This past year generated untold layers of grief throughout our society. Today, we focus on one pervasive grief trigger: Relationship loss. First, I’ll help you understand more about how this type of loss is affecting people. Then, I offer five strategies to employ so you can more effectively support those you love.
The most obvious relationship loss is death. Regardless of the cause, any time someone dies, there is a permanent, total loss of the physical relationship with that person. In this past year, well over 500,000 Americans died of COVID, each of whom is survived by family, friends, and co-workers. There is also a significant uptick in non-COVID deaths beyond the 2.7 million that occur in a “normal” year in this country. The grief is made even more difficult by the absence of funerals, shivas, visitations, burial services, celebrations of life, and the myriad rituals that provide comfort and strength to the survivors.
Yet relationship loss is more pervasive than death because it doesn’t have to be permanent or total. Divorce is a relationship loss too, as the nature, strength, and tenor of the relationship are forever changed. Moving away causes relationship loss, as clients leave behind neighbors, their church community, workout partners, and all those that make up the complex matrix of everyday life. When we can’t gather with or visit family and friends, whether locally or especially those who live at a distance, it triggers tangible levels of grief. We’ve lost the communal value of gathering in a crowd as well, for things like sports games, concerts, parties, weddings, and more. Sadly, countless people face relationship loss as friends and family members stop speaking to one another and become estranged due to our country’s ever-deepening polarization.
It doesn’t have to be the loss of a human relationship either. For many people, their pet provides a tremendous source of comfort, especially now. The pet may be their “child” to which they are deeply attached, and when that pet dies, it can be just as devastating as a family member. For many people involved in wildfires, hurricanes, and polar vortex events, their relationship with nature is disrupted in ways that are deeply disconcerting.
These are only a sampling of some of the relationship losses we’ve experienced. Can you see how just this one type of loss pervades our lives?
So what do you do to support your friends and family during this time? First of all, recognize that they are grieving. They need to know you understand their grief. They need reassurance that their emotional reactions are normal for grieving people, and they want your support.
Here are five steps to help you do that:
- When you speak with them next, do a brief bit of education. Name the reality of relationship loss and explain the various ways it can trigger grief.
- Ask them which of these has happened or is happening in their lives. Keep asking until they tell you they can’t think of anything else.
- Thank them for sharing and tell them you’d like to understand more. Read the list back to them and ask which one(s) are most challenging or painful for them and/or their family members.
- Start with the most painful one and empathize by saying you can see that it is a very difficult situation. Ask open-ended questions that invite them to tell you more. Although the questions you ask greatly depend on the situation they name, here are a few examples:
- Did you expect this to happen?
- What do you wish people knew about what it’s like for you?
- What is hardest about it?
- What has surprised you?
- At what times is it most difficult?
- Who or what is helpful as you cope, and who or what has not been helpful at all?
- Based on what they say, think of supportive things you can do. Again, your actions will greatly depend on the situations that are triggering grief (and of course always avoid anything that they said was unhelpful when others did it!) Here are a few generic possibilities to get you thinking:
- Send a card thanking them for sharing their story with you and expressing your support.
- Offer a relaxing gift – comfort food, a massage, a movie, their favorite drink, or anything else they would enjoy.
- Watch for and send articles, stories, or videos about that type of loss.
- If you knew one of their beloved people who died, send a laminated photo of them with a memory you have or a description of their characteristics that you admired. Don’t forget to send cards, notes, or gifts on the deceased’s birthday, any events like a wedding anniversary, and on the anniversary of the death.
- For an on-going situation, call at various intervals to check in on what’s happening now, always asking open-ended questions and listening patiently to the answers.
Grief, stress, and anxiety are off the charts, and everyone you know could use a supportive, listening ear. Can that be you?