Helping a Sister Through Grief
Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
So begins author Joan Didion’s memoir “The Year of Magical Thinking” in which she shares what life and grieving was like after her husband, fellow writer John Gregory Dunne, died suddenly and unexpectedly of a heart attack.
Married for 40 years, Gregory’s death forced Didion to experience the grieving process in a way she never imagined, “Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death.”
If your sister has recently experienced the devastating loss of her husband, she is, without question, dealing with the cutting grief that follows. Although it is impossible to know how long it will take your sister to move through her grief, there are ways you can help her on her journey toward acceptance and healing.
Everyone is Unique
Though you have known your sister for many years and have always understood her inside and out, she is now a person she has never been before and is experiencing a degree of pain and loss that is completely new to her. Your first responsibility to her is to recognize that she has fundamentally changed and pay close attention to her moods so you can determine what she may need and when.
This is important because when we grieve, we lose our ability to think and reason clearly. We may know we need help, but we don’t know what form we need it to take. All we want is for the pain to stop and for our loved ones to come walking through the door.
Instead of asking your sister what she needs or what you can do to help, try and think from her point of view and how her world has changed. For instance, if your brother-in-law was the one to pay the bills and balance the checkbook, you might take on this responsibility for the next few months. If your brother-in-law was the real cook in the family, make sure you bring over healthy meals.
Make Yourself Available
Your sister is about to go on an incredibly painful journey as she experiences a wide range of emotions like anger, sadness, fear and panic. Just knowing she can turn to you or pick up the phone at any hour to talk will be a great comfort to her.
Be a Voice of Reason
Grief can make human beings do things that aren’t necessarily ‘smart’ or ‘well thought out.’ Many widows make major life decisions but do so from a place of pain and anger and fear, and these decisions can sometimes have negative financial ramifications.
For instance, your sister may suddenly announce she is going to sell the house and move to be near friends in California. This may or may not be the wisest decision. Chances are it is a decision that stems from not wanting to be constantly bombarded with memories while living in the house she and her husband shared for so many years.
Your job at this time is to be a voice of reason and persuade your sister to not make any big decisions during the initial stages of grief when her thinking may not be clear or pragmatic.
Look for Outside Support
Unless you have also experienced the loss of your husband, the truth is you simply have no idea what your sister is going through. But there are widow support groups that can offer your sister a shared journey and perspective. Often simply speaking with others who are going through the same thing can be very therapeutic.
Be There for Your Nieces and Nephews
Your sister may be so consumed with the loss of her husband and her own grief that, initially, she may find it difficult to be there for her children who are also grieving and need support. As an aunt, talk to your nieces or nephews about their feelings. Your sister will be grateful to have her children be cared for in this way.
Help with Basic Chores
When you’ve suffered a significant loss, the last thing on anyone’s mind is making sure the dishwasher is emptied or the laundry folded. And yet life insists that these chores get done. Help your sister by:
- Preparing meals
- Cleaning the house
- Making the children’s lunches
- Running errands
- Grocery shopping
- Doing the laundry
- Walking the dog(s) or cleaning litter boxes
Help Her Sort Through Her Husband’s Belongings
The time will eventually come when your sister will have to sort through her husband’s belongings. This will be a painful process because of all of the memories attached to his belongings. Having you present as a support and source of comfort will be greatly appreciated.
Help Her Come Back to Life
Initially, your sister should be allowed to fully engage with her grief and emotions. But there will come a point when she may need encouragement to join the living once again. Help her to find ways to be active. Invite her to social gatherings or for a walk or to go see a movie. She will most likely feel guilty for feeling joy and pleasure again so help her to recognize that loving her husband as well as herself means embracing life again.
There is nothing quite as special as the bond between sisters, and though it may be hard to watch your sister grieve, your love and support will be a bright light in her darkest days.
“Is solace anywhere more comforting than in the arms of a sister?” -Alice Walker
by Jenna Bruce