Just as we benefit from having an active support system when we are grieving, so too do we want to support others in our life who are experiencing bereavement. It is compassionate and healthy to be there for friends and family, colleagues and acquaintances who are navigating grief after loss.
However, it might seem challenging to support our loved ones when:
- We are feeling keenly the weight of compassion fatigue or realizing an increased proximity to possible burnout;
- We are ourselves actively grieving the loss of a loved one;
- We are struggling to maintain emotional balance due to familial, workplace, national, or global stress;
- We are the “go to” person for everyone in our family system or social group.
Supporting others who are grieving is important work, but it should never come at the expense of supporting ourselves. If you are looking for ways to balance self-care with support for those who are grieving, the following tenets may help you in doing so:
Pay Yourself First
A common strategy in money management is to “pay yourself first.” That is, before allocating your income to bills or luxuries, one should first put some affordable amount into a form of savings. Similarly, consider how much empathy and energy you have at a given time. What can you afford to give to yourself before you begin to budget your support for others? (It shouldn’t be “nothing.”)
Schedule time to prioritize both your own grief needs and your own well-being and remember that these aren’t mutually exclusive activities. This kind of purposeful self-care has several benefits. First, it will lessen risks of developing compassion fatigue when supporting others. Additionally, it will promote both physical and emotional health. Importantly, it will also assist you in developing and maintaining boundaries when supporting others.
Bearing witness to others’ losses means keeping the grieving person at the center of your conversations with them and giving them space for emotional ventilation. It also means validating the unique nature of others’ grief responses without judgment or redirection and avoiding comparing it to other losses experienced by yourself or someone else. Of particular importance, in employing empathic support, we must avoid categorizing or hierarchizing others’ losses or making assumptions about what that loss feels like to the bereaved.
We know that the shape and weight of grief changes over time, so you should always meet grieving people where they are in their grief journey. Remember that everyone’s unique relationships, roles, and daily stressors may significantly impact differing responses to their loss – no two people grieve in the same way.
See the Unseen Mourners
There are many individuals and populations who have been grieving throughout the COVID-19 pandemic but whose grief now and in “ordinary times” is overlooked. Both children and elderly persons often experience a lack of attention or support when mourning and frequently long to talk about their losses and their feelings. Assumptions, ageism, or apprehension might prevent others from reaching out to children or the elderly to talk about their losses and grief.
Similarly, people who have not experienced a death loss throughout the last two years but who are experiencing adverse effects of non-death losses from the pandemic may also feel unseen and as if they have no right to grieve losses due to mental health complications, financial instability, disruptions within their family systems, or a host of other experiences.
People whose vocations are directly involved with the pandemic, such as health care and death care professionals, are often working in spaces where the high saturation of death makes grief virtually inescapable. These individuals might feel that their own losses are secondary to the work they do or the people they serve.
All of these groups of people, like all people, deserve empathic attunement and attention to their grief.
Maintain Your Own Support System
People who feel satisfaction in giving support to others are almost always those who have good supports in their own lives and understand that they cannot sacrifice one for the other. Remember that you are also deserving of an empathic ear and emotional validation; in fact, maintaining a support network means that you will be better equipped to help loved ones without becoming compassion fatigued, overwhelmed, or irritated.
The center of your support system is you. Ensure that you are undertaking acts daily that promote your health and well-being, allow for relaxation, and encourage self-satisfaction. While for many of us this tenet can be challenging, strive for a balance between supporting others and yourself. Doing so will benefit you directly – and indirectly, through the more focused and purposeful care you will be able to give others.
About the Author
Sara Murphy, PhD, CT, is a death educator, certified thanatologist (Association for Death Education and Counseling), and suicidologist. She is a faculty member at the University of Rhode Island and an affiliate faculty member in the Thanatology Graduate Program at Marian University. She conducts workshops on death, dying, and bereavement nationwide for professional organizations, schools, and community groups. Dr. Murphy is also a bereavement and suicide consultant and the author of the booklet, Grieving Alone & Together: Responding to the Loss of Your Loved One during the COVID-19 Pandemic, a free resource available to grieving families and helping professionals published by the Funeral Service Foundation. She can be reached at SaraMurphyDeathEducator@gmail.com.