did this felt like pouring balm on my aching heart, and momentarily quenching my parched thirst.
I love good gist.
They would sometimes share happy, fond moments with me, sometimes they would share incidents that were not funny at the time but turned out to be funny over time with me.
These moments brought laughter from the belly with an occasional deep sigh because we miss Chidinma so much. She had a way of being present in your life.