We have already established that grief is an intensely personal process. From the comfort of our armchair we can make broad generalisations about aspects of grief, for example the various stages, but clearly we also need to understand more of the specifics.
When we are confronted with the very intense and painful reality of another’s grief, it is then that, despite the fact that we might have a good knowledge of the grief process, we are driven to ask: “But how do I know what to do?”
What to do for someone who is grieving is a deceptively simple question. Given that everybody reacts in a different way, we are here only able to offer suggestions rather than give definitive answers. Additionally, the losses that cause us to grieve are also extremely varied, and there is not enough scope here to cover all possible situations. By way of illustration, think briefly for a moment about the differences between a young child losing a parent, and a parent losing a young child
Adapting to the Circumstances
Sometimes, parents who lose a child may hear comments like: “It’s ok, you’ve got others”, or “You can have another”—which surely is a failure to appreciate their enormous loss!— but of course no-one would say anything like that to a young child about a parent. We know that an adult is more capable of looking after himself than a child, who will need guardianship of some form immediately. One has the mental resources to understand the concept of grief, the other doesn’t, and so on.
Each has different abilities, make up, education, experience, resilience and so forth. Each also has different needs. What we might offer the young child, and how we offer it, is likely to be materially different from what we offer and how we offer it to the adult. The issues surrounding the loss are different.
If we extend the idea a little further, the forms of loss are quite varied, be it after a long illness or from suicide, be it a sudden traumatic death in a car accident or quietly in old age, be it from miscarriage or medical misadventure. Add to this the losses that aren’t bereavement, such as the loss of mobility or eyesight through injury and it is easy to see how the question, “What do I do?” can get complicated, particularly when we multiply the number of forms of loss by the number of people that could suffer them!
Above all, be mindful that grieving takes time and is very personal. It is inconstant, it can be unpredictable, it can be irrational. And grieving is necessary. What we as supports must be prepared to do is remain constant, not for a few days, but at least for months.
While many of the suggestions below may be self-evident to you, it is helpful to remember that some people are naturals at providing support, while others will struggle. Fortunately, there are many practical ways in which we can help.
Things to do
Remember them after the funeral
This is one of the most critical things a support person can do. Repeatedly, people tell of wonderful, selfless support for the first few days, which rapidly dwindles to become occasional phone calls over the coming months.
When we are faced with a trauma like this our bodies generate massive amounts of stress hormones and, over the first few days, these help sustain our energies, particularly while there are many things to be done or arrangements to be made.
These hormones drop back to more normal levels often about the same time that the funeral is over. Unfortunately, this often coincides with a significant drop in support. Commonly this is when people say they ‘crash’. At this time, support needs to be constant and reliable, but is often withdrawn.
For those not bereaved life returns to normal, but rarely, if ever, does life return to ‘normal’ after the funeral for those suffering loss. Once the friends and families have returned to their own homes and lives and there are no more formalities to attend to, the inescapable awareness that this is how it is going to be from here on can be an enormous burden, as all that seems left are memories and emotions.
This is the very time friends really need to know you care about them. There is nothing worse than being deserted when you are most in need. This can mean being available to spend time, but also to do errands, help with things around the house, provide babysitting, offer transport, cook meals, or any one of a number of things. It may mean having an ‘open door’ at all times so that the bereaved or grieving person can just arrive and sit down. It may mean taking a telephone call at 2.00am
Simple though it may be to understand, listening is one of the things we find most difficult. This means asking genuine questions after the customary “How are you?” (such as “How are you, really?”) and then really listening to the answers without glazed eyes.
Importantly, listening, especially active listening, means not talking. Unless you are invited, you don’t need to offer advice, tell your own stories, share your experiences, change the subject, make jokes, ask lots of questions or in fact do much at all, except be noticeably interested. Gentle encouragers such as nodding, an open body posture (leaning forward, arms unfolded) and minimal comments like “uh huh” can be all you need to provide an environment in which the other person feels comfortable talking. And if they don’t, nothing is lost.
Acknowledge the loss
Telephone, send flowers, write, send cards, make contact. Many people who are bereaved will tell you that it is of significant value to them to know that people are aware of their loss and think enough to acknowledge it. Many letters and cards are kept and re-read for later comfort. Lack of acknowledgement suggests denial of the event, indifference, or even that people don’t care.
Acknowledge the loss in the future
In addition to the immediate time of the loss, acknowledge it over time. Those who die are never forgotten by those who loved them. Their memory is precious and as time goes on help them to recall some of those lovely memories.
Use normal language
It is normal and useful to talk about the loss, and the person if it is a bereavement. Most people will say if they are uncomfortable talking about it, but will usually welcome conversation. Saying the name of the person who has died, as well as words like “dead”, “death”, “died” and “funeral”, “loneliness”, “grief” and so on are realistic and honest and don’t need to be ‘avoided at all costs’. On the contrary, they are often of immense value, as the bereaved or grieving person can find it difficult to say them themselves. Hearing them spoken can help them speak more freely.
At times when a person is overwhelmed with emotion, conversation can be extremely difficult, and at these times saying nothing can be the best option. Platitudes and clichés, however well meaning, and however well they fill a gap in conversation are never effective and often offensive.
Don’t expect them to ‘get over it’
Remember that loss has many facets. When bereaved, it is the person, the relationship, the possibilities and opportunities, the sentimentalities, the routines and so on that are lost. All of these things are different after loss, and the loss becomes something to live with, not something to ‘get over’.
Let them do it their way
Whatever else we might want to do, it is important to let people express grief in their own way. Whether they wail, cry, scream, vomit, remain silent, talk or any of the multitude of ways they can use—let them. There is no particularly right way to express grief, and equally, no wrong way.
What is often wrong is others’ inability to feel comfortable because of the various social customs of our communities, and the sometimes overt pressure they place on grieving people to grieve ‘appropriately’. Yes, it may feel awkward, even embarrassing. And that awkwardness may pass; so be patient and try again another time.
The grieving person may get stuck for words or overcome with emotions while talking to you. Don’t feel compelled to fill in the gaps just because you are feeling awkward or uncomfortable with long periods of silence or intense emotion. If appropriate offer comfort such as touch, but otherwise wait. You don’t need to offer consolation, rationalisation, explanation or anything else for that matter.
Just be there
Often, support people don’t realise that just being with someone grieving is the best thing they can do. While some may choose to be alone, many prefer the company of others, not for conversation but for the company. In fact, many support people want to do things to help and can feel that they are not particularly useful because they didn’t do anything. However, just being around can be a tremendous support. In other words, don’t just do something, be there!
Of course there are always times when people would rather be alone.
Conversely, it can be difficult to know when you should stay around and when you should leave them on their own. The easiest way to find out is to ask. Perhaps something like “Would you like some company, or would you prefer to be alone?” is gentle and yet clear.
Remember that their life is different forever
With a significant loss, it sometimes seems as if nothing will ever be the same. In a sense, this is true as the person with whom we may have shared part of our life is no longer there. In a larger sense though, there are still activities, the children still go to school and many things do continue relentlessly. What changes is our perception of these things.
For the bereaved person, it takes some time to accept and become comfortable with their new existence, and it does them no favor to tell them that everything will be back to normal soon. It won’t. It will always be different, and they will always have memories of what it was like before.
For example, women who miscarry generally place little emphasis on how far through their pregnancy they were. They are mothers, even if it was their first pregnancy, and will count the lost child as one of their family, perhaps naming it and marking birthdays in some way. Comments such as, “It was only so many weeks old”, or “You’ll have another” invalidate the grief that exists for what was lost.
Continue to laugh
Having fun and laughter is a natural and normal part of life, and grieving people still like to laugh and share good times. By all means include them in happy activities and keep your sense of humour. People will usually say if they don’t wish to join in. Enjoyment and laughter stimulate positive brain chemistry and reinforce the importance of support people.
Keep alert for depression
We have previously discussed depression as a part of the grieving process and its normal and natural place in the spectrum of grieving behaviours. Quite often the person suffering grief may have endured a long time of stress as they have watched and perhaps nursed their loved one. They may be exhausted and need considerable care before they can get back on their feet again. But here specifically we mean being alert for signs of depression that are not typical of grief, which includes suicidal thinking.
If you think that you are seeing signs of major depression, talk with the person before you get help, and then help them find an appropriate professional.
Take care of health
During periods of grief we are at greater risk of succumbing to common ailments. Our immune system is compromised during times of stress and we are less able to resist illness. Good routines for eating, exercise and sleep are an important part of maintaining a sense of control over the coming months, strengthening our immune system and also preventing the onset of major depression. Despite the notion that exercise is often the last thing we want to do when we are feeling so miserable, simple regular exercise such as brisk walking or gentle jogging has significant benefits.
Structure is important for us all, and continues to be so during grief. Familiar routines provide a sense of normalcy during an abnormal time, and also a sense that your life will continue, albeit differently from before. Routines are a familiar structure to encourage. But new routines can also be established which can be useful in the short term and which may also generate long term benefits.
Dinner with friends may become the new routine before a weekly meeting. When the rest of one’s existence seems to have fallen in a heap, these simple routines can become beacons in the dark. They also encourage us to remain forward looking. Lack of hope for the future is a key indicator that depression is lurking; so routines that become regular and anticipated are extremely helpful.
Yes. When asked for, and you have appropriate experience or knowledge, offer advice and assistance freely. Alternatively, if you can see the need for well-placed advice, offer it gently and supportively. You may be to able to wash and iron, handle wills, arrange finances, transfer ownerships, re-register cars, organise support rosters, fix things, make suggestions, explain legalese, make food, show others how to use things or indeed do or advise on anything that the bereaved doesn’t know and needs to. It may be as simple as showing a newly bereaved husband how to use a washing machine, but is important nevertheless.
Unless there are deadlines that must be met such as monthly accounts for power or phone or dates for legal proceedings, or crises that cannot be averted such as money problems, most other things can wait. There is no particular hurry to make decisions, sort through clothes, sell things, move house, get a smaller car and so on if the person is not ready.
Well-meaning friends or relatives may put undue pressure on people because they feel their advice is sensible. Remember, they have a lot of adjusting to do as it is. Moving house or buying a smaller car may destabilise them further if they are not ready to make the change. Moreover, major decisions shouldn’t be made in times of great stress. Be patient.
Where there are dates that cannot be altered (like accounts), gentle encouragement and offers to take some responsibility for ensuring they are met is practical and useful. In many cases, responsibility for some basic household running can be shared between a couple of close family members or brethren.
Get help for yourself
Often overlooked is the need for support people to be supported. Being a support for a grieving person can be draining, tiring work and, though a willing labour, is still demanding. A circle of support is effective as the work can be shared, and support people themselves need to be conscious of their own physical health.
So here’s the take home bit
What’s outlined above is not an exhaustive list, but is a reasonably full guide to helpful things support people can offer people who are grieving. Further, there are some excellent resource texts available which offer guidelines and many anecdotes from people who share what was and wasn’t helpful for them.
Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat
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