How One Therapist’s View on Death Changed After She Lost Her Partner

On a beautiful, ordinary summer day in 2009, I watched my partner drown. Matt was strong and healthy—just three months from his 40th birthday. We had joked that he was half mountain goat, able to scale waterfalls if need be. There was no reason he should have drowned. It was random, unexpected, and it tore my world apart.

We had gone out to the river on the first sunny day after several weeks of rain. Matt went swimming while I stayed in the woods with our dog. When he called out for help, I saw him swept away by a flood-swollen current. The dog and I ran in, trying to save him, but were carried two miles downriver. Search teams found Matt’s body three hours later.

I thought I knew quite a bit about grief. After all, I’d been a psycho­therapist for nearly a decade. I had worked with hundreds of people, from those wrestling with substance addiction and patterns of homelessness to private-practice clients facing decades-old abuse, trauma, and grief.

After Matt died, I wanted to call every one of my clients and apologize for my ignorance. With all of my experience and training, if anyone could be prepared to deal with that kind of loss, it should have been me. But none of what I’d learned mattered.

And I wasn’t alone. In the first years after Matt’s death, I slowly discovered a community of grieving people. It wasn’t just loss that we had in common. We shared stories of being encouraged to “get over it,” put the past behind us, and stop talking about those we had lost. We were admonished to move on and told we needed these deaths in order to learn what was important in life.

Even those who tried to help ended up hurting. Platitudes and advice, even when said with good intentions, came across as dismissive, reducing great pain to empty one-liners. At a time when we most needed love and support, each one of us felt alone, misunderstood, judged, and dismissed.

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It’s not that the people around us meant to be cruel; they just didn’t know how to be truly helpful. Like many grieving people, we stopped talking about our pain to friends and family. It was easier to pretend every­thing was fine than to continually defend and explain our grief to those who couldn’t understand.

Our culture sees grief as a malady: a terrifying, messy emotion that needs to be cleaned up and put behind us as soon as possible. As a result, we have outdated beliefs about how long grief should last and what it should look like.

We see grief as something to overcome, something to fix, rather than something to tend or support. Even our clinicians are trained to see grief as a disorder rather than a natural response to deep loss. When the professionals don’t know how to handle grief, the rest of us can hardly be expected to respond with skill and grace.

There is another way. If we want to care for one another better, we have to rehumanize grief. We have to talk about it. We have to understand it as a natural, normal process rather than something to be shunned, rushed, or maligned. We have to start talking about the skills needed to face the reality of living a life changed entirely by loss.

I’ve been the person howling on the floor, unable to eat or sleep or leave the house for more than a few minutes at a time. I’ve been on the other side of the clinician’s couch, on the receiving end of outdated and wholly irrelevant talk of stages and the power of positive thinking. I learned firsthand why trying to talk someone out of their grief is both hurtful and entirely different from helping them live with their grief.

Many people truly want to help a friend or family member who is experiencing a severe loss. Words often fail us at times like these, leaving us stammering for the right thing to say. Some people are so afraid to say or do the wrong thing that they choose to do nothing at all. That’s certainly an option, but it’s not often a good one.

There’s no one perfect way to respond or to support someone you care about, but there are some good ground rules.

stack of casserole dishes on blue backgroundMatthew Cohen for Reader’s Digest

First, remember that you play a supporting role, not a central role, in your friend’s grief. You may believe you would do things differently if this loss had happened to you. I hope you don’t get the chance to find out. This grief belongs to your friend. Follow their lead.

You might also be tempted to make statements about the past or the future when your friend’s present life holds so much pain. But you can’t know what the future will be—it may or may not be better “later.” Omniscient platitudes aren’t helpful. Stick with the truth: This hurts. I love you. I’m here.

Keep in mind that being with someone who is in pain isn’t easy. Your friend cannot show up for their part of the relationship very well, and you will likely get hurt. Don’t take it personally, and please don’t take it out on them.

In fact, one of the best things you can do for a grieving friend is anticipate their needs. Don’t say, “Call me if there’s anything I can do,” because your friend will not call. Identifying a need, figuring out who might fill that need, and then making a phone call to ask is light-years beyond your grieving friend’s energy level, capacity, or interest. Instead, make concrete offers: “I will stop by each morning on my way to work and take the dog for a quick walk.” Then show up and do it.

Of course, the real work of grieving is not something you can do for your friend, but you can lessen the burden of everyday life. Assist in small, ordinary ways, such as refilling prescriptions, taking in the mail, or shoveling snow. These tasks are tangible evidence of love. You can also shield your friend by setting yourself up as the designated point person—the one who relays information to the outside world or organizes well-wishers.

If your friendship is close enough, you could even offer to tackle projects together. There will likely be plenty of difficult tasks that need tending to—things like choosing a casket, mortuary visits, sorting through and packing up a lifetime of belongings. Then be sure to follow through on your offers to help.

Above all, show your love. Say something. Do something. Be willing to stand beside the gaping hole that has opened in your friend’s life without flinching or turning away. Listen. Be there. Be love. Love is the only thing that lasts.

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