You find out a lot about yourself and the people around you when life turns to custard. They are the ones that stick around when the going gets tougher and the crowds go home. This extract from the book What Happened To You?; Conversations on trauma, resilience and healing by Bruce Perry and Oprah Winfrey, about other people’s reactions to trauma and grief and is spot on.
We see this process play out when an individual is impacted by trauma or grief; often their family, friends, and coworkers begin to orbit a little further out, afraid of the powerful gravitational pull of traumatic pain. As the “check-ins” get fewer, conversations get more superficial, interactions get briefer, and other people “move on” with their lives, the grieving or traumatized person feels increasingly isolated and alone. The emotional bottom does not come in the first weeks following the traumatic event. In those early weeks, family, friends, and community generally mobilize to provide emotional support. Your own physical and mental reserves also help, often through the power of dissociation. But while each person’s experience is different, after about six months, you start hitting bottom. And then you drift along the bottom, rising and falling with anniversary reactions, evocative cues, and opportunities to heal. Some people will keep rising; others will drown. None will ever be the same.
Based on the fact that reactions to people’s grief and pain are fairly universal, I thought some tips on how to support someone who is in pain, while also maintaining your own boundaries, might be useful.
- Invite them to social functions. Even if they are a wet blanket, even if they say no, even if they leave early. These invitations are what they need to feel connected, wanted and hopeful.
- Check in on them months after the funeral This is actually the most vulnerable time after the death itself, because the world does (rightfully) move on but they are left with their altered life. Checking in can take many forms. It can be a phone call, a visit, an online message, or a snail mail card. All of these say to the person I am thinking of you, and that’s more powerful than you think.
- Bring them food so they don’t have to think about it, even months after the event. I had two parents die and three small children to care for (I don’t remember what happened food wise when my brother Peter died), and only ONE casserole made it to my fridge. SINGULAR. People left me alone. They thought I was OK. They thought I was coping. I wasn’t. And that’s the message. The public smile and bravado might mask private pain.
- Be kind, even if they are prickly. People who are hurt protect themselves with invisible barriers. As it says in the quote above: Your own physical and mental reserves also help, often through the power of dissociation. This is a key point. I’m not advocating putting up with abuse, but if they are quiet and distant, don’t assume it’s because they are being rude or because they are bitter. It might be because they are hurting and don’t feel like they are a welcome part of your circle, or they feel safer in their own bubble or safer being detached from life in general. If you don’t invest, you can’t be hurt. Kindness will burst that bubble.
- Don’t throw cliches at them. “Time heals all wounds”; “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle”; “They were too good for this world” blah blah blah. They are not helpful. Instead, let them know you are there for them. Don’t avoid talking about the person who died. Be authentic. For example, my mother died just before my first child was born. It would have been OK to say something like: “That’s a tough situation” or “Life just isn’t fair sometimes” or “Let me know how I can help you” (I would have said cook me some meals!).
The last word goes to the comedian and lovely soul Robin Williams who rightly said: “All it takes is a beautiful fake smile to hide an injured soul”. This is a quote (and a person) worth remembering.