Grief is something we will all experience in life. The bigger the love for the person we grieve, the harder the hit it will be.
All that love that once lifted you up will feel as if it is being turned against you.
For first timers, the power of grief can be surprising. The first two weeks after the death of a spouse or another person intensely loved can be especially hard to help someone through- especially if you, too, are grieving the same person in a different way.
What few people know about grief before it hits them, is that it is a very physical pain. In fact, it is more painful physically than a lot of things people think of as being the most painful things; Kidney stones and labor, for instance, are often noted as being excruciatingly painful. I can vouch for that accuracy, as I’ve experienced both. And for a while I thought those were the most painful things I’d ever experience.
But I was wrong.
A misdiagnosis of gallstones, of all things, led to a raging case of pancreatitis. That resulted in significant time in and out of the hospital, emergency procedures, and the beginning stages of liver failure. One doctor explained it to me by saying I had third degree internal burns, as my body was digesting itself in the areas digestive fluids were spilling out.
So imagine that for a minute.
I’ve also experienced the pleasure of multiple broken bones, surgeries, cysts, and a cerebral spinal fluid leak that made everything else feel easy.
But nothing- and I mean nothing- has outweighed the intense, vicious, sustained pain levels of grief.
Grief feels like every single nerve ending is being set on fire. It feels like your bones are being jackhammered. Your skull is pounding. Your heart alternates between feeling paralyzed and frantic. Sweat randomly pours down your body even as your internal temperature plummets. Sleep, food, and even breathing all become things your body does not want any part of, so you must almost battle for all of that.
Unlike all the physical injuries and illnesses I’ve experienced otherwise, there is no sedative, or surgical procedure, or cast, or pill that can alleviate the pain for even a moment. There is no reprieve, no shelter, and no end in sight.
The first two weeks, especially, can be difficult to support someone through. Here are some ways you can best show up for someone you love, in the first two weeks after the death of their spouse or another family member they love intensely.
Know that nothing you do will alleviate the pain – so don’t even try to do that. Instead, just allow them to feel it without telling them to “be strong.” Don’t assure them it will be better in time, or that their person is in a better place, or any of that, as tempting as it may be.
Because the most powerful, welcome support for a person who is actively in the grips of massive grief, is to acknowledge their pain and offer them the space to feel it. To let them know they are not being weak for feeling what they are feeling, and that you will be there for them in whatever way they need you to be there for them, so they can push through this.
They will need to develop that skill set for the months and years to come- the skill set of allowing themselves to feel their pain. It will gradually evolve into shorter, more controlled moments but if this skill set is not allowed to develop, their pain will bottle up inside and be expressed in unhealthy ways.
Unless directly asked, avoid the temptation to share examples of how you or people you know managed grief. It can feel extra frustrating for someone who needs to be free to vent their pain, when the person they are venting to makes the moment about themselves rather than simply listening and allowing someone to purge their pain.
The time for active advice will come. But especially in the first days of grief, as a person is navigating their pain, shock, and the stress of services, the best thing you can do is simply be there for them in whatever version they need you to be.
This can mean sitting in absolute silence together, or listening attentively as the person speaks their pain. It can mean answering questions about grief based on your experiences- but I encourage you to keep those discussions simple. Assure the person you will be there for the long haul, and that you will help them find their way through. And then give them permission to not figure it all out right now.
Help them with their kids, pour them glasses of water, make calls they don’t have the strength to make, whatever it takes to help them through the first two weeks, in whatever way they need you to show up- show up.
Understand they will have mood swings. Pulling you close one moment and snapping at you the next is not a reflection on you- it is their pain dominating them. There is a balance to be struck here: on the one hand you want to be compassionate and recognize they are not themselves. On the other, you want to set boundaries and set that person up for resilience by reminding them that you are not the cause of their pain, and it is not okay for them to take their pain out on you or anyone else.
That can seem harsh or unloving but you will, in fact, be doing them a disservice by allowing them to develop the mindset that the world must bow to their pain. Helping a person find grace in a storm will not only help them weather that storm, but the storms to come. Cultivating a victim mindset will create future storms.
It’s a delicate dance. You will step on toes.
Dance it anyway.