How to help when your community has experienced traumatic loss
Apr 16, 2019
No amount of planning can prepare us for sudden, unexpected, and traumatic loss in our communities. It can shake our sense of stability and draw out fears that we have buried deep. This is only a taste of what those closest to those who have died feel. Feelings of helplessness, anger or compassion can be overwhelming. We respond out of these feelings by either moving towards or moving away from the pain.
How, when death has come traumatically, can we help?
Regardless of how close we are to grieving family members, helping begins by managing our own experience. How can we do this?
Acknowledge how you are feeling: what is driving you to move in or move away from the pain? We do not help without feeling and sometimes need to allow ourselves to sit in the difficult emotions that emerge when there is loss.
Check meta-emotions. These are the emotions we have about emotions. Does feeling or observing happiness cause you to feel guilty or angry? Does anger make you feel scared? We can have emotions about our own emotions, or the emotions we see in others. Acknowledge those too.
Be mindful of over-empathy. Does hearing someone else’s story of pain cause you so much pain that you now need them or others to support you? If it does, turn towards your support system instead of the family members who are closest to the loss.
Depending on how close we are to those closest to the loss, we have different practical things we can do. For a start, let’s look at the majority of us who share the community.
BE A GOOD NEIGHBOUR – This applies to all of us who live and work in the community.
Maintain normalcy and consistency. Sudden loss can make the whole world feel disorganized and out of control. By continuing our normal routines and activities we can help provide stability when it feels like the community has been tipped upside down a little and shaken out.
Work through your own grief. Loss can bring back our own grief. It can tap into fears we have about our loved ones. It can also cause us to consider our own mortality. Working through our own grief can help us with the next point.
Check judgement. In our pain and uncertainty we can be watching out our windows and renewing our newsfeeds. This can make us begin to make judgements about how we think others should be in their helping or their grief. Being a good neighbour means allowing privacy and being generous in our attitudes towards others.
PRACTICAL SUPPORT – This applies to those who are friends and neighbours with those who are closest to the loss, or those who want something to do.
Food. Check if those who are grieving have eaten. Their fridge might become full of food from others, but sometimes it gets left there for any number of reasons. We can ask, “when is the last time you have eaten?” and “how can I help?” Sometimes eating and drinking water can be the last things on someone’s mind. Also, don’t just ask the first week. Ask in 2 weeks, in a month, after several months.
Finance. How can we help to alleviate the financial burdens people might have when there has been a loss? Find out where they shop for groceries and food, and buy a gift certificate. Ask if they need any bills paid. Are there other financial needs they might have?
Kids. Being mindful of children and youth is helpful for both the adults who grieve and the children and youth. Both might need space to grieve away from the other. Ask what you can do to help. Pick up kids for soccer? Organize play dates at your place?
Other. You will likely think of other ways you can help. Can you take out the garbage, mow the lawn, clean the bathrooms?
EMOTIONAL SUPPORT – We provide emotional support when the person grieving most chooses to allow us to see their deepest pain. When writing about Traumatic Grief After Homicide, Holly Aldrich and Diya Kallivayalil wrote: “Develop the capacity to sit in the anguish of another, to fully stay present but not intrusive, to speak but also to be quiet and fully connected.”
Silence. Silence can be powerful. It can be the acknowledgement of the unspeakable, presence without demand, and support in exhaustion. Drink coffee in silence. Sit on the couch in silence. Walk in silence.
Let them lead. Grief is a tumultuous journey without a predictable timeline of emotions and events. Sometimes people will want to talk about the person who died. Sometimes they will just want to be distracted and go to a movie. Follow their lead. This means also being prepared for them to change their minds on short notice.
Confidentiality. Revealing our deepest moments of pain to someone is one of the most vulnerable things we do, and often without choice in grief. It is an honour and not a right to support someone in their grief. We acknowledge this honour by not telling other people what we have seen and heard.
In all our helping, it is wise to remember that grief is deeply personal and is sometimes never resolved. We will not understand the pain of another, and we cannot make it go away. Helping is something we do over months and years, not only in the first days and weeks after a loss.
If you or someone you know is in need of immediate support, contact the Interior Crisis Line 1-888-353-2273