When I was in my Master’s program, we had to do a yearlong unpaid internship. I wanted to work with the Seriously Mentally Ill, people with diagnoses so serious that they need extra support to function in society.
I didn’t get the internship I wanted. Instead, I was assigned to work in Hospice. If I had to rank where I wanted to work, grief would have come last. So of course, that’s where I needed to be.
It ended up being an amazing experience, and I learned a lot. I’m from the “suck it up and deal” school of grief management, so I had to learn everything about grief, including how to be sensitive to how others grieve.
Here are some of the things I learned.
- There is no wrong way to grieve. Before I worked in hospice, I really believed that my way was the best way and that people who were more open to feeling their emotions were doing it wrong. The truth is that people grieve in a myriad of ways, and most of them are healthy.
- People grieve the way they live. This is the single most important piece of information I ever got. Expressive people tend to grieve more expressively. People who tend to turn inward do the same with grief.
- There’s no end date. Sometimes other people set a deadline for the grieving person, that they should stop being upset in a year, or two years, or whatever it is. The truth is that grief doesn’t just end. It often does hurt less over time, but sometimes, especially anniversaries, birthdays, and milestones can make the grief fresh and new.
- Grieving people DO want you to reach out. They don’t expect you to have the right words (though there are wrong ones), but they want you to acknowledge their pain. Contacting them on anniversaries, birthdays, etc. is a thoughtful and welcome gesture.
- There are wrong things to say. These include things like, “Aren’t you over it yet?” or “It’s time to move on.” Depending on the belief system of the person, “It was meant to be” or “They’re in a better place” can also be hurtful.
- Grieving people want to talk about the one who died. Bringing up the lost loved one won’t “remind” them; the loved one isn’t far from their mind anyway. It’s important to say the loved one’s name and share memories to show that even though they’re gone, they aren’t forgotten.
- You can’t ever be prepared, not really. Whether the death is sudden or you knew it was coming, most of the time, you’ll wish for one more day with your loved one. In some situations, you can start the grieving process ahead of time, but it’s always difficult, no matter what.
- It’s not your responsibility to grieve in a way that makes people comfortable. Death and grief make people uncomfortable. Real, raw feelings make people uncomfortable. If the way you grieve makes someone uncomfortable, that’s okay. Take ownership of your feelings and let others take ownership of theirs.
- People will say stupid things, but it’s probably not intentional. When people get uncomfortable, they say things as a way to make them feel better or more comfortable. Even though it often doesn’t work, they’re not trying to hurt your feelings. We’re not really taught what to do with emotion, so we’re all just floundering around trying to deal. (raises hand)
- There are five stages of grief, but people don’t usually go through them in a linear fashion. The stages are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. They can happen in any order, and you can go through any stage more than once. The stages can also overlap, like you can be in bargaining and anger at the same time. In a nutshell? Grieving is a mess. It’s important to be kind to yourself as you grieve and understand that all those feelings are normal.
I could probably write a list much longer than this one, but ten is always a manageable number. Is there anything you’d like to add?