How to help someone who is grieving?
- Dr Gemma Gladstone
- December 12, 2018
There is no time-frame, stages or steps to grief. With regards to bereavement, a person does not experience linear or sequential stages (they may of course, but this is rarely the case). The actual experience of grief is a lot more haphazard. Perhaps people intuitively like the idea of stages because it communicates to us an anticipated ‘end stage’.
However, there is no final ‘resolution’ or process one goes through in order to reach an end-point of ‘no grief’. This is a human view that we have tried to impose upon the experience of grief, fueled by the idea that one goes through the process of a painful, unpleasant experience only to come out the other-side having ‘let go’ of the pain.
There is a significant cultural expectation, at least in the West, that people should have a certain amount of time to process their loss (i.e., 3 months, 6 months, one-year?). After which time, it is often expected that a person should have somehow completed a period of ‘mourning’ and their grief should have ‘resolved’.
This idea is generally not helpful for the bereaved person and can leave them feeling confused and critical of their own grief and their ability to heal. At some level, people expect others to ‘get over it’ earlier than people can realistically heal from their loss. As a therapist, I’ve lost count of how many times a client has asked me a variation of these questions: “Is what I am feeling normal?” “Should I be feeling this sad for this long?” “My husband/friend/colleague etc wants to know when I’ll be over it”.
Anyone who has ever lost someone special knows that we don’t just get over it! At times of great stress, like the death of a loved one, we need to be connected to supportive others. We need supportive companionships and some degree of secure social bonds in order to grieve effectively.
But is there a usual course of grief?
Grief triggers an instinctive mourning process. Mourning is the process by which acute grief evolves (over time), as information about the finality and consequences of the death are integrated into the person’s attachment working models and life goals and plans are redefined accordingly.
The process of so called ‘normal grief’ is marked by movement towards acceptance of the loss and a gradual alleviation of the initial ‘symptoms’ of acute grief – as well as the ability for continued engagement in daily life. However, this transition is not linear. It is normal for the emotional pain of grief to be felt sporadically, with some days experienced as deeply sorrowful and painful and other days experienced as calm with an absence of intense negative emotion.
Acute grief gradually transforms into integrated grief (i.e., a grief that we live with and grow around). The grief remains – it never goes away, but we are able to integrate it into our life’s and who we are. We are essentially able to see our lives and live our lives without the lost person being present as they once were. Integrated grief often involves finding a new way to relate to the lost person. It also involves finding new meaning, a new or renewed sense of purpose and new goals for ourselves – over time.
In its true form grief is not an illness and grief in its pure form is not like depression. It can share so called symptoms with depression for example, but it is fundamentally different. The growing around grief model (discussed by Lois Tolkin) is a more realistic way to understand grief and clients often identify significantly with this view of grief – it also helps takes the pressure off.
In this regard, the grief is not necessarily resolved or completed, but it is experienced as qualitatively different. The grief may be still there, but the person is able to function around it. That is, the grief is not front and centre all the time. It tends to come to the surface when activated in some way (e.g., taking about the person in a conversation), but it is no longer experienced as acute grief.
So what is a ‘good outcome’ when it comes to grief?
What are some signs that a person has integrated or accommodated the loss into their lives? The list below includes several features of ‘integrated’ grief.
- The bereaved person gradually becomes more involved in life
- They begin to find renewed meaning in life
- They may develop a renewed sense of purpose
- Their ability to enjoy life again gradually returns
- There may be a strong appreciation for the (lost) person together with an appreciation for one’s own life
- The memories of the loved person become varied & more positive (eg., diverse memories spanning the whole relationship with that person) and not just about the end-of-life period or death-related memories.
- A continued ‘relationship’ with the loved person is maintained (e.g., photographs, community, relationships, included in conversation, prayer, meditation etc). Meaning that a new way of continuing the bond and relating to the deceased person has been established or at least partially established.
Key points to remember when relating to a bereaved person
- We don’t move through neat stages of grief only to come out the other side being “grief-free”. It just doesn’t usually work like that.
- A common assumption is that someone’s period of mourning should be shorter than it is.
- There is a common human tendency to want people to be “all better” – we want them to have ‘resolved’ and achieved ‘closure’ for their grief.
- People have very different grief experiences – we cannot compare or assume someone’s course of grief and mourning.
- Grief is already an isolating experience. Show up for someone who is grieving & always acknowledge their loss. Be present. Have ‘big ears and a small mouth’.
- Offer specific help and support. Bereaved people often experience difficulty in initiating connect with others. Instead of saying “let me know if I can do anything for you”. You could say “will you be free Friday, why don’t I bring over some dinner over?”.
What not to say to someone who is grieving
It is often difficult to know what to say to support bereaved family members, friends, work colleagues or acquaintances. Sometimes people say things to calm or reassure themselves and they unwittingly invalidate & dismiss the person’s loss.
- Avoid unhelpful “At least” Examples: “At least she didn’t suffer”; “at least he died peacefully”; “at least you have other children”; “at least he died doing something he enjoyed”
- Avoid talking about your own grief too soon.
- Avoid comparing their grief to other people’s grief or loss circumstances.
- Avoid encouraging them to ‘get on with their lives” by saying something like “John would not have wanted you to be sad”.
You don’t really have to have something clever or profound to say. A simple “I’m so sorry…” together with your presence and general support is often the best comfort you can provide someone who is grieving.