Helping Others Cope With Grief
Death is a universal experience. Despite this fact, it can still leave us shocked, emotional, and confused. When someone we know or love is processing through grief, there are many things that we can say and do to help. It might be helpful to start with your own experience of grief and remembering how people were able to comfort and support you. However, the most important part of helping someone with grief is to keep in mind that each person can handle a loss differently.
Grief is the natural response to a loss. As you accompany a person through the grief journey, it is imperative that you remember that grief is not a direct path; each day, and possibly each hour within a day, can contain a multitude of emotions and reactions. Your friend might cycle between moments of “normalcy” where it is easier to accept the loss, and moments of anger, sadness, relief, guilt or denial. This is very normal and you can help them through this by meeting your friend where he/she is at the time. Practicing non-judgmental statements and behaviors can be most beneficial; often it is simply your presence that can provide the support that your friend needs.
There is no step-by-step method to “getting through” grief. In fact, depending on the loss that was experienced, the person might experience some symptoms of grief for years. Don’t put a time-limit on your friend’s feelings. Some other things to consider when helping someone include:
- Religion: A person’s religious beliefs might influence his opinion on what happens after death, what the living should do in response to the death, and many other topics. Be respectful and understanding of these concepts, and help your friend to find resources if necessary.
- Culture: Similar to religious beliefs, your friend’s culture (including ethnicity, nationality, and other traditions) can influence how grief is experienced.
- Style: Some people tend to be more open and expressive in their grief and how they communicate their feelings. Others may be more reserved or focused on facts, logic or practical steps to take. Neither style is right or wrong, but unique to every individual.
- Emotional Patterns: You know your friend, and can possibly see where they might need help, even before they need to ask for it.
- Age: Helping a child process grief is going to be different than helping a teenager, or an adult. Children may need to have death explained to them, especially the difference between sleeping and death. Children and teens may also lack coping skills and might regress to earlier behaviors or show an increase in fussiness or irritability. Continue daily routines and encourage them to ask questions – and be prepared to answer the questions.
Actions speak louder than words, and sometimes an action is all that is needed. Too often, we think we have to say the exact right thing to help someone feel better, but the truth is that nothing you say is going to be able to fully take away the pain of the loss. While your words might briefly make your friend feel better, it is far more effective to continually offer your presence and help as the healing power that is needed. Just be there.
One very concrete way to offer help is to provide assistance with practical tasks. For example, laundry, eating, cleaning the house, mowing the lawn, shoveling the driveway, and other chores all need to be taken care of even when someone is grieving. Often, grief can take all of the energy away from this person, so offering to take care of a chore at a specific time for your friend can be very helpful.
You can also encourage the grieving person to make wise choices, and help him/her to process through certain decisions that arise. Often, this means listening for the majority of the conversation, and helping your friend to come up with answers on her own. You might also offer to participate in certain rituals or traditions with your friend, or help them to establish new ones.
Listening also comes into play as the person grieving might want to share stories. The stories might be repetitive, or they might be of a lot of different memories. The person may also need to talk about feelings that are coming up, or how hard it is to not feel connected to the deceased person anymore. Listen often, and encourage them to talk as much as they need to. If appropriate, it can also be helpful to share your own memories of the person that has died. Avoiding the deceased person’s name or memory will not help your friend, and bringing up the name or memory of the person will not remind your friend that the person is no longer alive. More than likely, your friend will already have thought about missing the deceased multiple times before you bring it up.
Knowing What to Say
- “I am so sorry for your loss.”
- “My favorite memory of your loved one is…”
- “We all need help, especially at times like this. This is what I would like to do for you.”
- “I do not know what to say, but I am here for you.”
Statements to Avoid
- “I know how you feel.”
- “At least he lived a long life.”
- “She is in a better place.”
- “He did this to himself.”
- “You have time to have another child.”
- “There is a reason for everything.”
- “God called her to Him because she was so pure and good.”
- “It was his time.”
- “Be strong.”
- “You need to move on.”
Remember you can always find help navigating grief by talking to a counselor.