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Updated: Apr 12

By Luyeye Hope Matambo 

Often I get asked the question, “How can I be there for my grieving person?”

To be honest, I don’t know how to answer this question as it has many dynamics to it. What I do know is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach.

Grief, by nature, is a very complex and difficult thing to understand and navigate. It can rip your heart apart in the most gut-wrenching way and spin you into both physical and emotional turmoil, all in one breath. It is a powerful force that has dreadful consequences when the right kind of support is missing. In almost all situations, grief has a two-dimensional reality that operates simultaneously. To put this simply, grief is silently but intricately intertwined from two standpoints. Firstly, how the person who has lost a loved one responds or reacts to grief in its immediate form as well as in the long term. On the other hand, it is how grief affects everyone else around, whether you are grieving from the standpoint of being a family member, a friend, or a colleague. It is in being aware of this dynamic that we need to be cautious and aware of the fact that it is about my grieving friend, not about you, and only then can we put our best foot forward in supporting someone who is grieving.

So what is grief?

Simply put, grief is an emotional reaction experienced by the death of a loved one. It is not only limited to the loss of a loved one but can be extended to things such as the loss of a job, a relationship breakup, the loss of a pet, an untimely ending to an illustrious sporting career through injury, or any major life event that has the power to cause this emotional stress in one’s life. This article, however, will focus on the loss of a loved one.

My experiences with grief came about when I lost my husband nine and a half years ago. I had never lost anyone close to me before this in my entire life up until this point when at 30 years old and pregnant, my husband died suddenly in a car crash. I had no memory bank of what losing someone felt like, nor did I fathom how losing my partner, my provider, my friend and lover and the father to my unborn baby would affect me. I never knew how messy, exhausting and tiring the grief experience would be. No one around me ever spoke about grief. No grief conversations were being had anywhere. It was silent. Not only was I having to deal with this deep sorrow, but I also had to deal with the high-stakes level pregnancy hormones. My emotions were sky high and all over the place and my reality of having to go through deep sorrow but at the same time keep my happy good emotions for the safety and protection of my unborn baby, had me masking my grief in nonchalance. Nonchalance became my coping mechanism so instead of crying, I smiled through it all, and I kept it together.

The thing about grief is that we all grieve differently. Our personality has the power to dictate our responses and reactions to loss as our brains struggle to navigate this new reality, and this may sometimes get in the way of receiving the necessary help and support that we need from those around us. In trying to come to terms with this new reality, the most common reaction for any grieving person is to retreat, withdraw, and shut the world out. In my personal experience, I used nonchalance as a way to brush off sympathy while I tried to navigate my loss in my own time and on my terms. I wasn’t aware of this reaction to my grief in the beginning so instead of crying it out and being sad, I flipped grief on its head and became the consoler for everyone who came to mourn. This gave me power. The power to keep people at arm’s length from noticing my fear, my anxiety, my vulnerability.

When I lost my husband, my initial days were characterized by an internal struggle to keep it together. “Keep it together for the sake of the baby Lulu”. Keep it together so that mum doesn’t worry about you”. Keep it together so that people can see that you are strong”. Keep it together because you’ve got a lot to figure out”. Keep it together because this is all just a bad dream and you will wake up from it”. My reaction to grief was to internalize my sadness, my pain, and my worry so that no one could see this or feel it through the energy I was giving. I dressed my grief in stirring up conversations and telling stories about my late husband; I dressed it up in being the one telling you; it’s ok, be strong. To everyone around me, It seemed like I was doing ok, that I was strong. To tell you the truth, I was scared and broken inside. I was scared to show up and ask people for help for fear that they would let me down. So I mastered the art of keeping my grief private.

The question then begs to be asked. How can one support a friend?

I’ll start with a sidebar; If you are in the supporting role, by no means am I trying to diminish the importance of your loss. You need to go through your process of grief. You are not only grieving for the loss of the one departed, but you are also mourning the part of your friend or person who has lost a piece of them they will never get back. Being a supportive friend is not as easy as it may sound because it not only tests your friendship but it amplifies insecurities within the friendship that you have never been aware existed until now. Identifying and acknowledging that being a supportive friend is not about you and laying your insecurities aside is the first and single most important thing to come to terms with. Feelings of whether your grieving friend still likes you or wants you, or whether they still want to be your friend, whatever your mind chooses to frame as reality, is usually not the case. Bring yourself back, rein in your thoughts and insecurities and realize that it is not about you.

What is important to note is that there are various stages of grief, and the emotional reactions that come with it can be overwhelming. Feelings of fear, anger, and frustration, loneliness and isolation, and survivor’s guilt are all reactions that a person grieving does not necessarily know how to articulate, nor communicate effectively to those around them. Retreating into your own space and mind is always easier as the brain tries to understand what the loss means. Figuring out what loss means emotionally, physically, spiritually, and all the other areas and ways, that your grieving friend needs to formulate a new pathway, takes a very long time. Grief can cloud your mind and take away your ability to reason and think clearly.

So what are the practical steps to take in supporting my grieving person? Watch out for part two.

LULU is a single mother,an entrepreneur, emerging blogger, writer,author and founder of Purple Wings Initiative, an organization that provides the necessary support and tools to help widows navigate life after loss. She generously shares her lived experiences on grief in a practical and relatable lighthearted manner.

Connect with her on Facebook: Lulu Hope Matambo and via WhatsApp: +260964839171

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Edited by Bwalya M Mphuka

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