Supporting someone through grief can be difficult, especially when you’re navigating it for yourself, as well. Here’s my experience and some tips to help.
Mid-20s is a strange stage of life to be in. Last time I checked, I was just a student contemplating what to get for takeaway; and then – in the blink of an eye – I’m trying to wrap my head around my bills and taxes. Everyone around me is getting a job, moving out, or leaving the country; friends start getting married, and even having kids. Ah, the joys of #adulting. But, maturing as an adult also comes with its sorrows. After all, with ageing, eventually comes death – the death of those we love, who are older than us, which sometimes happens before we’ve had a chance to prepare ourselves. The shock can make it even harder when supporting someone through grief.
Grieving sudden deaths
The first death happened at the end of December 2020. It was one of my maternal grandfather’s younger sisters, Aunt Gigi. I recognised her when I saw a photo of her but, otherwise, I had no other recollection. It was different for my mum, though. She told me that they used to spend a lot of time together before Aunt Gigi got married. Despite the fact that they haven’t spoken in a long time, Aunt Gigi only had a handful of surviving members from her immediate family. Therefore, my mum had to take care of most of the things Aunt Gigi left behind. She was also the one in charge of the funeral.
The second death occurred in February 2021. This time, it was one of my maternal grandfather’s younger brothers. Let’s call him Uncle 12 here, since he was the 12th oldest among his brothers (yes, it was a big family). I didn’t need a reminder of his face, but having spent so many years away from home, I couldn’t remember much about Uncle 12 either. His whole family was abroad and, for several reasons (one of which was, of course, COVID-19), couldn’t come back to Hong Kong. This, again, left my mum to be the one to sort things out after Uncle 12’s death.
【若鳥自由Flying Beyond Limits —再見芝芝婆婆Goodbye Gigi】芝芝婆婆在去年12月因病去世了，享年86歲。回顧她入住院舍這十二年，她能一圓年青時的藝術夢，讀三年的藝術課程、學畫畫、Saori織布、寫書法、手工藝，開個人展覽、參賽獲獎、當駐場藝術家…她認真學習和一絲不苟的態度，以及她筆觸細緻的作品都受到很多人讚賞。藝術為芝芝晚年生活添了豐富的色彩，相信她現在在另一國度，也像她畫筆下的鳥兒，自由自在，再無局限和疾病。.#謝謝您與我們分享您獨有的藝術世界.Of the last 12 years staying in elderly home, Gigi can have her art dreams actualized through taking a 3 year Art Course, learning paintings, Saori weaving, calligraphy and then holding solo exhibitions, winning awards….Art has really colored her life. We wish her new life in another kingdom be as free as birds in her brushes.#ThankYou.影片紀念我們敬愛的藝術家莫惠芝。A memorial video for our precious artist Mok Wai-chee.
Posted by 愛不同藝術 i-dArt on Sunday, April 4, 2021
The third death, which happened in March 2021, was the biggest blow to my family. It was my mum’s eldest brother, Uncle Dominique. I didn’t have trouble recognising him; in fact, he’s one of our closest relatives. I would visit Uncle Dominique almost every time I returned to Hong Kong for a holiday. The last time we saw him was when he came to our house for Chinese New Year. He was jovial and talkative as usual; there was nothing amiss. But, two weeks later, he passed away from a heart attack. While he’s been struggling with coronary heart disease for over four decades, nobody expected his death – not so soon. Not even himself – he didn’t leave a will. And since he’s unmarried, my mum, once again, took matters into her own hands: registering for the death certificate, contacting the bank, finding a lawyer…
Within three months, our family lost three relatives; Mum lost three close relatives. We grieved, and we watched her grieve. For me, the latter was harder. I hated to see Mum upset, but I also didn’t really know what to do when supporting someone through grief. Sometimes, I’d get frustrated when she kept repeating her anecdotes about Auntie and the uncles; other times, I felt that I was supposed to be sadder, and I felt guilty for not being so.
The weight of life and death
It’s odd – I’ve had relatives who passed away when I was a kid or a teenager. However, coping with grief and loss is a completely different experience for me as an adult than when I was still a child.
I think the difference is the understanding of the weight of life and death.
Put it this way. Every time I visit my grandma at the elderly home, or when I see Granny slowly limping across the street, it hits me: while I’ve been celebrating the birth of my friends’ babies and coming into our own as adults, age has been taking its toll on my grandparents (and my parents, too). Now, it’s as if I’m blooming and flourishing while they’re just… wilting away. And my heart drops just thinking about this disparity, because I realise I’m getting closer and closer to the day when I’ll lose them completely.
This thought never really crossed my mind until I settled back down in Hong Kong a year ago, only to realise how much my parents and grandparents had aged while I was away. Living with my parents has made me notice how many hospital visits they’ve been doing on the regular, and how many funerals they’ve had to attend. It was then that I began to fully grasp the permanence of death; it was then that I began to understand grief.
How to support someone through grief
Here are some tips (from Mum and I with love!) for those of you who’d like to help your loved ones through their grief. Some of these apply to generally talking about mental health and supporting those suffering from poor mental health, as well.
1. Listen to their stories about those who passed away.
I know, it gets repetitive sometimes. But, do try your best to share and relive these memories with them. Who knows – you might enjoy reminiscing, too!
2. Let them grieve. And when they open up and initiate conversations, don’t avoid them.
Conceal, don’t feel; don’t let them know… Wait, no, don’t listen to Elsa! Allow your loved ones to feel and to grieve. While they wallow, please cut the toxic positivity. And when they do open up, reassure them that it’s okay to not be okay.
3. Help them with the logistics after someone’s death.
Wills, funerals, death certificates, bank accounts… The checklist for things that need sorting out after someone’s death can be endless, and they all require a lot of time, detail, and attention. The worst thing? Your loved ones will be reminded of the deceased, every step they take, throughout the process. Thus, it’s important for you to help them jump through these hoops, whether by introducing them to your trusty lawyer friend, or finding a suitable coffin and funeral home.
4. Ask them what they want or need – and just do it.
A hug? A cake? A weekend getaway? If you can afford it, do it. People who are grieving often won’t have the energy to take good care of themselves, so check in and take the time to help out with whatever needs doing.
5. Be prepared that it’ll be a long journey.
The grief will most likely always be present – it may very well follow your loved ones for life. The smallest thing can trigger them in remembering the person who passed, no matter how long ago the death was. Be prepared for these situations and don’t brush them off.
6. Remember that you’re grieving too, so take care of yourself.
Supporting someone through grief can be stressful, especially if you also know the person who passed away, so don’t hesitate to reach out for professional help if you and/or your loved ones need it. Always bear this in mind: you can only afford to support those you love if you yourself are well supported!