On supporting someone going through grief

Estimated 12-15 minute read.

‘Going through hell’
can take many forms.

support someone going through hell or grief
  • Losing a loved one, be that a partner, friend, family member or fur child.
  • Staying in an abusive or toxic relationship be it personal or work related.
  • Mourning the disintegration of a relationship or friendship.
  • Being in financial distress, never knowing how you’re going to pay the rent.
  • Losing everything in a natural or unnatural disaster.
  • Waiting for a loved one to come out of life-saving but potentially life-taking surgery.
  • Losing your career, reputation or social standing, due to a crime or isolated incident.
  • Suffering with an undiagnosable or incurable condition.
  • Being indefinitely detained in a foreign country while seeking asylum.
  • Facing a cancer diagnosis that may not be terminal.
  • Facing a cancer diagnosis that is terminal.

Watching or trying to support someone you know going through any of the above, is HARD. You don’t want to inadvertently make them feel worse by saying the wrong thing, but often it’s almost impossible to know what to say or do because you don’t know what they’re going through. 

Being someone who went through my own version of hell a few years ago, I’ve outlined some points below that may help make whatever the hardship you’re going through a little easier – on you, and the person you’re trying to support. This article is not a direct comment on anything that someone close to me said or didn’t say, did or didn’t do. The idea is to explore the concepts of grief and loss, what that can look like, and how it can affect someone you are close to. 

In unpacking and trying to understand how best to support someone who’s ‘going through hell’, I’ve realised there’s a difference between the scenarios that are italicised above, and those that are not. Can you work out the difference? And would you know how to support people going through those two different types of ‘hell’? If not, great. This article might shed some light on it for you. 

Keep in mind that this is not universal advice; that different cultures and generations deal with things differently. What might be right for me and my situation, may be completely wrong for another person. Go with your gut, do what feels right – you know the person you’re trying to support, and ultimately asking them what they need may be the best way forward. 

1. Understand what grief is, and how it can affect someone.

What ties all of the above scenarios together, is grief and loss. Loss of the world the way we knew it. Loss of something, or everything, that matters to you. 

Grief, according to the Cambridge Dictionary, can be defined as ‘very great sadness, especially at the death of someone’. Dictionary.com defines it as: keen mental suffering or distress over affliction or loss; sharp sorrow; painful regret; a cause or occasion of keen distress or sorrow.

A medical definition of grief is: The normal process of reacting to a loss. The loss may be physical (such as a death), social (such as divorce), or occupational (such as a job). Emotional reactions of grief can include anger, guilt, anxiety, sadness, and despair. Physical reactions of grief can include sleeping problems, changes in appetite, physical problems, or illness.

Whether it’s your health, a person, an environment, a holiday, a lifestyle, a life chapter, safety and security, material things or intangible ideas, ‘going through hell’, in any form, equates to grieving, regardless of what you’ve lost. No two people will deal with the same event the same way, and no one person’s grief is less or more than anyone else’s. It’s their own private process, and how they deal with what they’re going through will vary. 

According to the Kübler-Ross model (1969), there are 5 stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. There is a plethora of literature available and if you really want to understand what someone who is grieving is going through, have a read of this article, or others like it that will take you through what the stages look like. The only thing that is standard about the stages of grief, is that everyone deals with them differently; some skip over some stages, some stay in one stage for months or years, and there’s no set order that everyone experiences them in.  

The way different people react to grief is as different as the person they are, the situation they’re going through, their baseline resilience and the amount of previous trauma they’re simultaneously trying to cope with. 

As the medical definition of grief suggests, reactions can take many forms, and be either wildly obvious to the observer or completely hidden; there are those that mourn privately, while keeping a very stiff public upper lip, and there are those who do the opposite. 

Unless they tell or show you directly, do not assume that because someone is going through the motions, turning up at their day job, appearing like they have their shit together, that they actually do. 

In my case, I most certainly did not. Not in private anyway. In public, I was the pillar of ‘shit-togetherness’ – I’d just had my best year in business, I was walking somewhere between 80-100kms per week for fitness, I’d lost a few dress sizes and I was looking healthier than I ever have. 

There was also a lot of wine and I spent a lot of time crying. 

Because being in hell indefinitely, fucking sucks. And for those of you who don’t know me personally, my special kind of hell was being indefinitely barred from entering the country of the person I love, and starting the next chapter of my life – taking on a Master of International Relations in Norway, whilst running a full time consultancy with clients on both sides of North America and on both coasts of Australia. 

You might be thinking – steady on, can that really be a grieving process? It can, and here’s why. 

2. Understand the difference between ...

  • finite incidents which can cause life long grief, and
  • indefinite situations where grief may last only as long as the situation persists. 

Of the scenarios listed at the start of this article, some are finite incidents, and others are indefinite situations. 

Think about it like this: finite incidents happen, and then leave a trail of destruction that someone may never fully recover from, such as 

  • Losing a loved one, be that a partner, friend, family member or fur child.
  • Mourning the disintegration of a relationship or friendship.
  • Losing everything in a natural or unnatural disaster.
  • Facing a cancer diagnosis that is terminal.
  • Suffering with an undiagnosable or incurable condition.
  • Losing your career, reputation or social standing, due to a crime or isolated incident.

These situations are both heartbreaking and life changing; they leave a hole in your life that will never be replaced and in time (be that months, years or decades), the intensity of the pain, grief and loss will start to lessen, but may never really go away. 

This analogy, courtesy of Lauren Herschel is the best I’ve seen and it’s helped many of my friends who have gone through the process of losing a loved one. Google ‘Grief – The Ball and the Box’. Genius.


So that’s finite incidents that cause ongoing grief

Indefinite situations, where grief may last only as long as the situation itself, are a completely different ball game. Situations like this are things like: 

  • Staying in an abusive or toxic relationship be it personal or work related.
  • Being in financial distress, never knowing how you’re going to pay the rent next month.
  • Facing a cancer diagnosis that may not be terminal.
  • Waiting for a loved one to come out of life-saving but potentially life-taking surgery.
  • Being indefinitely detained in a foreign country while seeking asylum.
  • Being indefinitely barred from entering the country of the person you love. 

These situations may or may not change at the drop of a hat. 

  • The toxic relationship could end abruptly if the person leaves their workplace.
  • The abuser could leave the relationship.
  • The cancer could go into remission.
  • That operation could go really well, and it could also kill the person.
  • Your refugee status could be approved any day now.
  • The visa laws might change, there could be a vaccine, there could be a reliable, pre-flight COVID quick test developed, the department of immigration could start issuing permits again soon. 

Or not. There’s also the distinct possibility that none of those things could happen. 

Or the opposite of those things could happen, and the person would be trapped in the indefinite hell of simply not knowing when or if anything is ever going to change. 

That might not look like grief on the outside, but being inside it, let me assure you that it is. 

Let’s go back to the definitions of grief, and what the reactions can look like: 

  • Very great sadness
  • Keen mental suffering or distress
  • Sharp sorrow
  • Emotional reactions including anger, guilt, anxiety, sadness, and despair
  • Physical reactions including sleeping problems, changes in appetite, physical problems, or illness

It really doesn’t matter whether it’s a singular finite incident, or an ongoing situation: grief is grief. Even in these indefinite situations the person is facing the loss of something – their health, their safety or security, their freedom, the next chapter of their lives. 

Whereas in finite incidents grief may start to become less painful overtime, with indefinite situations the opposite occurs. It gets worse. It feels like it may never end. What compounds the effect of the type of grief that is borne from an ongoing situation, is whether the person knows WHEN it’s going to end.

3. Understand how long term, indefinite situations causing grief can affect someone’s psyche.

There’s a special kind of hell reserved for people who are in indefinite limbo – the ‘not knowing’ place, and having no idea how long you’re going to be in that ‘not knowing’ place for.

Short term limbo, is waiting in a hospital emergency room while someone you love is on the operating table. It’s a roller coaster of hope, despair, praying for a miracle and trying to avoid thinking about the ramifications of the worst case scenario. Put yourself in that chair for a minute. Imagine it’s your partner, child or parent on that table. Feel into that rollercoaster of not knowing if you’re going to see them again, and if you do what state they’re going to be in permanently. Feel into that. Is your heart racing? Are your palms sweaty? Is your head aching? Are your guts churning? 

I feel you. I see you. I hear you. 

Now imagine being in that state for months; and having no indication of when it’s going to end. 

Sure, for some of the above scenarios the person may have some power or control over the situation and change it – they could leave their abuser, get a cheaper rental, not have applied for asylum in the first place. 

And then there are those who have zero control over the outcome, and are at the mercy of the Gods, the Law, or their abusers. 

It’s a kind of living hell and unless you’re living it, it’s hard to explain the toll that it takes on you physically, mentally and emotionally. 

Think of it like this – you know the full body rush that you get when you go into ‘fight or flight’ mode? That’s adrenaline pumping through you, and it’s designed to keep you safe from a dangerous situation. Being in limbo, is like being on edge (ready to fight or fly), indefinitely. It’s ongoing, seemingly never ending, anxiety. On top of the grieving process. 

Sit with that for a minute. 

Months and months of it, and your nervous system is shot. You end up almost emotionless. You’ve gone through so much emotional upheaval, so many ups and downs, so much crying and relentless searching for answers, that you end up numb. You get to a point where you’ve just got nothing left. Nothing. 

It’s kinda like being repeatedly kicked in the guts – at the start you try to get away, or fight back, but once you’re on the ground and just being repeatedly hit, knowing it could go on forever, you just curl up into the smallest ball you can, keep withstanding the kicks, and hope that it ends as soon as possible.

So when people ask things like – how are you? Are you OK? You KNOW it’s with the best of intent, you KNOW they’re truly wanting to help and support you, but all you really want to say is ‘just fucking leave me alone. I’ve got nothing left’. Having to retell this story again and again is like having to uncurl yourself out of that ball you’ve resigned yourself to staying in until it’s over – to relive all the details – and that just feels like getting kicked in the guts all over again. 

4. Understand what helps and what doesn’t help.

All in all, everyone deals with grief differently, and some of these strategies may or may not work for some, the way they work for others. 

Mental health experts encourage us to ask questions like: 

  • Are you ok?
  • How are you going?
  • You sound a bit down – what’s going on?
  • What’s the situation like now has anything changed?

For me, the answer to all of those questions was – ‘This situation is fucked. I am in a perpetual cycle of hope and despair that changes on a daily, sometimes hourly basis. I feel like an enraged bull who is desperately trying NOT to demolish everything in the ‘China Shop’, while keeping up my physical health, getting mental health support from a professional, keeping my business alive and trying to answer everyone’s questions about what’s going on. I’m exhausted. For the love of all things holy, talk to me about anything other than my own situation. Please.’

For someone else, the answer might be – ‘I am incredibly sad, no one has reached out to me, and I don’t know what to do to make anything feel better.’

Asking those questions might be the door they need opened so they can express how they’re feeling. So they can vent. So they can connect with someone they trust, in a safe place, so they can let it all out rather than keeping it all bottled up.  

Acknowledging the situation before offering any of the below suggestions, by saying something like ‘I know your situation is shit, and I’m sorry. We don’t have to talk about it’, may be a more gentle way to approach them – giving them the option to either talk, or not talk, depending on how they’re feeling at the time. 

On the subject of talking or not talking, calling or texting, emailing or rocking up on their doorstep, again, only you know the connection you have with the person you’re trying to support and what level they’re likely to need. A simple text message from a very close friend may seem inadequate, and an unannounced visit may seem over the top. 

It’s a bit of a mine field isn’t it? 

Don’t be afraid to call; they’ll answer if they feel like talking and it’s the right timing. If you DO call and they don’t answer, don’t take it personally – there may be a myriad of reasons they can’t or don’t want to talk at that moment. It doesn’t mean they don’t want to talk to you at all, and if they reply by text instead that’s OK too. That might be all they’re capable of doing that day. 

Using cliches, or phrases like the ones below, may make people who are grieving want to reach out and punch you in the face: 

  • Don’t worry it’ll be better soon.
  • Everything happens for a reason, I’m sure there’s a silver lining somewhere in this for you.
  • It’s all part of God’s plan.

For people with a strong religious faith though, they could be the most comforting words to hear. 

Grief is not a competition. No one’s situation is better or worse than yours. If they want to talk, listen, but don’t counter their pain with yours or someone else’s, thinking it will make them feel better; it won’t. Avoid saying things like, ‘Well just think, it could be worse <insert ‘worse’ scenario>.’  

Often there’s not a great deal anyone can say, that will help. Sometimes, the best thing you can do just:

  • Be present
  • Be gentle
  • Listen
  • Ask them what they need
  • Give them what they ask for

For me, just knowing people are there and thinking of you is most helpful; and sending messages like this: 

  • Sending love your way ❤️
  • Thinking of you ❤️ 

To others, that might feel quite trite. Again, only you know your people. 

If you feel compelled to help further, asking questions like this might be more helpful: 

  • I’m cooking a big batch of <insert food – soup, lasagne, whatever> – do you want to come over for a meal or can I drop some over for you?
  • I’m going out for a drink / walk / movie / sit in the park / <insert any other distraction> – wanna join me?
  • I’m going to the shops for some groceries – do you need anything? I can drop it over later.
  • Is there anything I can do?
  • Do you need a hug?
  • What do you need?

Believe me when I say when someone is grieving, if you’re in their inner circle of trusted friends and family, you’ll know about it when they’re ready to talk, because they will answer you. You’ll know about it when they’re ready to face you because their answers to those  questions above, will be ‘yes’. 

They may only have the capacity to deal with a few people at the moment, and not a wider group of many people all trying to reach out and support them. 

Having a beautiful community of people who are concerned about you and want to stay updated about what’s going on, is beautiful – in theory – and I for one, am blessed with and extremely grateful for having exactly that – a huge community of loving, caring, supportive people who truly just want the best for me. 

It’s also exhausting. 

Having to repeat the same updates over and over. 

Trying to remember where people are ‘up to’ with the progress. 

It’s hard enough that it sits in the back of your mind all day every day, but having to continually discuss it, just makes it feel like it completely dominates your life – every conversation, every email, every day. 

If the answer to any of your offers to help is ‘no thanks’, or ‘not right now’, or ‘nothing really’, don’t take it personally – just know the person is at the end of their rope and when they are ready for company or support, they’ll let you know.

What rarely has a positive outcome, is doing nothing, because you’re worried about saying or doing the wrong thing. Talking this through with a friend of mine who recently lost her father, people crossed over onto the other side of the street to avoid having to deal with her mother, directly after his passing. Imagine how hurtful that must be for someone who is already grieving, to also have to deal with their community avoiding them like the plague.  

Some people need to talk, others need silence.

Some people need to socialise, others need space. 

Some people, after an elongated period of grief, may need the gentle nudge to seek professional help.

Some people, like me, just really want to feel ‘normal’ – to do ‘normal’ things – and to do anything other than continually focus on what I don’t have – I’d rather do things that help me focus on what I do have, and how when the time comes, the next chapter will start with the cheering and applause of everyone who knows and loves me. 

No one who is grieving will want or need the same things, but in general my advice would be to acknowledge the situation, be open, be kind, and above all don’t take it personally and don’t make it about you.   

Thank you for your support. Thank you for caring. From anyone who is grieving anything at this moment in time, my heart goes out to you – and I hope that in some small way, this can help your community understand how to support you in a way that works for you. 

To anyone who reads this and knows me, please know these things: 

  • This article is NOT about you or something you have said or did. Thank you for supporting me in any which way you did during the pandemic. I apologise if I was short, rude, snapped or cried at you.  Regardless of how often I speak to you, you’re part of my network and I appreciate you and our friendship.
  • I am OK. The pandemic is over and a few years back to ‘normality’, I’m super grateful for how life is panning out. What a learning journey that turned out to be!

Want to know how it all panned out?

This article was originally published in 2020 – 6 months after the pandemic closed the doors between Norway and Australia, and therefore also my partner and I. 

Days after I published this article, a visa I had applied for as a full time Masters student in Norway starting in August came through unexpectedly and Australia allowed me to leave (on the proviso I had a resident visa somewhere else, and wouldn’t be coming back for a minimum of 3 months). 

Norway opened its doors to me and Australia kept them firmly shut for almost another 2 years. That roller coaster is a WHOLE other story I’ll be publishing soon. 

When I published this article, I was waiting in the vague hope that the student visa would be approved for Norway. So this was the original ending to the article…. 

You can be guaranteed of one thing. If you receive a message from me that says ‘START THE CAAAAAAAAR’, it will mean that instead of Ikea bags, I’ll be holding suitcases and a valid travel permit, and instead of a car, it’ll be a Qatar flight to Oslo. But I will have an identical expression on my face and urgency in my step that the woman in this video has. 

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