Tips for supporting those grieving – from a mom who lost her son in a traffic crash
During my early days with San Francisco Bay Area Families for Safe Streets, I had lunch with a community member who had lost his daughter in a traffic crash.
As a parent myself, the loss of a child is unfathomable to me, and I found myself stumbling to find any words. What could I say that would do justice to the loss that he and his wife now lived with every day?
At one point in our conversation, he offered some kind-hearted, yet firm guidance about comforting those who had lost loved ones: “You need to stop walking on eggshells,” he told me.
This moment was an important one in learning how to support someone who’s grieving. Since that conversation, I’ve consulted with grief experts and community members to understand what’s most needed. One of the most helpful conservations was with Julie Mitchell, a co-founder of San Francisco Bay Area Families for Safe Streets.
In 2013, Julie Mitchell’s 21-year-old son Dylan had recently begun work as an electrical apprentice. He was going to be the fourth generation in his family to join the trade.
Dylan had taken the train from his new apartment to the 16th and Mission stop. He then got on his bike, and was riding to a job site nearby when a speeding truck driver struck and killed him.
The sudden loss of her first-born son left Julie paralyzed by grief. Julie shared some thoughts with me, about what she needed (and didn’t need) in those early days.
Don’t underestimate the importance of your physical presence
Julie says that the best support she found in those early days was “friends who just sat with me when I couldn’t do anything else but cry.” Don’t underestimate the power of just being there to hold someone’s hand and listen. Simply showing up is the most important thing you can do. Facing someone experiencing that level of grief can feel scary, but they will never forget that you showed up for them.
Help with meals, chores, and errands
After Julie lost Dylan, she found it hard to go out in public. She recommends offering to go to the store or run errands for or with the person you’re supporting. “After losing a child you feel so vulnerable and it’s so hard to even go out in public again,” said Julie. “Everything becomes a monumental task.”
Cooking or housework can also become overwhelming to a person who is consumed with grief. But nourishment, a clean house, and regular routines are grounding. Setting up and managing a Caring Bridge or Meal Train website can help include others who want to help – making sure it meets their dietary needs and a frequency that won’t inundate them with more than they can manage. And even funeral and memorial planning are ways you can gently step in, so that those grieving can focus on honoring their loved one.
Invite the grieving person to share stories and memories
You may feel awkward talking about the person who was lost – and even uncomfortable saying their name out loud. But this can heighten the feeling that the person is being erased. So say their name out loud, and help to honor their memory by asking the person grieving if they would share stories. Keeping memories alive is a way to show that their loved ones will always be a part of their lives.
Provide a distraction
If they seem ready, invite them to go for a daily or weekly walk, or join you for something social. For some, distraction may be therapeutic.
Check in frequently
Let them know you are there if they need you and that you are thinking about them. Do this in a gentle and open way, but don’t be demanding. Be okay if there is no response. In fact, tell them they shouldn’t worry about responding and you don’t expect a response. This isn’t a time to take anything personally; it’s 100% about the person grieving, and they will be all over the map with their needs and desires.
What to say – and not to say
Many of us can become stuck when searching for words we think will help.
“Things that don’t work are when people say things that they think are going to help you, but they just come out sounding awful,” says Julie. She advises that people not compare their loss to yours. In Julie’s case, “there’s nothing like losing a child, so unless they’ve lost a child too, there is no comparison. It’s better to say nothing.”
But also know that a simple “I’m so sorry” or “You and (the loved one) are in my thoughts” is always safe. The loss is on the person’s mind constantly, so it’s not like you’re reminding them it happened – instead, you’re acknowledging where they’re at.
Here are some resources that Julie and other Families for Safe Streets community members have found useful:
- Harvard Health: Ways to support someone who is grieving
- Permission to Mourn, by Tom Zuba
- Grief Prints: A Practical Guide to Supporting a Grieving Person, by Radha Stern
- Walking with Those Who Weep: A Guide to Grief Support, by Ron Williams
San Francisco Bay Area Families for Safe Streets offers regular opportunities for emotional support, and a place to share stories and memories of loved ones.
On Sunday, November 20, you can stand in solidarity with those who have had loved ones injured or killed in crashes, or been injured themselves at World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims near San Francisco City Hall.
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