Brought to you by the Center for Loss and Life Transition - Alan Wolfelt, Ph.D., Director
Identifying and Asking for the Most Effective Grief Support for You
by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.
When it comes to our mourning and how others can best help us, there’s no one right way. That’s because every person and every loss is unique. Not only are each of us singular individuals with unique histories and personalities, but the people we grieve the loss of—as well as the circumstances of the loss—are also one-of-a-kind. After a significant loss, what we think and feel inside, in what ways it helps us to express those thoughts and feelings, and how we feel supported by others vary from person to person and loss to loss.
Yet in his landmark 1995 book The Five Love Languages, author Dr. Gary Chapman introduced us to the idea that human beings feel cared for by others in five primary ways:
Spending quality time together
Hearing words of affirmation
Being the beneficiary of acts of service
Experiencing physical touch
According to Dr. Chapman, each of us “speaks” one of the five love languages. In other words, we feel most loved when we experience the language that is best suited to our unique personalities and ways of being in the world. We might also respond to a second or third love language, but we always prefer our primary love language.
In my articles and books about how we can support one another in grief, I’ve written extensively about all five of these methods of grief support as well as many more. But in reviewing Dr. Chapman’s love languages recently, I also realized that grouping the various helping techniques in this way could help mourners understand and recognize which forms of support and communication might be most effective for them.
I invite you to consider the following five ways of being supported in your grief. Which love language helps you the most?
In Dr. Chapman’s body of work, gifts of love are actual gifts—tangible, visible objects that we give to someone we care about as a means of expressing our affection and devotion. People whose primary love language is receiving gifts see presents as physical symbols of others’ love and thoughtfulness.
Do you enjoy getting presents? Are you someone who displays gift items in your home and feels a burst of love and support each time you see them? If so, receiving gifts might be your love language.
If you are someone who values the love language of gifts, consider letting your friends and family know that you really feel supported by tokens of empathy. You might appreciate flowers, for example. You might also welcome gifts of special food, inspirational books, photo frames, music, candles, and ornaments.
With this love language, it can be tricky to ask for what you need. “Please give me gifts!” would be considered an impolite directive by many. Still, consider sharing what you’ve learned about your love language with a good friend or empathetic family member who is also an excellent communicator. Perhaps she can take on the role of explaining to others the lasting meaning and ongoing support you find in physical objects.
And when you do receive a gift, be sure to write a heartfelt note of thanks explaining your gratitude, what the gift means to you, and how you will use it. A thank-you phone call is also appropriate. Once everyone understands how you feel about gifts, you’re likely to receive more of them in the future.
For many people, there is no present more precious than the gift of presence.
Do you love spending time with the people who care about you? Do you enjoy their company, even when you’re not doing anything special together? Do you prefer company to solitude? If so, quality time might be your love language.
Let your friends and family know that the best way they can help you during your time of grief is simply to be there for you—literally. You crave and need their physical presence. Maybe you don’t want to be alone. If so, tell them that. Maybe you like lots of people around. If so, tell them that.
Also think about how you like to spend the time you have together with others. Playing cards? Watching TV? Going out and about? Hanging out in the same house but doing separate activities? Whatever you prefer, let your friends and family know, because they may feel unsure about what to do (and what not to do).
Consider, too, if you feel supported when you have the opportunity to talk to others about your grief. In general, sharing your story of love and loss is a good idea. It helps you work through your thoughts and feelings. Bottling those thoughts and feelings up inside can seem safer, but it’s actually more dangerous because it puts you at risk of becoming stuck in your grief journey.
Of course, your friends and family members aren’t the only ones who can help you with this love language. Be proactive about getting involved in your community. Volunteering, participating in activities at a place of worship or community group, socializing with neighbors—these are all effective ways to build in more quality time with other people.
And don’t forget that grief never completely ends. If this is your love language, you will need the healing presence of friends and family not just in the first month or two after the death but far into the future. Reaching out to plan ongoing get-togethers will help you receive the support you need.
This griever feels most supported by words that are kind and encouraging. “Words of affirmation” might be your love language if you have a deep appreciation for hearing others tell you:
I love you.
I care about you.
I’m here for you.
You are so loved/strong/genuine because_______________________________________.
I have seen how you ___________________________________________.
You make a difference in the world by _____________________________________________.
Many people __________________________________ you.
If this describes you, let your friends and family know how meaningful you find it when they share these kinds of verbal messages with you. Tell them that their words of encouragement and support lift you up and help you through the darkest times.
Written words may be affirming to you as well. While they’re no replacement for in-person or phone conversations, handwritten notes, emails, and even texts may also be helpful and encouraging to you. If you’re a verbal griever, be sure to encourage all forms of spoken and written communications.
For some grievers, actions speak more loudly than words or mere presence. Do you appreciate help with tasks? Do you feel cared for when others go out of their way to help you with things that need doing? If so, this might be your love language.
Since the death of your loved one, have others said to you, “Let me know if I can do anything”? It’s a natural impulse for friends and family members to want to do something to show their support. Usually what happens, though, is that grievers don’t ask for assistance, so no assistance takes place.
So please, ask for assistance! People often do genuinely want to help, but they don’t know how. Suggest tasks and to-dos that suit their strengths. Ask your gardener friends to help with yard work, for example. Ask your bookkeeper family member to help with home accounting, bill paying, or tax preparation.
If one of your friends or family members is a good administrator, you might sit down with this person and go over all of the tasks that you need help with right now. This person can then assign the tasks out to others in your circle of support.
Finally, if this is your love language and you’ve asked your inner circle for help with tasks but aren’t receiving it, don’t be reticent to reach out beyond your inner circle. Others are waiting in the wings. Places of worship, volunteer organizations, neighborhood committees—these and other service-oriented groups often have programs and maintain lists of volunteers to assist with needs such as yours. All you have to do is ask.
The griever who thrives on physical touch needs closeness. Are you someone who enjoys hugging, sitting close to others, maintaining eye contact, holding hands, and/or walking arm-in-arm? If so, this might be your love language.
If you’re someone who’s always valued physical touch, your friends and family members will know to expect it from you. Don’t stop now! You may, however, want to emphasize to them how extra-necessary you find their hugs and physical closeness during your time of grief.
If this is your love language, you might also be more prone to physical symptoms of grief. It’s common for people in mourning to experience stomachaches, heart palpitations, headaches, lack of sleep, and other physical symptoms. If bodily problems are making it hard you to function and focus on healing, it’s a good idea to schedule a physical exam. Your primary caregiver may be able to help you with insomnia or other symptoms and put fears of illness to rest as well.
Those who crave touch will be soothed by regular contact. In addition to physical closeness with family and friends, massage and physical activity may help you right now. Or consider inviting someone to take a walk with you each day. Physical proximity combined with exercise and supportive conversation may be just what you need to feel loved and supported right now.
I believe Dr. Chapman’s love languages offer a helpful framework for recognizing and understanding your own primary love language so that you know how to ask for and receive the most effective support in your grief. If you are interested in learning more about the love languages, you may want to read one of Dr. Chapman’s books on the topic. He has written versions focused on partners, parenting children, men, and other types of relationships. The original and flagship title in the series was reissued in 2015 by Northfield Publishing under the title The Five Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts.
Dr. Alan Wolfelt is a respected author and educator on the topic of healing in grief. He serves as Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition and is on the faculty at the University of Colorado Medical School’s Department of Family Medicine. Dr. Wolfelt has written many compassionate, bestselling books designed to help people mourn well so they can continue to love and live well. Visit www.centerforloss.com to learn more about the natural and necessary process of grief and mourning and to order Dr. Wolfelt’s books.