At 13 years old, I followed my mother and four siblings into the chapel for my father’s funeral. So many faces surrounded us, but one caught my focus. My seventh grade history teacher, Mr. Graham. He wasn’t a friend of the family; he didn’t know my dad. He was there for me.
What is the impact of one person sitting through a funeral to support their seventh grade student? For those of us who experience the sudden loss of a loved one, loneliness often waits around the corner. In that darkness, when it feels impossible to carry our own light, we rely on family, friends and community members to bring us moments of light.
Grief after an unexpected death is chaotic and disorienting. Your life is frozen and fuzzy while the rest of the world zooms by, demanding attention. And sometimes those on the outside don’t know how to react to your pain. What should they say? Should they bring a casserole or a cake? Should they acknowledge the death or avoid the discomfort?
In a research article published in 2021 exploring the most effective forms of support during traumatic grief, researchers surveyed 372 grieving adults and found that 37.9% of respondents ranked their social support during grief as poor. So what do those who are experiencing grief need?
“Just being present,” “being available,” “checking in on me,” “showing up for me,” respondents wrote.
The desire for others to “be present” was mentioned by an overwhelming majority of grievers in the study. And the inverse, being avoidant or failing to acknowledge someone’s loss, was marked as a failure to provide support. “Talk to me about him. SAY HIS NAME. He existed,” one respondent wrote.
In my experience with sudden loss, loneliness can feel crushing. Not just loneliness from the community, but loneliness from the jarring, unexpected absence of a loved one. When others have avoided talking about my dad, the social erasure of him exacerbated my loneliness by making him feel more distant. As a kid, I worried that I would lose the memories of my dad.
When I was dating my husband, he supported me in a way many others hadn’t. He asked me questions about my dad — not about how he died, but about his life, what he liked, what characteristics I had inherited from him. When we give people space to talk about those who have died, we not only support them through our presence, but we invite the presence of their loved one into the conversation.
Being there for someone after their loss can be more than a physical presence in the room. Many grieving people need support with finances if their lost loved one provided health insurance or income for the family. Others may need help keeping up with household maintenance, picking kids up from school, planning the funeral and providing meals to feed the family. As New York Times writer Julia Halpert said in a column on helping loved ones through sudden loss, “actions really hold more weight than words.”
Halpert, who lost her son to suicide in 2017, emphasizes that words, when used, should be considered thoughtfully. Avoid creating dissonance between your words and the grieving person’s emotions. Telling someone that “it will be OK” when they feel hurt, numb, angry or depressed can leave them feeling invalidated. “Let me fall apart,” the study quoted one respondent saying. Comparing your experiences of grief with theirs can also cause tension and discomfort. “Never suggest that you know how grievers feel, even if you’ve experienced a similar type of loss; you can’t possibly comprehend the depth of their grief,” Roxane Cohen Silver, a professor of psychological science, public health and medicine at the University of California, Irvine, told Halpert.
People grieve in different ways. Adjusting your response to their needs may mean that some people want to go for a walk with you and talk while others want to be supported in ways that give them more personal space. Grieving also takes time — not just weeks or months, but years. The people who continue to reach out year after year, remembering anniversaries and anticipating difficult holidays, are the people many grievers desperately need.
Losing a loved one is a pain that never leaves, but instead ebbs and flows through the years as important dates and life milestones pass by. But the people who are there — who stand with you through a funeral or listen to stories — are the people who add light to dark moments. In grieving, the people who show up become the everything we cling to when life feels empty.