Over this past (almost) year, I have explored healing in so many different ways. I am a chemist, I like to learn about things from the inside out. So once I entered the world of grief and healing, I fully embedded myself and explored it as thoroughly as I could. And I will continue to do so for the rest of my life to some extent I am sure.
Humans are extremely complex creatures. The variety between personalities is limitless. We are a combination of our genetics and experiences. So when a person is faced with adversity, how they handle it is going to vary based on their personality and needs. So you can put two people into identical circumstances and how they react will never be the same, I guarantee it. And that doesn’t mean that one of these people got it right and one got it wrong. I don’t think there is a right and wrong way to heal. I think there are constructive and destructive ways of healing. And sometimes you even have to tap into that destructive side. Sometimes you need to burn shit to the ground and just completely start over. I think it is just important to exercise really careful judgment when you do need to tap into that destructive side because things can get out of control really fast. Totally not speaking from personal experience here at all (sarcasm).
Now, why do I think the individuality of a person’s healing is such an important fact? Because when someone experiences the loss of a spouse (or any other major traumatic event), everyone and their mother seems to have a comment on what you should be doing to heal. Which is extremely frustrating sometimes when you are said healing person. And most of those trying to help have their heart in the right place, they just are out of their depth and don’t know what to do. So, just as there is a constructive and destructive way to heal, there is a constructive and destructive way to help those who are healing.
Here’s my advice to those trying to help: do not try to fix the person who has been broken unless they specifically ask you. That is their job, not yours and they are the ones who know if they need a helping hand in the rebuild process. Offering support does not need to be done in the form of advice. If we want advice, we will ask for it. Usually we are looking to vent, or looking for emotional support and comfort. Someone to just listen and validate. Sometimes all we need is to release these painful thoughts that are bouncing throughout the mind like a bouncy ball indoors breaking everything. We need to throw that ball outside so it can bounce away freely.
Also, the phrase “let me know if you need anything” just plain sucks. Sorry, but seriously stop. We have no idea what we need off the top of our heads, we often operate in a state of constantly being overwhelmed. It’s impossible sometimes to think clearly, especially when you’re put on the spot like that. Asking a less open-ended question helps here. Ask something along the lines of, “do you need help around the house? Or maybe someone to listen?” Think of something you personally would be willing to do for this person and offer that. If they don’t want it, they don’t need your help and that’s perfectly okay. Your skills won’t always match up with their needs and that is not a poor reflection on either party.
It can be really hard to watch your loved one suffer. And I know the intention is to help and that most people are operating from a place of love in these situations. I know when I see my loved ones struggling I just want to save them. But sometimes, we cannot save our loved ones and they must save themselves. And sometimes this process is really long and ugly. It takes time to heal and process a major trauma, especially one like losing a spouse which causes your whole life to be largely impacted. As they always say, Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Another thing I want to discuss here really quick. Do not offer to help if you’re not going to show up and actually help. You’re better off not saying anything. It takes a lot of courage for most widows to reach out and ask for help and when we are let down it creates almost a new wave of grief because we get hit with the reality of the impact of our loss. For example: my spouse is not here to help, so I am forced to go to someone I normally wouldn’t go to in these circumstances and get let down and then think, “wow I just got shit on so hard I really am alone.” A person would not have reached out to you if you hadn’t offered, so letting that person down is really rude (obviously there are exceptions here). It isolates them further in a lot of ways and causes unnecessary pain.
A huge THANK YOU for those amazing people out there who do help their loved ones. You guys are heroes who deserve acknowledgement for being great humans. I cannot express how much of a positive impact my community has on my life. I don’t think I would be here today if not for my incredible support network.
This is not meant to be critical of anyone, either. This is meant to educate. I am pretty heavily involved in the widow(er) community and this is a very common theme that I see play out every single day. I write this in hopes of having even a tiny impact on the narrative surrounding loss and trauma.
*note: this does not include moments in which an actual intervention is necessary. If someone is at risk of injury or harm that they can’t come back from, intervene.