Discover more from Finding Words in Hard Times - with Jon Swanson
002 Helpful in loss: We want to be told “this is hard”
From what I know about the subscribers to this newsletter, you are the kind of person who asks, “What’s one way I can be helpful when someone’s lost a loved one?”
It’s often less formal:
“Jon. Help! My friend’s mom just died, and I don’t know what to say!”
There are, of course, a million ways to be helpful. However, there’s a gap between a million possible ways and one actual practical next step. In these Friday issues, I’m going to talk about a different practical step each week.
I’d love for you to respond by email or by commenting.
Last week I talked about creating space for telling stories. Here are links to the post and the resources (which were at the end):
002 We want to be told, “This is hard.”
I’m not sure what your week has been like. Or your year so far.
I’m guessing that the last three years have had some moments that were rough.
Actually, I’m not guessing. I know. Because I know some of you.
One of you had several deaths of loved ones. Actually, more than one of you.
One of you had big job changes. Actually, more than one of you.
One of you moved twice, had relationship losses, couldn’t do the things with people that you do to give you life. Actually, more that one of you.
If we were sitting together, with coffee (or something) on the table between us, I would listen to your stories, I would hear you say, “I don’t know why I’m so tired.” And I would say, “This is hard.”
I might say it a couple times, gesturing at all the things you’ve talked about, changing the emphasis on the words. “This (all the changes and loss) is hard.” “This is hard. (not may be. is.)” “This is hard (a deep burden).”
Some of you would smile at me, because that’s what I called my book of things I say when people lose loved ones.
But I say it because it’s true. And I say it because we need someone to tell us what we already feel. We need someone to tell us that this moment, this loss, this experience, is hard.
I’m calling it validation, the acknowledgement given from one person to another that their experience counts, that their loss is real.
When I asked people what they wish someone had said or done after they lost a loved one, a bunch of people pointed to validation. As one person said, “just being willing to talk about her rather than pretending she never existed.”
Above, I talked about several experiences people have had in the last few years. It’s possible that you started comparing those examples with your experiences.
“Wow. I moved, but I didn’t have any deaths in my family.”
“I had a cousin die, but I didn’t have anyone close.”
“I had to stop working in the office, and our kids were home and struggled with class on-line … a lot… but I didn’t have to move. But I did have a neighbor die.”
It’s like we think there’s a grief and loss BINGO game, and if you don’t get three in a row, your grief doesn’t count.
I think that’s the word that comes to mind. Does this count as grief? Does this count as loss?
Here’s what I know. Your life, and their life, count.
Comparisons destroy validation.
In a minute, I’ll suggest several moments when people need acknowledgement. But when I started making that list, I realized I need to start with this: validation is destroyed by comparison and minimizing.
I understand that it may be possible to find someone who has it worse. As if we can take experiences, put them on a numerical scale, add them up, and use that number to decide whether or not we should feel bad.
Here's the thing. Don't.
If your dad was in his eighties and sick when he died, if your daughter never learned to eat and lived statistically longer than expected, if your best friend sustained your life in a difficult season, there is loss.
It’s not a competition. You don’t need to compare as a way to walk through this. You don’t need to minimize your loss.
Grief and loss are not a zero-sum game. We can each ache.
And that’s a taste of what I mean when I’m talking about validation. Acknowledging pain.
So, let’s look at some other times people need validation.
People want (and need) validation of the loss.
It seems obvious, of course, to agree that there has been a loss.
If no one knew about the pregnancy. If it was a friend rather than a family member who died. If a hundred other people died of the same disease. If no one believes it was a real disease. If the death was by suicide. If the person was old. If there was an overdose.
There are people (not you, of course), who in some of these cases will minimize the loss.
But in each case, a human being died.
And in each case, someone lost someone.
One survey respondent made the this point clear: “I wish people had rated the deaths the same [natural death vs suicide]”. Another was grateful for someone who said, “You were dear friends.”
It's tempting, isn't it, to add qualifiers to what I just said? But in that moment, we don't need qualifiers. We need someone to simply say, “That's hard.”
People want (and need) validation of the grief.
Grief is a response to loss. If we have questions about the validity of the loss, we'll have questions about the response.
So, after we’ve acknowledged the loss, we can acknowledge the grief.
Often, when someone is talking about a loss, they reach for a tissue. And then they say, “I’m sorry.” And I remind them that crying is a perfectly appropriate response to the death we are talking about.
I’ll ask someone for the address of the house they’ve lived in for the last 20 years, and they can’t remember, and apologize. I’ll remind them that we’re still sitting in the room with the body of the person who lived in that house with them for 20 years.
I’ll talk with someone a couple months after a death, and they describe how tired they are. I’ll remind them that this is what grief is like.
People look for everything other than grief to be the cause of how we are feeling right now. Sometimes we can help by reminding them that grief is hard.
People want (and need) validation of the process.
And grief isn’t a moment. It’s a non-linear process. One model, the Dual Process Model, talks about oscillation between two groups of stressors. (I’m still learning about it.) Other models of the process have talked about stages or waves.
Whatever the model, people want someone who could, in the words of one respondent, “Normalize the fact that I was not/ should not be okay in the days after.”
People want (and need) validation of their caring.
I talked last time about people telling stories of what happened. Sometimes, the person in front of me will talk about having started CPR when their spouse collapsed. Buried in that story is this one: “If I had done more, my loved one would be alive.”
And I assure them that this is not their fault.
Several people mentioned the value of being told that they had done well in caring for their loved ones:
“My physician assured me that it was not my fault.”
“The nurse said that we were an exceptional family and that most people don't do what we did.”
Someone “spoke about the level of care I gave to my father for 1.5 years.”
One son said to me, “She was there when I took my first breath, I was here when she took her last.” And I reminded him that he had loved her all the way to the end.
People want (and need) validation of not being typical.
We often expect that people will be overwhelmed by sadness. But stories of life and death are often complicated.
Sometimes, the journey was long. One mom with an infant with a genetic disorder was told by a pastor-friend, “You're probably feeling a sense of relief, and that's okay.”
A survey respondent wrote, “he was an alcoholic and I had cared for him. No one knew how hard it had been.”
As is always the case, listening for the story and then offering support can help us provide the support that is actually needed.
Validation isn’t (necessarily) prolonging the grief.
If we acknowledge their loss, we may be concerned that someone will exploit our sympathy. And we think we know stories where people have become their loss.
But let’s not let what might happen keep us from helping people.
More next week.
So, now you have two tools to help you help others.
Make space for stories
Acknowledge the reality of the loss (and grief and process and more.)
I’ll be back next Friday with another tool: providing orientation.
If you have comments, please reply.
And thanks for sharing this resource.