What do I say to those who are grieving?
‘What do I say in the face of grief?’ is what many of us ask ourselves when faced with another’s bereavement. The emotions that you are facing are so intense and painful that the initial response is to get away, change the subject, make an excuse and leave the room or just cross the street. This is born out of social embarrassment at not knowing what to say and the intense fear that being in the presence of death can arouse. Standing in front of someone who has suffered bereavement can focus your thoughts upon your own past and future losses, and your own eventual death. Avoidance can sometimes feel like the best policy.
Yet the bereaved feel they are suffering multiple losses: the loss of their loved one and the loss of the support network they were hoping to get them through this period of grief. They feel that their grief is a communicable disease; if someone gets too close, they will catch it.
‘How can I help?’ It is crucial to help, not step away. Most people will rally round out of love and friendship, but if you feel uncomfortable around grief, acknowledge the discomfort. ‘I will be uncomfortable, but I can overcome it and help this person in need.’ Often it can be very difficult and will ask a lot of you as you will have to face your own fears, but it can be done. You will realise that you can help someone in their time of need.
The value of time
Time is the important factor as grief is not time limited. If it is a significant or traumatic loss, it can take months, even years to come to terms with. The depth of the loss can depend on the significance the bereaved gives to it. At the beginning, shortly after the death, the bereaved are in a state of shock and experience psychological numbing, unusually followed by waves of intense emotions such as extreme sadness, anger, panic and loneliness. It can be overwhelming for them and those around them. People usually rally around at this point, but these overpowering emotions continue and sometimes can become more intense as the bereaved comes to terms with their loss. It is at these points in their grief cycle that they need caring friends and relatives to support them.
During these cycles of grief those grieving can sometimes make bad friends. They become locked into their grief, unable to see others’ needs and keep returning to the same conversations around their losses. Friendship is not always a two-way street and you will have to sacrifice the reciprocity of your grieving friend’s friendship for a while. Accept that grieving takes time; you friend or relation will eventually return to you. Accept that they will drift in and out on emotional tides and that sometimes you will become a target of their emotional intensity when they are inundated with anger or despair. You are needed and in a way that need is a reward in itself. Keep in touch, no matter what.
Phone, text or call around, do whatever you used to do. If there has been the loss of a partner, remember to include the remaining partner in activities that you used to include them in as a couple. Persist and acknowledge that rejections can be part of the grieving process. This is a long-term commitment.
Do not expect those bereaved to grieve to someone else’s time frame. Each grief is unique and cannot be quantified by yours or others’ experiences. Your own experience of grief might have had a specific time period before you moved on, but that was your own experience, not theirs. The most dispiriting and stressful thing to happen in grief is when those around the bereaved expect them to have moved on and overcome their sadness. In such cases, those who are grieving feels that they are lacking in some way or are doing something wrong in their grief. Often the urge for the grieving person to move on is to save those around them from the unpleasantness of having to deal with the whirlpool of emotions that grief can release.
Each of us grieves individually
Your own experience of loss can help you understand others’ grief, but it is always your own grief. You can never fully understand another, because it is their grief and never yours. Each of us grieves individually. Never say, ‘I know how you feel’, as you can never know exactly how another feels. Those who have lost loved ones have to deal with many platitudes and comparisons, unhelpful or insensitive comments. These comments and questions are not malicious, but are mistakenly made, as those around the bereaved do not know what to say yet feel they have to say something. Avoid sharing anecdotes of your own losses, especially when someone is discussing the impact of their loss.
The best thing to say in the early stages of grief is ‘I'm so sorry for your loss’; usually this is all those in grief can manage or needs to hear. You can also ask, ‘How can I help?’ If they say they don't know, make suggestions such as just talking or sitting together; offer to babysit or some other form of practical help. Anything that you feel can give assistance. ‘How can I help?’ is a way of showing support and acknowledging that the griever’s needs will change over time as they work through their bereavement.
As the grief progresses, there is usually a change in how the bereaved perceive the loss and the world around them, and they can view it more philosophically. But in the early raw stages, all they can see is their devastating loss.
Sensitive to the mood of loss
It is good to speak positively about the deceased, sharing fondly remembered stories. This feels comforting to the bereaved person and keeps their memory of the deceased alive. It may also help you feel better too. In the early stages of grief, let the bereaved know how much their loved one meant to you. Later you can share more amusing memories of the deceased, including images such as photographs. Be open to what the bereaved have to say about their loss. Always be aware that you have to be sensitive to the mood of the bereaved, never push them to discuss things they don’t want to discuss. Grief’s emotions can come in waves; sometimes something you reminisce about is acceptable, but a short while later it is not.
Yet you can never always do the right thing. Sooner or later you will say something, no matter how well thought out or well meant, that will be wrong. The bereaved, even a long time after the event, are going through a maelstrom of emotions, meaning that they could perceive your words and actions differently from your intentions. Be patient, it is the grief talking. Stay with them, as in the end it is your staying power that will be valued the most.
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