A friend or family member has suffered the death of a loved one – how do you help them with their grief? You’ll feel awkward around them. You’ll be frightened of offending them or trivialising what they’re feeling. You’ll be aware that whatever you do, you can’t take their pain away. And, if you’re not personally sharing in their grief, some tiny part of you, way down deep, might even feel inconvenienced by the impact of their loss on your own life.

But you’ll want to help.

So how do you go about it?

First of all, if you haven’t experienced the death of a loved one yet yourself, you need some understanding of what the grieving person is going through.

Stages of Grief

Grief is an intensely personal experience and the stages each individual passes through, the symptoms they manifest, and the length of time they spend grieving can vary markedly from person to person.

In 1969 psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross introduced her model of the “five stages of grief”. This notion of “stages” is something often mentioned when considering the suffering a bereaved person experiences. The five stages are:

Denial - “This can’t be happening to me”
Anger - “It’s not fair”, “Who is to blame?”
Bargaining - “Stop this agony and I’ll…”
Depression - “What is the point of anything?”
Acceptance - “I’m reconciled to what has happened.”

While this framework may be a useful aid to understanding the process of grief, it is important for those wishing to help a bereaved person to remember that progression through these stages is not an orderly affair. Depending on the person, not all stages may be experienced, or they may be experienced in a different order to that outlined above, or certain stages may be returned to many times. For a helper, in fact, rather than a set of stages, it may be more productive to view grief in terms of an ongoing rollercoaster-style series of ups and downs, many of which the grieving person will return to again and again.

How Will They Feel?

Some will cry, some won’t (though they may experience just the same level of pain). Some will be able to live daily life pretty much normally, others will be incapable of even the most basic daily routine.

Symptoms which you may notice in the grieving person include:

Disbelief – difficulty accepting what has happened.
Sadness - feelings of emptiness, loneliness and despair.
Anger - either towards themselves or the deceased.
Fear - of their own mortality or of other loved ones dying.
Guilt - over things left unsaid or undone, over their inability to prevent the death, and, perhaps, even over their own reaction to the death.
Physical Manifestations – weight loss or gain, insomnia, constipation, aches, fatigue etc.

How to Help

Be there. Be available. At the very least, even if you don’t think you know the right thing to do or say, your presence itself will be a source of comfort.

Encourage Expression

Encourage the person to express their feelings and share their memories of the deceased. Let them know they are safe with you, that it’s ok for them to cry or be angry in front of you. Don’t act as though the death never happened, acknowledge their loss, don’t try to portray an image of normality – for the bereaved person it will be a long, long time before life seems anywhere near normal again.

Be Patient

It can take a long time to come to terms with the death of a loved one. Provide ongoing support and don’t be fooled by appearances. Even though the grieving person may, at some point, begin to look and act normally again they may still be suffering inside. Note, too, that grieving people often feel awkward about asking for help, are afraid of ‘being a burden’ – so be pro-active in your support. Don’t wait for them to ask.

Be Practical

Provide practical help. Even the simplest tasks can seem overwhelming to a person in the throes of grief, so taking on some of their day to day chores is a great way to make their world a little easier to bear. Do their shopping for them, cook a meal, babysit their children…

Prepare Ahead

Birthdays, wedding anniversaries, holidays etc. can all be particularly hard for those who are grieving. Try to plan ahead and provide extra support on these “grief trigger” dates.

Watch for Warnings

Encourage the grieving person to seek professional help if necessary. This is especially important if you feel their grief has progressed into chronic depression. Among other symptoms, watch out for:

♦ Excessive preoccupation with death
♦ Substance abuse
♦ Withdrawal from social activity
♦ Feelings of impending doom
♦ Hallucinations
♦ Talk of suicide

The support of friends and family is of immeasurable comfort to the grieving person. When the world seems to be going crazy around them your presence, your help and your love will give them something to cling to. Don’t let feelings of shyness or awkwardness stop you from offering this gift. As long as you are sensitive and compassionate, whatever you offer will be gratefully received and will make their long and difficult journey towards acceptance just that little bit easier to bear.

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