Grief is one of our most destabilising emotions, but one we talk about very little. We often struggle to support our loved ones when they are grieving, whether because we don’t want to see them upset, think we can’t change anything or worry about reminding them of their loss.
The main thing to remember is that you can’t make it worse. You also can’t fix everything. Your job is to make grief less lonely.
If you’ve felt grief, you know that it is an isolating feeling at the best of times. Nobody can know what the person lost meant to you, the details of your relationship or your feelings towards them.
In 2020, we are all more isolated than we have been for a long time. It is more important than ever to show those grieving our love and support, even if we can’t be there physically. A letter or a care package might be just what somebody needs to get through the day. It’s also important to give those grieving the opportunity to speak their grief aloud and to listen to them without judgement.
How we Experience Grief
Grief is complex. No two people experience it the same way, and nobody can tell you the right way to grieve. As such, it is difficult to empathise with someone who is experiencing loss.
The process is one of coming to terms with a massive shift in your lived reality – a person who was always there before is now, simply, not. It is understandable that grief sends thoughts and feelings into freefall, and that there is no set path back to normality.
The common stages of grief that most of us are aware of are Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. These are often thought of as a linear progression, where once you experience one and move on to the next, you are on your way to acceptance and healing.
Unfortunately, we do not grieve in straight lines. Psychologists who write about grief emphasise that, for years after someone has died, their loved ones will experience each of the five stages multiple times, sometimes with long periods of acceptance in between.
Because of this, it’s important to be patient with your loved ones. They may appear overly angry with you or even childishly sulking, but getting frustrated with them will only make them feel more isolated. Your support is a lifeline, a promise of a life beyond this catastrophic change. Becoming a source of reliable support is challenging when someone is still finding their balance. Don’t take it personally or pressure them to move on.
Helping a Loved One Cope with Grief
1. Do Acknowledge the Loss
The idea of death makes people uncomfortable, which can only contribute to isolation. When you speak to someone you know is grieving, make sure you don’t ignore it. Don’t try to make things normal, or pretend you don’t know what they’re going through. This forces the person to either pretend as well or choose to tell you they’ve lost someone, reliving the loss again.
Instead, you can be supportive by offering your condolences. Simple ways to start a conversation about the loss might be: “I heard your father died” or “I’m sorry for your loss”. Approaching the subject head-on shows the person that you are willing to talk about how they really feel.
2. Ask About the Person Who Died
Giving people opportunities to talk about the person they’re grieving for can help them process the loss, as it gives their subconscious a chance to organise the stories and memories it has about that person. It also helps them to understand their feelings about those moments, and how they have changed now.
You can help someone talk about a loved one by asking simple questions: What were they like? How did you meet them? Do you have anything of theirs?
3. Do The Little Things
For many people, asking for help is a challenge at the best of times. Don’t wait for your grieving friend or family member to tell you what they need, but think of specific actions you can do to support them. It could be as simple as making a cup of tea or walking their dog. Offer to help with funeral arrangements, or make a point of calling them daily or weekly.
In times of social distancing and lockdown, you can’t physically be there for people. Instead, take the time to deliver care packages or meals, and call them to give them the chance to talk. Video calls can bridge the gap while we are unable to have physical contact. Set one up and have a chat, watch a movie together, or share a meal. Eye contact and knowing you’re there for them is sometimes enough.
4. Do Validate their Emotions
A grieving person will feel a huge range of emotions, including guilt, anger, despair and fear. They might scream, lash out, obsess over small details or cry for hours. These are uncomfortable for others to witness, but when you are the person doing these things, you become afraid for your sanity. Offer the person reassurance that what they are feeling is normal. Don’t take their grief personally or judge them.
5. Ask About Self Care
Sometimes the despair that comes with grief makes us feel like there’s no point looking after ourselves. The little day to day routines of personal health and housework just aren’t important anymore. Asking specific questions such as ‘how are you sleeping?’ or ‘have you eaten yet?’ show that you care about the person. This gives them a gentle reminder to start taking care of themselves again. If you are close, doing their hair or nails for them can be very therapeutic.
6. Do Set Boundaries
Your emotional energy is important too and supporting a loved one can be tiring. If you need a break or are feeling burnt out, you can say so. As long as you are honest and not resentful of having used your energy supporting them, setting boundaries is healthy. Organise with your friends or other family members if somebody else needs to step in while you rest. Tell the person that you need to take some time for yourself, and let them know when you will be back. For example: “I’m going to bed now, can I call you at the same time tomorrow?” or “Sarah is coming to see you tomorrow, and I’ll see you on Wednesday.”
Most cultures have some type of mourning ritual that can help focus grief and ground you at difficult times. Share some of these rituals with the person you are supporting to find what works for you.
- Light a Candle for the person lost. You could do this at a particular time each day, setting aside a few moments to remember them or say a few words.
- Keep a Picture either in a locket or in your wallet. Having an image of someone you want to remember close to you can be comforting.
- Cook the Loved One’s Favourite Meal. Sharing this food can help mourners open up by stimulating senses that grief tends to shut down.
- Get Creative. You could work together to make a piece of art in memory of your loved one, or use drawing and colouring as a mindful and peaceful activity.
- Write a Letter to the person lost. Writing is an effective tool for processing complex thoughts and emotions. A letter is a good vehicle for all those unsaid words that bubble up as we grieve. You could write these with friends and family and burn them, releasing your words.
- Plant a Tree in their name. If you’re lucky enough to have land to plant on, a young sapling can be a moving tribute as you watch it grow. Otherwise, you can ask your local park or nature reserve for space. Volunteer on tree-planting and reforestation projects and plant a whole grove for them.
Helping Someone Grieve – When it’s All Too Much
Supporting someone with grief is difficult even when you have nothing going on, but death impacts us all. Be aware of what you are going through and how that will impact your ability to help. It might be that you are also grieving for the person who died. Don’t squash your feelings to make room for the other. By grieving together, you can support one another and share memories. You can also share ways that you’ve found to cope, such as carrying a picture or lighting a candle for the person.
Be careful to set boundaries and seek help from others too. A wide network of support and friendship can help keep everyone afloat while you heal together.
It might be that being around someone who is mourning can bring up past experiences of grief for yourself. Your memories of the departed, and how you experience grief, will not be the same as for the person you are helping, but you can reassure them that it gets easier.
If you are struggling to support your friends and family, bereavement counselling and support groups can offer professional advice. They also provide an outlet that is separate from your circumstances and social network, where you might feel more comfortable sharing your feelings. Cruse is a national bereavement care group, recommended by the NHS. They offer a helpline and can help refer you to support in your area.