I have been struck over and over since my husband died by how individualized grief is and what people experiencing grief need and want. In one meeting of my grief support group, for example, I shared how much I appreciated that people were still sending flowers, months after Tom died. Another participant immediately exclaimed, “I hated getting flowers right after my person died and I hate it even more if they arrive now! Who wants a vase of dying flowers in the house when your loved once just died?” We took an informal poll of the folks at the support group meeting and found that some folks wanted flowers, some wanted certain kinds of flowers (a potted plant, for example, rather than a bouquet in a vase), and some did not want flowers at all.
I could share dozens of other examples. One person wants food to just show up, while another hates not being asked what her food preferences are. Some folks want phone calls, while another feels they are intrusive. I want to be mostly alone for the holidays, while others dread being alone during the holidays.
It’s not intuitive. Even those of us who have experienced profound loss may not know what we need, let alone what someone else grieving needs in any given moment. I find what I want and need changes from month to month, week to week, day to day. (I seem to never stop appreciating flowers, though.) I think that because it’s so hard to know what a person who is grieving wants or needs, many people err on the side of holding back, not wanting to “be a bother.” I’ve had a few people tell me that they didn’t want to reach out to me immediately after Tom died because they thought I might be overwhelmed with cards, flowers, calls, and visitors. I wasn’t overwhelmed by those things and appreciated every single one of them, but I know from my support group interactions that some widows are overwhelmed by those things. How could the people who held back from reaching out to me know which camp I was in?
Yet I see a lot of anger among grieving people that others don’t know what they need or want. I hear people in my support groups say, “Everyone has abandoned me. They should know I don’t want to be alone right now.” Just as often I hear people say, “I keep getting invited to things I don’t want to do. They should know I just want to be left alone right now.” But how could others know this if we don’t communicate our needs?
I realized early on that many people wanted to support me but didn’t know how, so I posted on Facebook that I appreciated all the cards, flowers, calls, and visits, and that I hoped they would continue. I’ve not simply waited for folks who didn’t reach out to me to do so; in many cases, I’ve reached out to folks I wanted to hear from by email or text and said, “My husband died and I’ve found a lot of comfort in sitting on my porch with a friend and a glass of wine. Would you be able to come over and have wine with me next Tuesday?” or something similar. No one has turned me down yet! Someone else said they wanted to take me out to dinner and I told them I’ve been finding my way back to cooking and would prefer to make us dinner; they were happy to oblige me.
Why don’t people ask for what they need more often? Why do we feel that others “should know” what we want? Why is this so hard? I think it’s because we’re not used to it. We don’t see it modeled very often. We mistakenly think that if someone really loves us, they should know what we want or need. But given that the needs of grieving people vary so much, I think it’s unreasonable to assume others should know what we want. And even if we believe they should, what’s the harm in making our needs explicit so there’s no misunderstanding or misinterpretation?
In an insightful article for Medium, writer May Pang says that asking for what we need is difficult because we risk rejection when we make our needs clear. The irony is that by not taking that risk, we risk not getting what we need from someone who probably wants to give us what we need; and if this happens multiple times or even just once at a crucial time of need, the entire relationship can be jeopardized. Pang suggests that not asking for what we need is part of a mental pattern many of us have internalized—in other words, it’s a habit, and as we all know, breaking a habit is hard. To break that habit, Pang challenged herself to make her needs known for 30 days. In the course of those 30 days, she learned how to figure out what she needed and how to ask for it in ways that felt good to her and the person she was asking.
Here are a few examples of me asking for what I need recently:
- My evenings were feeling fragmented and I figured out that one reason for that was my daughter showing up at a different time each night to walk the dogs. When she shows up, I stop whatever I’m doing to visit with her for a few minutes. Once I figured out I needed her to show up at a consistent time every night, I shared this with her and to my surprise, she said, “Yeah, that would actually help me, too.”
- A dear friend calls me regularly and leaves voice messages which I really appreciate, but I seldom have the energy to return her calls. I told her how much I appreciate the messages and that I hope they will continue and that she will understand that my not calling back simply means I’m emotionally exhausted.
- I’ve realized that I love having visitors for about 60-90 minutes and that at minute 91, I feel cranky. Now when people say they are coming over, I say, “I can’t wait to see you. Let’s plan for 90 minutes, because that seems to be all I can handle at this point.”
- Some colleagues were trying to make a decision on something and asked me to weigh in on it. I told them I didn’t have the mental energy to come up with a meaningful recommendation. They were gracious and let me off the hook.
- I was sharing with a loved one that my grieving seems to be spiking a bit lately and they immediately went into problem-solving mode. I said, “I know you’re just trying to help, but I just want you to listen right now.”
Identifying what we need and asking for it is actually a good practice, I think, whether we are grieving or not. No one can read our minds.