by Jane Baker Segelken, MA, MSW, part of the Social Work team at Hospicare
How many times have you wanted to help a grieving loved one or friend but wondered how? In general, there are no right or wrong approaches. The more we understand grief and its path — and gain insight into the various ways people grieve — the better able we are to respond to the needs of the bereaved.
Whether our loss is the death of a loved one or a pet, or the demise of a job, a divorce, or an ability, what we feel — whether it is pain, relief, or another emotion — is natural. That doesn’t mean that grief can’t become unhealthy — it can. The key is to learn to move forward with grief, as writer Nora McInerny shares in a Ted Talk. On her website she advises “The cure for grief is not ‘be not sad’ and the cure for anger isn’t ‘be unangry!’ It’s feeling all of the things, even the uncomfortable ones, without judging yourself for them.”
How individuals grieve is a highly personal sometimes complicated, process. For many people, one of the most challenging aspects of grieving is their relationships. Grieving individuals may fall into one of two categories: the person who says they prefer being left alone while grieving, and the one who doesn’t want to be alone and seeks out connections with others.
Individuals who intentionally self-isolate do so for a variety of reasons. They may not want to cry in public or they may worry that if they talk about their grief, others will feel uncomfortable. Sometimes people realize that the activities they once enjoyed don’t have the same appeal, or the endeavor may make them sad because it was something they liked to do with the person who is no longer in their life.
On the other hand, there is the person who intentionally seeks out the company of others, hoping for support and understanding they aren’t receiving elsewhere. Support groups, such as the ones offered at Hospicare, are a great way to find camaraderie with others who are mourning similar losses. The individual who looks to others may also want to keep as much of their usual routine as possible while they are grieving by engaging in work, volunteer activities, or hobbies.
Regardless, the key to helping a loved one who’s grieving is to not worry about saying or doing the wrong thing. The important thing is that you listen to what they need and let them know that you’re there to help in whatever way feels right, even if it means stepping back temporarily.
4 Specific things you can do to help:
Author Megan Devine writes that no one can know another’s grief in the way the bereaved is experiencing it. As supportive friends and family, we are looking from the outside in. Most individuals want to be understood, not cheered up, she advises. For those reasons, Devine writes, “how we talk about grief matters.”
The following tips offer a guide to how we can nurture our relationships with those who are grieving.
- Understand the grieving process. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Don’t tell your friend or loved one what they should be doing or feeling. Unless you fear they are a danger to themselves or to others, let them ride the emotions with their erratic highs and lows.
- Connect. Don’t let fears about saying or doing the wrong thing stop you from reaching out, but don’t be pushy. Make sure your loved one/friend knows you’re ready to listen. Be willing to sit in silence. Encourage the bereaved person to be kind to themselves, and others to be kind to them.
- Offer opportunities. Help your loved one/friend keep a routine even if it’s scheduling a regular time for the two of you to take a walk or set up check-ins. It’s important to avoid saying things such as “you are so strong,” as comments like that don’t allow the bereaved to show their true feelings.
- Remember the anniversary. Tell your loved one/friend he or she is on your mind on the day of the loss. Ask how they’re coping. Share memories, photographs, and stories. Cook a favorite meal or listen to music together.