3 Helpful Steps For Supporting Someone Through Grief
Grieving is one of the most heart-wrenching things that human beings go through. However, as hard as it is to work through personal grief, it can be almost as difficult to watch someone we love face bereavement. We can feel helpless in the face of so much sadness, and terrified that we may say the wrong thing.
As we all know if we’ve ever experienced grief or times of hardship ourselves, however, having a shoulder to cry on can be a priceless source of emotional support. The COVID-19 pandemic has meant that grief has touched so many of our lives in the last few years, but friendship and community has shone as a bright light in extremely difficult times.
Believing that we can (and indeed, should) help each other is a testament to our humanity, and while it may be emotionally difficult, supporting someone through grief is an act of generosity and empathy. Moving on from the loss of a loved one is a long process — grief can change over time — but the most important thing on each step of this journey is that no one should face it alone.
If you have found yourself in the position of being close to someone experiencing grief, and feel at a loss as to how to behave around them, here are some simple and helpful steps that you can take to help them on their journey.
1. Learn To Listen
It may seem obvious and deceptively easy to just listen to someone, but in reality, it can take conscious effort to really hear what someone is trying to say without overlaying our own wants and emotions. For instance, when a person is emotionally overwhelmed, unsolicited advice can feel stressful and suffocating. But we can find ourselves giving out advice simply because sitting with the distress we are hearing, and accepting that there are no easy answers, can be extremely uncomfortable.
If someone decides to pour their heart out to you, they’re not necessarily asking for advice or for you to personally find a solution. In fact, it may upset or frustrate them more if they are met with suggestions for how to feel better; sometimes, people just want to talk, not problem-solve. Simply keeping quiet and letting the bereaved know that you’re there is more than enough.
It’s also likely that your friend or family member may not necessarily want to talk about their grief itself, but rather about the person they have just lost. Many people find a great deal of healing and catharsis in this process and having someone to talk about their loved one can help them to keep their memory alive. Rather than shutting down these conversations in fear that they will become upset, encourage positive reflections with gentle prompts, and spend some time remembering together.
2. Cultivate Patience
Being patient is sometimes just as much about taking a step back as it is about being there as a shoulder to cry on. While some may be happy to talk and vent and share their experiences, others can go silent for a period of time as a way of coping with their grief. This might be because they simply need some space, or it could be for practical reasons, such as organising funeral arrangements and not having time to catch up with friends or family.
Even if a grieving person does not withdraw and appears to be behaving the same as always, it’s still likely that they are in an unpredictable emotional state and it is not uncommon for people who are grieving to lash out or lose emotional control. Grief can heighten emotions in various ways, and part of supporting someone is making room for negative emotions and forgiving them if they become overwhelmed.
Of course, if they exhibit behaviors that make you worry about their safety, or if they are overstepping your boundaries with aggressive behavior, you may have to intervene or assert yourself. But otherwise, if a loved one is constantly cancelling plans or behaving out of character, sometimes the kindest thing you can do is be patient. It’s likely they are aware of it and feel guilty, so being there when they can be present is going to make them feel supported and cared for.
3. Be Proactive
Being supportive of someone while they’re grieving does not necessarily always mean waiting for them to come to you. While it is important to remember that people may need their space, there’s nothing wrong with checking in, so long as you are not behaving in a forceful manner.
If you’re worried about potentially awkward interactions with your loved one, there’s nothing wrong with being upfront; just ask the person what they need from you emotionally. Phrases like “Do you need space right now?” and “Would you like to talk?” gives people permission to ask for what they want, and break through that initial layer of social discomfort we can feel. It’s important to bear in mind that certain people don’t know how to ask for help (or, indeed, express that they want to be alone) so sometimes it is up to us to make the first move.
It can also be easy to assume that a grieving person wants to be treated differently in social situations, but that may not necessarily be the case. There is no harm in reaching out and inviting your loved one to social activities like you would under normal circumstances. If they do not feel up to it, they can let you know, but it ensures that they still feel included and thought of, rather than written off as someone unworthy of conversation or fun simply because of their grief.
Supporting someone through the grieving process is a balancing act. You don’t want to be either too distant or too pushy, but with a mindful respect of their feelings, this needn’t be as difficult as it seems. It is important to remember that grief is not always a short-term experience, and for many people their main source of anxiety is the expectation to return to “normal” after a certain period of time.
Everyone’s grieving process is different, and in certain ways, grief never leaves us, even after the immediate hurt has lessened. Understanding and accepting that fact is the essence of what it means to support someone through their grief, regardless of whether you make mistakes along the way.
Carol Lawrence is an experienced and dedicated funeral director, who has written extensively on the issue of grief, and the impact it has on people’s mental health.