The process we call grief is a natural but complicated journey. Though the road has been paved by those who have mourned before us, each mourner leaves a unique set of footprints in the wake of a loss.
I have learned that each distinctive way of grieving is formed, in part, by several factors, including our own personality, belief system, past experience of death, and the circumstances surrounding the death — whether it was sudden or following an illness.
Our relationship with the deceased, I believe, is another very important factor in how we grieve and seek support. A widow will grieve much differently than a parent who has lost a child.
As we each traverse the wilderness of our unique grief we may receive support from our family, friends and relatives. However, frequently, it becomes necessary to seek the support of those who have experienced a similar loss.
Widows in the support group I facilitate have shared that while they are grateful for the compassion of their family and friends, it is within the confines of the group that they find empathic understanding from other women who have lost their spouses. It seems that knowing another has walked in our shoes offers the hope that can lead us to our future.
Caroline, a widow of two years, says of the support group, “It’s a club you never want to join, but are so glad there are members already there to welcome you. We are birds of a feather.” She goes on to say that joining the discussions, with specific topics ranging from living in a couple’s world and removing wedding rings to doing his chores, too, and financial issues, brings her insights into her own grief and the hope that she is not alone.
“My children want to help but don’t know what it’s like to have your better half taken from your life. They naturally want me to get over it. The widows in my group know it’s not about getting over it, but about the process of discovering how life has changed since my husband’s death and how I want to live it now,” she says, adding that the others in the group know from personal experience what she faces. And that, along with her family’s support, has helped her move through her grief in a healthy way.
My sister Betty and I have had several discussions on supporting others in grief over the years. When my husband Trent died 20 years ago she supported me the best she could with calls and visits. But she admits that at times she felt inadequate due to the fact that she could not know how I felt or what I needed. She had not lost her spouse.
And though I know well the intimate details of my own style of grieving as well as the generalities of grief, when Betty’s 22-year-old son died four years ago of leukemia, I felt anxious about how to support her simply because I had never lost a child. We offered each other our compassionate hearts, grateful all the while for our friendship and family bond, but Betty, like so many others, also found great solace and hope with other parents who have lost a child.
Many of us, if we’re honest, will admit that before we experienced a loss in our lives, we did not understand how to support others in grief. An increase in compassion and the need to reach out to others in grief sometimes grows out of the ashes of our own loss. I recall moments in the past when in my own innocence I offered words of comfort that ring hollow to me now.
That’s not to say that friends and family who have not experienced a loss can’t support a grieving loved one. An awareness that mourners walk a very personal path to healing may help ease the burden of how to help. Simply hearing the words, “I don’t know what you are feeling, but I am here for you in any way you need me,” may just provide that snippet of hope your loved one needs to know he has your compassionate, nonjudgmental support as he walks his own unique path of grief.
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