a quick note: i’m bad at updating this website and especially bad at updating this blog. and this post isn’t about photography specifically, but it’s about helping people through hard things, which is an art unto itself.
a close friend of mine went through a significant loss recently and it has really opened my eyes to how bad people are at condolences and helping others grieve.
i don't blame any individual for this because i don't think we (as a society) are encouraged to think or talk about grief and death processes very much, or at all. there's been a push in the past few years, which is so great, but i think the push is mostly happening in fringe groups and hasn't really penetrated mainstream culture yet.
i did a lot of my final photography work in college about alternative death processes, burials, and grief. i wouldn't necessarily consider myself an expert, but i've done a lot of reading and watched a lot of youtube videos on the subject. the great news is: the information is out there! and there's so much. if you're interested in learning how to support people who are grieving in tangible and effective ways (which, we all should be! surprise, everyone dies. everyone experiences loss), there are books and youtube channels and even instagram accounts that you can go to in order to educate yourself.
but it's really hard to know where to start! and i'd love to do my small part in making the world a more friendly place for grieving people by giving you that start.
you might be surprised (or maybe you wouldn’t) at the number of people whose first reaction to a grieving friend is to avoid that person. and i totally get it. it’s pretty surreal when a friend experiences loss, and if it’s a close friend, you’re likely experiencing that loss on some level as well. you don’t know what to say, you don’t want to say the wrong thing, you don’t want to pile on the condolences, but i think there are some things you can consider when you’re figuring out the appropriate way to navigate how you interact with your friend/grieving person.
hot tips for helping your grieving person
consider your relationship to the grieving person (key here: grieving person, not your relationship to the deceased. we’ll get to that later). are you their best friend? significant other? family member? acquaintance? do you talk to this person on a regular basis? how close are you? this is really important because your relationship to the grieving person should dictate your level of interaction. you should consider the emotional labor that must be exerted by the grieving person in interacting with you. if you’re their best friend, you will likely mostly provide relief and genuine support. if your relationship is more casual, it might be difficult for that person to talk to you about their loss, or they might not want to. if you used to be close to the person but aren’t anymore, you can still reach out, but do not expect the grieving person to want to talk to you, and do not be offended if they do not want to talk to you.
consider your relationship to the deceased. maybe they were your best friend, or your client, or your hairdresser. when interacting with a grieving person, state your relationship to the deceased, do not be offended if they don’t remember you, and interact with the grieving person on an appropriate level. if your hairdresser passes away, for instance, your relationship to their children is almost non-existent. this might be a time you do not reach out to their children. alternatively, if your best friend dies and you are close with their children, you should absolutely reach out, but think about your words. do not offer to be someone’s “surrogate parent” (that might be the worst one i saw) or tell the grieving person that “god wanted them more” (a real thing someone said once).
remember whose grief is the most important. this might sound weird and a little harsh, because, of course everyone’s grief processes are important. but if you are talking to someone who has just lost their parent, and you were friends with the parent, you might both be sad. however, one of you has just lost a parent and the other has just lost a friend. parent trumps friend. do not expect any emotional support from your friend who has just lost their parent. they do not owe it to you, and you should be seeking your emotional support elsewhere. this isn’t to say that emotional support can’t be mutual, but gauge the situation. consider your relationships to both people, and do not ask the grieving person to participate in unnecessary emotional labor. (ps — relationships are all unique. sometimes biological family isn’t the most important group in a deceased person’s life. sometimes they are. every situation is unique and i do not mean to undermine anyone’s important relationship with anyone else. you know your relationship to the people in your life better than anyone and you should be the judge. just make sure you’re considering it)
ex. you might really want to tell a story about the deceased person because that story is important to you, and you want to bring the grieving person some comfort. you have to consider, in this case, that the grieving person is hearing stories about their deceased person multiple times per day, and that this can be exhausting. you can always ask “can i share with you a story about your parent?”, but give them the opportunity to say “no thank you. those are hard for me to hear right now”. give the grieving person control of the interaction and do not make it about you.
thoughts and prayers are nice, but much like in many other situations, they are not tangible support. think about what you can do for your grieving person. go to their house and make them dinner! bring them dinner! buy them a giftcard to a restaurant if you can’t cook! offer to walk their dog, take them to get a massage or a haircut, offer to make phone calls for them, offer them rides, take them to the movies. make specific offers. if you’re feeling really lost on how to help someone, ask someone close to that person. instead of asking your friend who just lost a parent, ask their significant other—”is there anything you think X needs right now? i want to help but i’m not sure how.” this takes the burden of figuring things out off of the grieving person (who already has enough stuff to figure out, trust me).
show up for the funeral, stay for the whole thing, and participate appropriately. holy shit you might think this would be the most obvious point, but i have been to multiple funerals where people have failed to follow even the most basic rules regarding funeral etiquette.
consider the event. a funeral for a child who died suddenly in a car accident will probably be a very different event from a funeral for someone’s grandparent who passed away of natural causes at an old age. some events are a “celebration of life” and some events are more somber affairs. take the lead of the family on this one.
look nice! if the family has asked you to wear something specific, try your best to accommodate (many cultures have colors associated with grief, or the family might ask you to wear the deceased’s favorite color).
be on time! there are few times in your life when it is more important to be on time than for a funeral. the very last thing a grieving family needs to worry about is the guest that is having trouble finding parking or got lost on the way to the funeral home.
if everyone else is being quiet, you should also be quiet. do not whisper to each other about how the last funeral you attended was superior (this happened!), do not comment on the decor (unless it’s brief and positive), and follow the lead of the family for what to do next.
if you have been asked to participate in the funeral in any way, do your part and then step aside. the funeral is not about you. if you have been asked to do a reading, do the reading that was given to you by the family and nothing more. if you are asked to hold something, hold the thing. if you are asked to attend a private family event afterwards, go. if you are not invited, don’t be offended and leave.
grief resources by people who are not me
one slightly more intangible tip i have for everyone is to learn more about death. learn about what dying looks like, learn about funeral processes and burials. watch movies and tv shows about the topic, read books and blogs. this work can actually be fun and interesting. international death practices are fascinating, and there’s actually a lot of great death-centric media (and not all of it is macabre or weird).
the order of the good death — this is a website/organization/blog/group, idk what to call it at this point. it’s a great resource. here you can read posts about death, find information about death-related events
ask a mortician — caitlin doughty offered me my first foray into the order of the good death, the concept of death positivity, and so much more. she has videos about everything from embalming processes to iconic corpses to supporting grieving people. she’s also hilarious and awkward and great and i love her. in addition to this youtube channel she has written two books that i HIGHLY recommend— smoke gets in your eyes and from here to eternity
refuge in grief — this is the one i mentioned in the graphic caption, and is the source of the graphic!
six feet under — this one is a bingeable tv show that’s very good so you have no excuse not to try it. the show focuses on a family that runs a funeral home, but as the seasons go on it includes a lot of great bits about grief and death!
modern loss — “crafted conversations about grief. beginners welcome.” this is a great website where people can share their stories about grief! reading about how people have handled their own grief or others’ can be immensely helpful in figuring out how to navigate your own situations
your local death cafe!! — this is one of my favorite things in the entire world! death cafes can be organized by anyone, take place anywhere, and offer fantastic opportunities to talk to people of all different backgrounds about death and dying and grief. i have made friends attending these events, i’ve had some incredible cupcakes, and i could not recommend them more highly. just go. even if you’re alone! just go. you might even make a new friend!
okay, that’s it for me for now. if you have any questions that you’d like me to try to answer, you can comment here (which is public), or shoot me an email through my contact form on this site. i would love to talk to you about death and grief, connect you with local resources in your area, or nerd out about natural burial! goodbye for now!
ALSO: again! i’m not an expert, i just spend a lot of time thinking about this stuff!! if you have a resource you think i should include in this post or any thoughts of your own please comment! i am one person and i hold one perspective! it isn’t necessarily the most right or the only way to think about things.
Contributions from others:
Sometimes your grief is complicated because the person who has died held a problematic role in your life, but grief is still there.