The experience of grief is universal, but also personally unique. Grief can ravage the psyche in many ways – the grieving person may feel deep and intense sadness, but the sadness may be accompanied by anger, fatigue, demotivation, and irritability. When your loved one is grieving, it may help to understand and accept that their brain is working differently. The parts of the brain related to emotions and memory are working under intense strain while the parts involved in planning and decision-making are temporarily suppressed. This is how our brain tries to heal after a loss, and it can have a profound impact on the behavior of the grieving person. Your loved one may function at one moment, then be overwhelmed with despair at another. Grief forces us to reflect on the loss, and this can evoke questions about the meaning of our lives and our place in this world. This implies that grief should be understood as a process, not as an event. And even though grief is a personal and internal experience, you can help your loved one through this tormenting process in a kind and thoughtful manner.
How to Provide Support
It is normal to feel uncertain about how you could help. You may be afraid of saying something wrong, or not knowing what you could do to help your loved one. The following tips might help you navigate this difficult terrain:
Make space for their feelings
Your loved one may be experiencing intense, even conflicting emotions. They might have bouts of crying that last for hours, they might get angry over minor things, or they might feel anxious and not wish to meet other people. You should assure them that what they are feeling is normal and that neither you nor anyone else will pass judgment on how they choose to express their feelings. Help them realize that they are in a safe space so they could freely express their emotions instead of suppressing them.
Focus on listening
People often process their grief by talking about it, sometimes repeating the same story over and over. Be patient and allow them to share how they feel about their loss. Don’t offer them advice unless they ask – your loved one may just be wishing for someone to listen. Your patience and understanding might be worth a lot more at that moment than any helpful tips you could offer.
Be honest in your conversations
Not bringing up the deceased person may look like a prudent choice, but people actually appreciate the opportunity to talk about the person who passed away. It brings them comfort and solace and allows them to recall and integrate the happy memories into their present life. You may ask your loved one what their favorite memory of the deceased person is. Trying to expunge the deceased from conversations will only make things worse. Acknowledging that the situation is bad and that your loved one is anguished will make them feel understood.
Embrace the silence
Sometimes, your loved one may not feel like talking. You should allow them the space so they could process their emotions and find some semblance of peace in such difficult times. If they would like your company, you can sit quietly with them for as long as they need. Instead of consoling them with words, you may simply hold their hand or offer a reassuring hug. Your presence might just be all they need.
Be the point of contact
People may want to show their support to your loved one and offer their condolences. But grieving can bring a maelstrom of emotions that is difficult to manage. Being in constant contact with people could feel overwhelming. In such a case, your loved one would benefit immensely if you set yourself up as the point of contact. You may answer the queries of the well-wishers and convey their supportive and encouraging words to your loved one. You may also relay anything your loved one wants to convey to others so they could have some private time.
Help with tasks
When your loved one is grieving, they may not have the emotional resources or motivation to ask for help. By asking them if you could do anything to help, you might inadvertently transfer the burden on them. Instead, anticipate the tasks they might have to perform and do them. Simple errands like walking the dog, refilling any prescriptions, driving children to school, or anything else that you could do to ease their burden is a good place to start. If you need help with some tasks – filling forms, mowing the lawn, shoveling the snow – don’t be afraid to reach out to friends and family. By taking off the burden of these tasks from their shoulders, you will allow them the time to grieve without having to worry about their obligations.
What to Avoid
Sometimes, we have the best of intentions at heart and we truly want to help our loved one, but we end up saying or doing something detrimental that only adds to their sorrow. Be mindful of their pain and avoid behaviors that might hurt them.
Don’t put a positive spin on the situation
You may want to reassure your loved one by telling them they will be fine, or that the deceased lived a full and wonderful life, or that things will be alright. If you try to diminish the gravity of the situation, they will feel isolated because nobody seems to understand what they are going through and nobody is acknowledging the pain they are in.
Don’t draw comparisons to your experience
Every person processes grief in their own way. Even though you may instinctively want to share a similar experience to let them know you understand their pain, it will not be beneficial for them unless it truly is a fitting comparison. Trying to tell your loved one that you understand their pain when you actually don’t can make them feel angry; to them, it may feel like you are trivializing their pain.
Don’t comment on their appearance
When your loved one is grieving, their agonizing emotional pain will take precedence over everything else. They may not be eating enough and therefore losing weight, or they may look disheveled and not be concerned whether their clothes are all washed and ironed. They are suffering, and comments on their appearance might cause them to withdraw and isolate themselves because they do not have the energy to take care of their appearance.
Don’t offer unsolicited advice
Your loved one needs space to express all the emotions that their grief has stirred up. If you tell them how they should feel or act, they might start to suppress their emotions or keep up a false appearance of being in good spirits. This will only serve to damage their mental health and prolong their pain. In order to heal, it is best for your loved one to experience and accept all the emotions without any fear of judgment or criticism.
Don’t make generalized statements
In an attempt to soothe your loved one, you may find yourself making generalized statements such as the deceased is in a better place, they lived a long and full life, this is God’s will, or that your loved one is so strong and brave. Platitudes such as these deny the pain that the grieving person is feeling. These trite statements ignore the person’s sense of devastation and can be perceived as rude or offensive.
Supporting a loved one through grief can be a challenging and emotionally taxing task. What matters most is that you stand beside them throughout this difficult period. Your love and compassion will help your loved one immensely on their path to healing.
When to Seek Professional Help
Grief often makes one feel disoriented and hopeless. Your loved one may feel that their intense despair will never fade. However, with time, they should be able to process their grief and learn to live with the loss. But if their emotional state has not improved – they have trouble performing routine tasks, they cannot find joy in anything, they have isolated themselves and are not maintaining their relationships, they feel hopeless – their grief might have evolved into a mental disorder such as depression or anxiety. In this case, it is extremely important for your loved one to seek professional help. A therapist might be able to help them navigate this devastating loss in a constructive manner and begin the process of healing.
New Dimensions Can Help!
If you or someone you know is experiencing any of the above symptoms or problems, New Dimensions can help. Our team of experienced therapists and psychiatrists can help you overcome these challenges and help you develop the skills you need to thrive. To schedule a complementary assessment or to find out more about our programs, contact us at 1-800-685-9796.
Our affiliate, MHThrive, provides Individual Therapy, Couples and Marriage Counseling, and Family Therapy at our locations in Katy, The Woodlands, and the Clear Lake area of Houston, Texas. We also provide telehealth therapy for anyone who resides within the State of Texas. To schedule an appointment with one of the MHThrive therapists, contact us at 713-477-0333 or visit www.mhthrive.com to learn more.