Many years ago, I was lying in bed scrolling Instagram while my husband snored beside me. I happened upon an account of a young mom who was experiencing loss. Her caption explained that she had recently lost her husband suddenly and unexpectedly, leaving her behind with two very young children. Instantly, I became absorbed in her story and “stalked” her social media accounts. I can’t tell you why I was so drawn to her story, but I distinctly remember crying as I read it, thinking to myself, “I’m so glad that’s not my life. I don’t think I could survive it.”
Ironically enough, that life became mine just a few years later. In 2017, my 36-year-old husband suddenly and unexpectedly died of a massive heart attack. Our children were only four and two at the time, and I was a stay-at-home mom with no other source of income. We lived hours away from our family in a new town in a house we had just bought, intending to finally put down roots. I had never experienced deep grief before until I lost my husband. And then I was thrown into a sea of grief I had no idea how to navigate.
Thankfully, my tribe of friends and family surrounded my kids and me within hours of our loss. I will forever be grateful to them for being my life raft during those turbulent days, weeks, and months that followed. Through my experience, I have understood more fully how hard it can be to be a friend to a mom experiencing loss. Whether they are grieving from the loss of a husband, a child, a parent, or even something like the loss of a relationship, a job, or a home, there are ways you can better understand grief and care for your friend as they start their grief journey.
The word “grief” is derived from the Latin word “gravis” which translates to “a heavy burden.” And grief is incredibly heavy for the bearer as well as her friends and family, who are trying to help her. The way a person carries or handles their grief is as unique as the person themselves.
A grief response tends to be shaped by a person’s personality, faith, history, and culture. Although each person will experience grief differently (and we will all experience it one day), understanding the basics of grief can go a long way in helping a mom who is experiencing loss.
Symptoms of Grief
Common symptoms of grief can be categorized into five categories: physical, cognitive, emotional, interpersonal, and lifestyle.
Grief can present itself physically in many ways, including loss of appetite, difficulty sleeping, depression, loss of energy, fatigue, agitation, and a suppressed immune system. In my grief journey, I have experienced all of these physical symptoms. The symptoms may not present themselves all simultaneously, and they may ebb and flow as the waves of grief rise and fall.
In the days, weeks, or months following a loss, a person may experience confusion, poor memory, lack of focus, and mental distancing from reality. Disbelief about the loss is also common. Trying to accomplish a mentally challenging task may seem difficult or even impossible for a grieving mom.
These are the most obvious symptoms of grief. It is common to feel a wide variety of emotions, including sadness, anger, guilt, despair, loneliness, hopelessness, and isolation. I distinctly remember feeling intense isolation after my husband died. I felt I didn’t belong in any of my friend groups anymore because they all had husbands, and I no longer had one.
Many grieving people feel the need to withdraw from relationships or social interactions after a loss. They may create distance in a relationship where there was none before. Or they may start to feel resentment toward a relative or friend and seek to remove themselves from the relationship.
This is another obvious symptom of grief. A grieving mom may stop taking care of her home and herself (physically and mentally feel unable to do those things). She may also stop participating in things she used to love to do, such as exercising, cooking, going to church, and going out with friends.
Stages of Grief
Understanding and recognizing the symptoms of grief are helpful for a friend trying to help a mom who is experiencing loss. And for someone who has not experienced grief, it can also be helpful to understand how grief works. There are many theories among professionals as to “how grief works.” Some experts see grief as progressing in stages that follow a linear order:
Other experts see grief as work that an individual has to go through to move on. Still, other experts believe that grief is more like a cycle in which a grieving person experiences different phases multiple times in a cyclical pattern. Or they think grief is more like a curve, where the grieving person moves from high morale and energy to low morale and hopelessness and back again.
And while I’m sure that all of this theorizing is important to the experts seeking to understand grief better, I can assure you that none of this actually matters to a person experiencing grief. What truly matters to a mom experiencing loss is that she is lost in a sea of chaos and emotions and that her world has completely turned upside down. What matters to the mom experiencing loss is that her friends and family are there to help her keep from drowning. And there are some really practical ways you can help.
Ways You Can Help a Mom Who is Experiencing Loss
Bring her meals or arrange a meal delivery.
After I lost my husband, the last thing I thought about was eating. But my friends and family knew that my kids and I needed healthy, nourishing meals. One of the greatest gifts I received from people was the gift of a hot meal dropped at my door. My friends set up a “meal train” where I didn’t have to worry about dinner for a month. Other people arranged for food to be picked up from a restaurant and delivered, while other friends sent me gift cards for groceries and local restaurants. I was so relieved to have that daily task taken care of for me.
Offer specific help with household duties.
It is often difficult to make decisions when you’re grieving. Many well-meaning friends and family members asked me what they could do to help. I honestly could not give them an answer because the mere thought of finding a task for them was too much work for me. But then there were the friends who said to me, “I want to do your laundry for you. Is that okay?” And all I had to do was say yes. Or, “I want to hire a house cleaner for you this week. Which day is best?”
When offering to do something to help your grieving friend, be very specific about what it is you would like to do for her, and then just ask her if it’s okay. Nine times out of ten, she’ll just accept your offer and be glad she didn’t have to decide.
Arrange to take her kids to do something fun.
If your grieving friend has children, it can be very difficult for her to find time to allow herself a chance to grieve. I remember bottling up all of my emotions until the end of the day after my kids were in bed, so I didn’t scare them with my pain. Offer to take your friend’s kids to the park or playground for an hour or two. Take them to lunch or a child’s birthday party. Give your friend a break from her kids so she can have some time to process what she’s feeling.
Please don’t stop inviting her to do things. A mom who is experiencing loss may decline invitation after invitation to hang out or do things she would have otherwise enjoyed. Please don’t take this personally, and please do not give up! Eventually, she will want to start doing normal things again, and she will need someone who is still willing to ask her. Be that someone.
Learn to listen well.
When talking with a grieving friend, we often feel the need to say the right thing or do something to help improve it. Please understand that there is nothing you can do. And there is little you can say. And there is certainly not a “right way.” What you can do, however, is becoming a good listener. That may mean sitting in silence with your friend. It may mean letting her cry, rage, joke, or vent. If you feel the need to say something, always opt for the truth: “I don’t know what to say, but I want you to know I am listening.”
Check in with her often.
Grief never ends for a mom who is experiencing loss. It does get easier to manage over time, but it never goes away. As you carry on with life as we all must, even after loss, remember to check in with your friend. She is still hurting, and sometimes it comes out of nowhere, even years later. Don’t be afraid to take a quiet moment to reach out to her and ask her if she needs any support. She may feel silly asking for help after a while, but she will still need it.
Don’t be afraid to talk about her loss.
Please, please don’t avoid talking about our lost loved ones! We want to remember them, and we want others to remember them. When you stop talking about our loved ones, it makes them feel like people forget they exist. And that is another loss. Share a fond memory of the lost loved one or tell your friend you think of them often. Say their name — without shame or hesitation. Say it, so your friend knows they are not forgotten.
Don’t compare your loss to hers.
We all experience loss at some point in our lives. Some of us may have already suffered a great loss. Others of us are lucky to have avoided it so far. But no loss and no grief are the same. So please don’t compare your loss to that of a mom who is experiencing loss. Allow her to grieve and allow her to share her pain. You may think you “know how it feels,” but I promise that you don’t, and saying something to that effect will not help her.
Offer support or a listening ear on important dates.
Certain days are harder than others for a grieving person. Some of the hardest are anniversaries, holidays, birthdays, and special occasions. I fully expected some of the big holidays to be really hard. Christmas was a big deal for our family, and although it was difficult, I was surprised to discover that my kids’ birthdays were harder for me. If you are close enough to your friend to know those special days in her life, try to reach out to her on those days and offer some extra support. She will need it.
Watching a person grieve is an uncomfortable thing to witness. As a society, we are not taught how to handle death, dying, and grief well. And until you’ve experienced it, grief can be hard to truly understand. Using these tips and insight, you can help a mom who is experiencing loss a little better. Being that friend that sticks with her while she travels this unknown and probably unexpected journey will mean more to her than you may ever know.