Loss is a part of life.
Life is full of ups and downs. But one of the most difficult experiences that everyone faces at some point or another is loss. Whether of a family member, close friend, a job, a home or other critical aspect of identity, loss typically triggers a grief response.
“Grief is a range of emotions, sensations and behaviors,” says Heather L. McGinty, assistant professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral health at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus.
Grief can be complex.
Grief is difficult to bear, both as the person directly experiencing it and as the person trying to support them. The grieving person may be experiencing a range of emotions including:
— Frustration or anger.
“Many people feel rather numb and may show limited emotions and not know why,” McGinty adds. “Sudden changes in emotions are common” and can occur “in waves or at unexpected times” after a major loss.
Grief can feel physical.
McGinty adds that some people may actually experience physical sensations along with a host of emotions. Some people report feeling a “sensation of heaviness, a knot, hollowness or emptiness all over or in specific parts of the body. Some may feel more tired or fatigued, lethargic, unable to sleep or have a low appetite.”
Someone who’s grieving my have difficulty concentrating or become more forgetful than usual. “People may struggle to follow a routine or complete tasks in the first few weeks or months,” McGinty says.
1. Check that the person wants your support.
If you’re trying to support someone who’s coping with grief, that’s a great thing. But be aware that not everyone responds to grief the same way, and it’s best to proceed with care.
“Always try to ask if the support you hope to offer is welcomed by the loved one,” says Charleen Lewis, a social worker at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center’s Harding Hospital. Everyone grieves differently, and some people prefer to find their own way without someone else jumping in to take over. Be sensitive to the needs of your loved one and adjust your supportive efforts to conform to what makes them comfortable.
McGinty recommends taking “the time to listen and check in, saying ‘I want to check in and see how you’re doing.’ Some people may not be ready to talk about their emotions or feel too overwhelmed by their feelings to share them with others. We can know best how to support people when we let them know we are there for them, but also allow them space if they request it.”
And if you don’t know exactly what to say, say that. “If you feel like you don’t know what to say, but would like to help, this is a perfectly OK sentiment to share. Oftentimes, people are at a loss for words or worry that what they say may seem hollow or unhelpful. If this is the case, you may simply state that,” McGinty says.
3. Offer to take over specific tasks.
Many people tell a person who’s grieving to “let me know if I can help.” This is a great sentiment, but the problem is, it puts another task on the person who’s grieving to communicate what it is they need or want done.
Certainly, for some people, they are able to articulate those needs and will do so. But for many other people experiencing grief, they’re overwhelmed by what’s happening and not able to make decisions or express needs in any meaningful way. They may languish for want of an offer from a friend to support them in a specific way.
Plus, “none of us alone can meet every aspect of a person’s needs,” McGinty points out.
Instead, offer something more clear or specific, such as:
— I want to be here for you. I’d like to take you out to coffee or lunch when you feel ready.
— I’ll pray for you and your family.
— I’ll text you to check in again in a few days.
— I can come by and spend time with you tomorrow afternoon if you’d like some company.
— I would like to treat you to something special to cheer you up. Would you like to … ? (You fill in the blank based on your relationship.)
— I know this can be an overwhelming time. Do you need any help with tasks like … ? I would be happy to help with those this month.
Lewis adds that specific tasks a grieving person may want assistance with may include:
— Preparing meals.
— Yard work.
— Running errands.
— Offering to help with organizing spiritual rituals that have meaning for the person.
But she cautions that you should be sure to ask first. “Avoid just doing something you believe the loved one will appreciate. Feeling of loss of control of life is a frequent part of grief, so asking permission to do something becomes more important.”
4. Listen to your heart.
Sometimes, a spontaneous gesture that celebrates the lost person can help the whole community. Lewis gives the example of when a beloved older neighbor died:
“I watched the children in my neighborhood spontaneously create a ritual of lining the street with candles protected in make-shift translucent milk containers and leaving colorful markers for the neighbors to write personal thoughts about the man. This symbolically showed his family that his ‘light still shined’ in their hearts and that his personal acts of kindness and unique humor would live on in their hearts. Even after dark, the children sat around together with their flashlights and wrote their memories on the containers.”
5. Avoid saying you know how the person feels.
“Grief is complex and unique to each person’s meaning for the relationship and their sense of confidence in managing their life without their lost person,” Lewis explains.
Relationships are also complex, and there may be many conflicting emotions in play when someone is grieving a loss, including:
— Feelings of abandonment.
— Fear of the future.
— Relief that suffering has ended.
Therefore, just because you think you understand the situation and are trying to empathize, doesn’t mean you know what the person is feeling or thinking. “Grief is as unique as the person grieving and the relationships with the person they have lost, so assumptions are risky.”
6. Avoid judgment.
People find different ways to cope with loss, and you may not agree with or understand how someone is behaving in the aftermath of a loss. Tread lightly when addressing these behaviors.
“Expressing your concerns about the outcome of their behaviors may be caring, but avoid judgment,” Lewis says.
And unless the person who’s grieving asks specifically for advice, it’s best to keep it to yourself.
7. Avoid platitudes.
McGinty notes that while some common sayings might be helpful for some people, they can come across as insensitive or uncaring to others. For example, phrases such as: “everything happens for a reason” or “they’re in a better place” may mismatch with the bereaved’s beliefs.
“Grief is not a good time to impose your beliefs or personal philosophies on others unless you’re asked to offer them,” McGinty explains. “If you don’t know their beliefs on religion or an afterlife, it’s best not to assume they’ll see things the same way you do.”
8. Avoid leaning too heavily on the bereaved.
McGinty notes that when someone dies, everyone in their circle will be grieving to some extent, and you need to be aware that you may be grieving too. But in doing so, it’s important to “avoid leaning too heavily on the bereaved for your own support. In families, we tend to reach out to spouses or parents or siblings for support.
However, if those people are struggling with their own grief at this time, seek out others who are less impacted by the grief directly if you’d like to be supported. You don’t have to avoid telling the bereaved that you’re also grieving, but be sure they’re not the only people you go to for support.”
9. Don’t disappear.
“If you feel like you’re not good support or shouldn’t be around them to preserve your own well-being, don’t simply disappear. Find a way to share that you need some time apart if the bereaved reaches out to you,” McGinty cautions.
Saying something like, “I’m sorry I haven’t been there for you. I’m struggling to be a good support and don’t wish to burden you” lets the person know what’s going on without placing any specific expectations on either of you.
“You don’t need to immediately ask for forgiveness or understanding, which may put the onus on the bereaved. You don’t need to explain the reason why you may be struggling right away if you aren’t ready,” she adds.
10. Encourage additional support.
Some people may need to seek additional help and support after a loss. “When the person’s reactions to the loss seriously affect their sense of self, result in persistent anxiety that drains their life energy or result in chronic fatigue from difficulty sleeping,” it’s time to seek professional help, Lewis says.
A counselor, social worker or other mental health professional can help the grieving person work through their loss and the often complex emotions that surround it in a meaningful way.
Support groups can also be a good resource for those grieving, as they’ll “find others with whom they feel safe sharing feelings they avoid expressing to others for fear of judgment,” Lewis adds.
And it’s worth noting that “grief is a common reason to seek professional help from a counselor, cleric or doctor,” McGinty says. “You should seek care from a physician if you’re experiencing any physical complaints with your grief, especially if you were a caregiver for the deceased. We know that caregivers may delay their own health care while caring for a loved one who had a prolonged illness before their death. Your doctor may also recommend treatments for emotional distress if you’re feeling overwhelmed or unable to complete tasks you need to do.”
11. Know that grief isn’t just about death.
Lewis notes that while we typically associate the term “grief” with death, this emotion crops up in other contexts too. “The loss of a marriage or a committed partner, the loss of an important career, the loss of a close friend to conflict, estrangement from family members and loss of personal, physical or cognitive functions all result in grief.”
12. Recognize that grief takes time.
Lastly, McGinty notes that grief is not a linear progression, and each person advances through it in their own way and at their own pace. “There’s no timeline or one-size fits all cure for grief. The loss may be most acute when we wish the person we lost were there, both for happy moments and for difficult moments. It’s a natural and healthy response to feel numb at times when grieving and has no bearing on how much you loved the person who died.”
12 ways to help a loved one grieve:
— Check that the person wants your support.
— Offer to take on specific tasks.
— Listen to your heart.
— Avoid saying you know how the person feels.
— Avoid judgment.
— Avoid platitudes.
— Avoid leaning too heavily on the bereaved.
— Don’t disappear.
— Encourage additional support.
— Know that grief isn’t just about death.
— Recognize that grief takes time.
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