When the time comes to support someone who is grieving, people often don’t think much past saying I’m sorry for your loss. Death and emotions makes many First Responders uncomfortable. It wasn’t your personal life and so your life moves on to the next call. Unless you have suffered loss yourself, support will not come naturally. First Responders are naturally compassionate people, however few academies teach us the ins and outs of dealing with Grief.
You just don’t know what we don’t know however we learn over time what to do and say. But how do we process our own Grief and the loss of a career filled with books of the dead and dying?
Acknowledging that grief never ends. It is not possible to completely get over all the systemic career long losses. In many Responders it stays with you and permeates every aspect of your life. That’s not to say the griever will never be happy again, but the moment you put on your uniform you are forever changed. Many times in the calm and quiet before the next storm past losses may creep in. It could be the next similar call, a smell, a song, or anything that stimulates the memory of the loss. We may feel pressured to hide our grief. This may even add to our pain as we want our losses to remain locked in our past.
So what can you do to help someone that is grieving? Here are 7 great ways to help show your support well after the loss
7 Heartfelt Ways To Support Team Members in Grief
1. Remember the Dates.
To grievers there are dates that hold value. The date of a loved one’s death and the departed’s birthday. It doesn’t matter how much time passes, these days are important. In the first year of the loss people remember. After that, it happens less and less. While no one expects you to memorize these dates, it makes a huge impact to the griever when someone acknowledges their significance. Another significant date is the date of a significant loss or event that a First Responder had participated in, (September 11, 2001) They remember! You do not need anything elaborate. Just a simple text message, email, or card that says, “I remember. You are in my thoughts.” There is an easy cheat that will ensure you never forget! Set a reminder on your phone, in a calendar app, or write it on your calendar. This simple activity can change their entire day!
2. Lean into the Loss.
After the death of a loved one, or a significant event, it is common for a griever to have people close to them avoid the topic of their loss or experience. It makes them uncomfortable. There is nothing worse than feeling as if people must walk on egg shells. People me are aware! It’s best to just, lean into the feeling rather than run away and ignore, just acknowledge it. The griever wants you to. You do not have to ask details if it makes you uncomfortable. Even just saying, “I’ve been thinking about you a lot. I hope you are doing OK.” You will have made the griever’s day with just a simple acknowledgement. It also opens the door for them to share how they are really doing if they want to. Most importantly, never be afraid to say the name of the person they lost! They love to hear someone say their name or talk about a memory. If it’s an event that was experienced by many of the department or crew, “lean in” and acknowledge that the event/loss occurred. Call in your Peer Support Clinician to assist in the facilitation if necessary.
3. Establish No Expectations.
Grief changes you in ways you never expected. It is common for the people grieving to feel as if they have lost a part of themselves or their loved ones, (especially if a call involved a child/family member, that the Responder draws a comparison to). It is possible they have done so which may stimulate secondary grief within the responder. You may notice that things which were once of interest may no longer be appealing. They may change their normal routines. People that were once outgoing may prefer to stay home or withdraw. Invitations that used to be fun (i.e. birthdays, going out with friends, weddings, family gatherings) are now avoided. There are triggers everywhere and their actions are likely part of their coping mechanism. Be brave and check in with them. Isolation is sometimes not helpful.
Grievers often find their closest friends and family are the ones stop coming by or checking in and disappear after a loss or observed grief. Please don’t ever stop inviting a person who may be grieving. Even if they always seem to not show up, let them know they are always welcome. Let them know that you plan to continue inviting them, texting them, calling them, or whatever your offer may be. You take the initiative. Establish no expectations. It is completely up to them whether they feel like answering your call, responding to your text, or showing up to the invitation. Never lay any judgment on them either way. It takes the pressure off of everyone. But DO check in on them to let them know you care. Remember there is no timeframe for the waves of grief and everyone experiences it differently.
4. You Can’t Fix It.
It is natural for First Responders try and offer advice to someone who is grieving, after all First Responders fix Shit. As the person in grief shares difficult emotions, stories, and events, in many cases it is hard to listen. Your immediate reaction may be to try and help them fix it, please don’t , remember grief is not something you can fix or snap out of. Grief is a wave that the person must ride. There is nothing you can do or say that will make this go away or feel better. Plus, the griever more than likely will not even hear your advice through their grief. Their grief journey is unique to them. They must do whatever feels right to them in the moment. This is the only way they can survive and learn to live with the loss. So resist the urge to tell them what you think they should or should not do. Simply empathetically validate what they say and let them know you heard and are there for them. Be present; that may be all they really want or need at the moment. You may consider leaving them easy access to resources, (when they are ready), that may assist them in making sense of something that is confusing and hurtful at best. Perhaps your Peer Support, Culturally Competent Clinician could provide you with resource information.
5. It is NOT Comfortable.
Grief makes most everyone uncomfortable, especially the person riding the wave of grief. They feel it when someone rushes to change the subject. It is noticeable when people attempt to dance around the losses. They may come across angry, but work hard NOT to judge them for their anger, as they are hurting, remember their words are filtered through fear and pain. The person going through grief spends time working out how they can answer common questions and what they share because they anticipate that the grief will cause awkward moments for their friends and helpers. When they are fortunate enough to have friends make an effort, they are aware. You will provide a brief respite from the fear and hurt. So perhaps the best advice is to never let your own fear or discomfort get in the way. The person experiencing the loss will appreciate it. Be brave and create an emotional badge of courage and do the best you can in this situation that is difficult for everyone. Your empathy goes a long way.
6. Be an Active Listener.
Don’t ever be afraid to ask questions, and then be an active listener. As long as you ask your questions in a nonjudgmental tone and are genuinely interested it will come across in the right way. As First Responders we experience many people’s worst day ever and we, in many cases, experience them several times a day. Many agencies have found that Peer Support Teams lead by a Culturally Competent Clinician, is the best form of support out there for training in dealing with the grieving among ourselves and the citizens we serve. Ask the grieving person if there is anything you can do and be sure to follow through with your offer. Just be available to listen to their memories. As First Responder we love to tell stories. Become a good active listener for our Brothers and Sisters who are grieving as they too need you to actively listen to their story. It will be appreciated.
7. Hold A Space. Just Be.
Get comfortable with silence. Most times silence is best and just holding a space. Work hard NOT to fidget with your phone in the silence as the person in grief may feel that you are NOT present for them. Many of us feel as though we must fill gaps of silence, but please give yourself permission to resist and just silently be as necessary. It sure beats feeling as if you put your foot in your mouth trying to say the right thing and having it come out all wrong. Just so you know, platitudes and wrote trite sayings as a way to offer hope may not be the result you wanted to deliver. A silent hug, squeeze of the arm, or sympathetic smile is so much better. Just hold emotional space for the person in grief and just be.