Grief is the great leveller, and the great divider. Everyone grieves, sooner or later, but no two people will experience it in the same way. No two bereavements are the same, and neither are any two consolations.
This is only more poignantly the case for people with developmental disabilities. Not only is their grief completely unique, but they are often unable to express it in traditional ways. How are we to support someone through the grieving process when they cannot, or will not, tell us what they are thinking and feeling about their loss? The answer is simple, and difficult.
In Christian theology, there is a concept called “the Holy Spirit”. This is the invisible piece of God that is everywhere all the time, with and within all people. The name given to this in the original ancient Greek is the “Paraclete”, literally, “The one who comes alongside.”
That is also our best, and only role, when supporting a person with a developmental disability to grieve. We must be the one that comes alongside. There is no closer place we can get to. We must be present, be with, perhaps not understanding or comprehending what the person we support is experiencing, but alongside them nonetheless. We must be there, ready to provide whatever we can discover of their unique need in grief.
But that coming alongside must begin before the bereavement. We must already have been there through the happier seasons of the person’s life, if we are to know them well enough to read the language of their grieving, and hope to know in what little ways we may support them. Supporting a person with a developmental disability to grieve is not a matter of coming alongside, but of remaining where we already were. It is a matter of knowing and being known by them, of being trusted. It is not so much a matter of doing anything for the person, but of being something for them: A safe place, a consistent and reliable presence. It is to be a fixed point in a confusing, chaotic world, someone of whom they can say: “When that person is here, I can expect things to be like this.” Only when this relationship is present and well-established in the ordinary times can we come alongside in the darkest, loneliest season on the person’s life, and hope to meet their unspoken needs.
And usually the answer to those needs is what it has always been: To simply be there with them, to prepare a meal for them and do the dishes afterward, to help them wash body and find clean clothes to wear. To open the curtains in the morning, so that when they emerge from the dark cave of their unique grief, for however short a time, they are greeted by a world that has not ended, and a face that they know, and that knows them.