Grief is the normal reaction and response to loss. The loss can be due to a death, divorce, loss of a job, loss of custody of a child, or anything involving the separation of the individual from someone or something important to them. Often, when we think of grief, we only think of death, but the loss of a relationship can feel exactly like death to many people.
It can be quite scary and alarming to watch someone in the deepest throes of profound grief. Often, people will become almost paralyzed with uncertainty about how to help, or what is normal. Sometimes, normal grief can become “complicated grief” in which grief becomes debilitating and does not improve over time. In complicated grief, painful emotions are so long lasting and severe that a person cannot accept the loss and resume their life.
On the flip side, many times a grieving person will hide away the true extent of their suffering. The people around them may not know how much pain they are in, and how much support they really need.
The first step in helping your loved one, is to understand the grieving process. You can read about the stages of grief more in depth in my post, Grief. Understanding and Surviving it. Here is a short break down of the 5 general stages a grieving person will go through, followed by some specific things you can do to support your loved one.
Keep in mind, if the loss was sudden, unexpected, and/or violent, or if a death is due to suicide, or an accident or other event that your loved one feels responsible for, then some of these stages will be very difficult for them to get through. If the loss was expected, and your loved one has had time to prepare, they may go through some or all of these stages BEFORE the actual loss occurs. If you know your loved one is preparing for a tragic loss, for example a spouse is dying of cancer or they are going through a divorce, reach out before the loss and provide support:
1. Denial. This is a protection stage, often experienced immediately after the loss. A person may experience tunnel vision or the feeling of having an out-of-body-experience. They may not believe that the loss has occurred, and may staunchly deny the loss. It can be frustrating to deal with a grieving person in this stage, but please be patient. This is a vital adjustment stage that protects the person from shock. When they deny the loss, do not try to “prove it” to them. Simply support them, and let them know you are there for them. They will move out of this stage, let them do it at their own pace. Also, numbness is normal, don’t confuse it with “lack of caring”.
2. Bargaining. In general, this stage will follow closely on the heels of the Denial stage. “Ok,” the grieving mind thinks, “the loss has occurred…now, what am I going to do to fix it? They may try to bargain with God, or the Universe, or Time itself. “Please, please, please,” they think over and over, “just let me go back and put things right.” They will go over the events leading up to the loss, trying to determine “what went wrong”. It may feel as if they can change things if they figure out what mistakes were made, so that they can be corrected. Again, this can be frustrating for the person providing support. You may get tired of hearing the same stories over and over again. Refrain from saying things like, “You’ve already told me this”, or “I already know what happened”. Simply listen. Provide support. Let them know they can talk about the loss as much as they want.
Be aware, if a grieving person becomes too preoccupied with what could have been done to prevent the loss, intense feelings of remorse and guilt can interfere with the healing process. After a loss due to suicide or an accident which a person feels could have been prevented, or a relationship break up, people often become stuck in the bargaining stage. If you feel your loved one has become stuck in this stage, or if their thoughts turn toward self-harm, you may need to get help.
3. Depression. This stage usually occurs after the grieving person realizes the true extent of their loss. Signs of depression include: appetite and sleep disturbance, lack of energy, inability to concentrate, prolonged crying spells, loneliness, emptiness, a desire to isolate themselves from others.
There IS a difference between clinical depression and grief. Depression during the grieving process is normal, expected, and healthy. However, grief CAN lead to clinical depression. Be aware of where your loved one is in the grieving process, so you can recognize when it’s time to get help.
4. Anger. This reaction usually occurs when the grieving person feels helpless and powerless. It is most likely to be the stage that pops up, unexpectedly, at any point along the way, and the one they will most often go quickly back and forth to. This can be alarming, both to yourself, and to the person who is grieving. It’s okay to get angry, and if the grieving person is distressed over this stage, let them know that it is normal, healthy, and necessary. Often, grieving people will try to hide this stage from others. There are many things that will throw them back to the anger stage. Feelings of abandonment, anger at a higher power or even toward life itself, their own feelings of guilt or regret, or even anger at the object of their loss for leaving them.
5. Acceptance. In time, the grieving person will come to terms with their various feelings and accept the fact that the loss has occurred. True healing can begin once the loss becomes integrated into their set of life experiences. Remember, acceptance does not mean they “get over it”. It just means they have accepted it and “moved on” with their life. There is no time period for grief, they may re-visit some or all of these stages for the rest of their lives. But do not expect true Acceptance to be reached until at least 6 months, and up to 2 years or more after the loss.
What can you do to help your loved one during the grieving process?
What to say:
- Acknowledge the loss. Be specific. You are not going to hurt them by reminding them of their loss, they have not forgotten. Also, do not use uphemisms, or try to be patronizing. “I head that your husband died. “Use the word “died”. That will let the person know you are not squeamish or afraid of an open, straight forward conversation about the death.
- Express your concern. Again, this should be concise and to the point. There’s no better way of saying it than a simple, “I’m so sorry that this happened to you.”
- Be genuine, and express your true feelings. Don’t try to make them think you have all the answers, or that everything will be okay – it won’t – at least not yet. Don’t try to sound like a Hallmark card. “I don’t know what to say, but I want you to know how much I care about you.”
- Ask how they are feeling, NOT how they are doing. If you ask how they are doing, you will most likely get the answer of “fine”. When you ask how they feel, you just might get an honest answer – which may change from day to day, even hour to hour. Validate their overwhelming feelings of loss by admitting you have no idea what it’s like for them. “I can’t imagine what you must be going through. How are you feeling right now?”
- Offer your support. “Tell me what I can do for you.” A question phrased, “Is there anything I can do?”, can be easily answered with a “yes” or “no”, and most likely you will get a “no”. By phrasing it with the “tell me what I can do…” you are more likely to get a solid response. Regardless of the response you get to this question, be proactive. Offer up some things that you know might bring comfort and support. “What are you doing tomorrow? Can we have lunch?”, “I make a yummy lasagna that can go in the freezer. Can I bring one over?”, “There are some great grief support groups out there, can I help you find one?”, “I would love to bring a tree over and plant it in John’s memory.” During the grieving period, it’s important to both visit your loved one in their residence (where they will be more comfortable, and you can evaluate their level of adjustment), and to get them out into public (so you can keep them connected and involved in life).
What NOT to say.
I had every single one of these things said to me over and over again after the suicide of my fiance, Dan. And every time, it was like a slap in the face. I hated hearing these things, please don’t say them. Even if you know darn good and well the grieving person shares your same spiritual beliefs, trust me, now is not the time for these words. If the bereaved expresses these thoughts, by all means support and agree, but do not try to convince them yourself.
- “It’s part of God’s plan.” First of all, they may not share your beliefs. And even if they do, this will not ease their pain. It will only make it seem like YOU are tying to make light of their loss, or in some way lesson the gravity of it. Maybe it IS part of God’s plan, but that will not bring comfort to your loved one. Keep in mind, making this comment is like saying, “Well, cancer DOES kill people…” Would you expect that to comfort your friend?
- “He’s in a better place now.” Again, many people will not share this belief, and so these words have no meaning to them. And some people may fear that their loved one is, in fact, in a WORSE place. If this is the case, your words will only distress them even more. No matter what their spiritual beliefs, comments like this come across to the bereaved as you trying to lesson the loss. Right now, there is no silver lining to be found, so don’t go looking for one. On a side note, I had two people make comments to me to the effect that it was a shame Dan would now be burning in Hell for all eternity because he committed suicide. Even if you believe this – even if the bereaved person believes this – do not make a ridiculously insensitive comment like this to a grieving person!
- “I know how you feel.” Unless you have experienced the exact same kind of loss, you do not know. And even if you have, relationships are all different. You may have had a very different relationship with your mother than your friend did. Or your divorce may have gone very differently. Nothing can put more distance between you and the grieving person you are tying to help then your insistence on “comparing grief” Instead, ask them how THEY feel.
- “Look at what you have to be grateful for.” None of those things matter right now, nor do they have anything to do with the loss. A man who is falling to his death will not be grateful that he has air around him to breathe.
- “This is behind you now; it’s time to get on with your life.” More than any other comment, I hated hearing this one. And people were saying it to me within just a few short weeks of Dan’s death. Sometimes the bereaved are resistant to getting on with “life as usual” because they feel this means “forgetting” his or her loved one. In addition, moving on is easier said than done. Grief has a mind of its own and works at its own pace.
- Statements that begin with “You should..” or “You need to…” These statements are too directive. You have no idea what they “should” be doing. You only have suggestion about what they “could do” to possibly ease their pain. Instead you could begin your comments with: “Have you thought about. . .” or “You might try. . .”
Important things to always remember:
- There is no right or wrong way to grieve. It’s unpredictable, tempestuous, different for everyone. Most grieving people will go through the stages of grief, but how they go through them varies wildly.
- There is no set time table for grief. In general, it will take anywhere from 6 to 24 months for most people to move through the stages of grief and reach true “Acceptance”. However, some may take less time, others more. And even when Acceptance is reached, grief does not end. The grief of the loss will remain with your loved one for the rest of their lives.
- Grief may involve extreme emotions and behaviors. Feelings of guilt, anger, despair, and fear are common. A grieving person may yell to the heavens, obsess about the death, lash out at loved ones, or cry for hours on end. The bereaved need reassurance that what he or she feels is normal. Don’t judge them or take his or her grief reactions personally.
- Listen with compassion. Everyone worries about what to say to a grief stricken person. But way more important than what you say, is how well you listen. We’ve gone over what to say and what not to say. Other than that, your main goal is to get the bereaved person talking, although don’t try to force them if they are not ready.
- Make them feel safe expressing all their emotions. Let them know they can cry or shout, or completely break down.
- It’s okay to sit in silence. Sometimes, the grieving person just needs someone to be with them.
- Let them talk about the deceased over and over again. You may feel like this is detrimental to healing, or that the bereaved needs to stop focusing so much on the loss. Nothing could be further from the truth.
- Do not minimize the loss. At some point, it may help for you to share your own experiences of grief, but do not try to compare grief, or tell the person you know how they are feeling, or what they should be doing.
- Offer practical assistance. It’s difficult for grieving people to ask for help. They have neither the energy, nor do they often even realize that help is available. When I was grieving, lots of people said to me, “Is there anything I can do?” I always just answered, “No, I’m fine.”What was I supposed to say? “Come over and sit with me”?, “Please just listen to me talk about Dan over and over and over”? “Bring me some food, otherwise I won’t eat anything for days at a time”? Not one single person ever offered to do anything specific for me, or in any other way offered to help. I thought it meant they didn’t care. I came to the firm conclusion that my rotting corpse could have lain in my apartment for days and no one would have even noticed my absence. Looking back now, I imagine the people who “cared” about me, truly didn’t have any idea just how much help I needed. Even knowing all I know now about death, grief, and people’s response to it, I still can’t help but wonder how much any of those people really care. You don’t want your loved one to spend the rest of their lives not quite knowing how much you love them. Here are some examples of things you can do:
- Shop for groceries or run errands
- Drop off a casserole or other type of food
- Help with funeral arrangements
- Stay in his or her home to take phone calls and receive guests
- Help with insurance forms or bills
- Take care of housework, such as cleaning or laundry
- Watch his or her children or pick them up from school
- Drive him or her wherever he or she needs to go
- Look after his or her pets
- Go with them to a support group meeting
- Accompany them on a walk
- Take them to lunch or a movie
- Share an enjoyable activity (game, puzzle, art project)
- Provide ongoing support. The grieving process takes much, MUCH longer than anyone realizes. Your loved one will need your support for months and even years to come.
- Continue your support over the long haul. Many people will disappear after the funeral, believing they have adequately given their support. Yours will be invaluable to the bereaved now, as the shock wears off and they often find themselves alone with their grief.
- Don’t assume the bereaved is okay based on outward appearance.
- The pain of grief never fully heals. It will lesson over time, and the bereaved will learn to accept the loss and move on, but they will never “get over it”.
- Be supportive on special days like birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, etc.
- Watch for warning signs. Grief can evolve into clinical depression or “complicated grief”. Encourage the grieving person to seek professional help if you observe any of the following warning signs after the initial grieving period—especially if it’s been over two months since the loss. I can tell you, that 4 months after Dan’s death, I was experiencing every single one of these symptoms, including hallucinations. It was at this point in my grief that I put a loaded gun to my head. I have always called it a “vision” that saved me, but perhaps it was a good old fashioned hallucination! Whatever the case, since no one was supporting me, or paying attention to me, no one saw any of these signs, and I almost died.
- Difficulty functioning in daily life
- Extreme focus on the death
- Excessive bitterness, anger, or guilt
- Neglecting personal hygiene
- Alcohol or drug abuse
- Inability to enjoy life
- Withdrawing from others
- Constant feelings of hopelessness
- Talking about dying or suicide
If you are concerned for your loved one, check out these past posts:
What do you think? Have you experienced grief, or supported someone who has? Do you have any suggestions, or know of any great resources? Please comment!