Counseling Center- Self Help
- Helping others with grief
- Confronting another's grief: an uncomfortable prospect
- Changing your view of "help"
- Being helpful to a grieving person: Some DO's and Don't's
- Feeling helpful Vs. Helpless: The choice is ours
Helping others with grief (TOP)
What does it mean to grieve? Many of us think of "grief" as the intense sadness which is experienced at times of major loss, such as when a loved one dies. Yet grief can include much more than sadness. For instance, when we grieve, we can often experience feelings of anger or guilt as well as various physical reactions (for example, headaches, digestive problems, loss of weight, fatigue, or an overall decline in health).
Furthermore, grief is not only something which happens to us, it is also an experience over which we can exercise some control. Grieving can be thought of as an active process of coping with a loss. In this process, we have the opportunity to make some choices about how we wish to grieve even if we have no choice about many of the losses that we must face.
Although losses of any kind can be painful, the death of a loved one is particularly traumatic. Many of us find it especially difficult to be helpful to someone whose grief is due to death. We don't know what to say or to do, and our attempts often feel futile. This article is designed to offer a few suggestions for what we can do to help someone who is grieving over the death of a loved one.
Confronting another's grief: an uncomfortable prospect (TOP)
When faced with another's grief, it is common to experience feelings of discomfort and helplessness. We may feel uncomfortable because we fear that we will say something that sounds insincere or the griever might remind us of our own losses. Our discomfort can also stem from our believing that, to truly be helpful, we should act in ways which reduce the griever's suffering. Such a belief can cause us to make the following kinds of statements: "At least her suffering is over now.""At least you had a chance to say good-bye.""At least it was over quickly.""Your loved one is in a better place now." Although such statements are intended to be comforting, they can give grieving individuals the impression that we do not understand their experience and that we are downplaying their loss. They may interpret our message as: "Your loss is really not so bad if you look at it this way." Many grieving individuals need to be allowed to face the fact that their loss really is bad. They may therefore feel much more supported by us when we acknowledge their suffering rather than when we make it our job to take their pain away.
Changing your view of "help" (TOP )
One way to reduce our personal feelings of discomfort and helplessness around a grieving person is to redefine what constitutes "being helpful." Rather than viewing "help" as the removal of suffering, we can think of it as assisting grieving persons in finding their own best ways to cope.
Offering such assistance involves recognizing that there is not just one "right way" to grieve. Reactions can differ greatly from one grieving person to another. For instance, some people will have a greater need to dwell on past memories than others will. Some will desire privacy whereas others will want company. Some will need considerable time to acknowledge that their loved one is truly gone. Others who quickly acknowledge this reality on an intellectual level may require far more time to do so on an emotional level. Some will struggle to make sense of the death--to find a reason for it. Some will wish to hold onto many of the deceased's possessions while others will prefer to put them away or give them away. If we wish to be helpful, our role is not to decide which of the above behaviors is correct, but rather to assist grieving individuals in doing what they feel they need to do. In the next section, some specific suggestions will be offered for how we can best provide such assistance.
Being helpful to a grieving person: Some DO's and Don't's (TOP )
Given the above considerations, what can you specifically do to be helpful to someone who is grieving? The best ways to offer assistance will vary depending on the griever's personality, the nature of the loss, and your particular relationship with the grieving person. Nevertheless, certain guidelines can be offered for what are generally appropriate and inappropriate ways to be helpful.
DO: Offer to be with the grieving person. While you should not insist on being with the griever, offering to be available is very important. It can be comforting to the griever to know that you are not frightened away by his or her grief. Grieving persons often are already dealing with profound feelings of loneliness and abandonment and do not need such feelings compounded by your absence. Your presence can provide considerable support, especially when you are prepared to listen. Most grieving individuals are more in need of a friendly, available ear than a mouthful of advice.
DO: Help the griever to regain a sense of control. When someone dies, those left behind can feel quite helpless and lacking in control. They may be struck by the fact that they had no choice in whether their loved one lived or died and have no way of bringing the loved one back. By allowing grieving persons to make decisions about the funeral, the loved one's possessions, and their own grief process, you can assist them in regaining some sense of control over their lives.
DO: Offer to assist the griever with practical matters. As mentioned above, grieving persons need to be allowed to do things for themselves in order to regain a sense of control over their lives. Yet many grievers report finding it helpful to have others provide some assistance with taking care of certain household chores or various practical matters--assistance which can free the griever to attend to other concerns, including the work of grieving.
DO: Express your feelings honestly but with sensitivity to the griever's needs and desires. If you were close to the person who died, sharing your feelings about the death can be appropriate at times. However, in doing so, it is best that you allow the griever to have considerable input into just how much and how often you convey such feelings. It can also be very useful to share your feelings about the griever (particularly your positive, supportive feelings). Let the griever know how much you care.
DON'T: Tell the griever how to feel or act. Do not assume that there is one right way to grieve. Respect the griever's right to find his or her own best way to cope, even though this will probably mean that the person will experience some pain and suffering. If you are concerned that the griever is coping in unhealthy ways, you might consider suggesting that the person talk with a professional.
DON'T: Pretend to fully understand what the griever is experiencing. Telling a griever "I know just what you're going through" is usually a good way of showing that you in fact do not understand. Such a statement is likely to produce resentment and leave the griever feeling more distant rather than closer to you.
DON'T: Postpone contact with the griever. Telling yourself, "She probably needs to be alone" or "I'll give him some time before I contact him" may enable you to avoid the often painful process of interacting with a griever. Yet such avoidance denies the griever any choice in the matter. Allow the griever to decide whether privacy or company is desired. You can make this the griever's decision by offering your availability to him or her. This is not to suggest that you must be available at any time. You may personally be experiencing grief or have other priorities which set some limits on your availability.
DON'T: Paint an unrealistically pretty picture of the loss. By making statements designed to give the griever the sense that the loss is not that bad, you are unlikely to reduce the griever's suffering. Instead, you will probably be viewed as minimizing or discounting the loss. Even in the rare event that the griever accepts such efforts, it is questionable how helpful you are being; often, the griever needs the chance to work toward accepting the reality of the loss and dealing with all of its painful, very real consequences.
Feeling helpful Vs. Helpless: The choice is ours (TOP)
Whenever we come into contact with someone who is grieving, we are presented with a choice. At such times, we can choose to focus on what is outside of our control--such as the irreversibility of the death or the fact that the griever is going to suffer. Concentrating on these matters is likely to leave us feeling helpless. Alternately, we can focus on what is within our control: for instance, our ability to be with grieving individuals, to offer our assistance, to listen, and, above all, to convey that we care. Such a focus can enable us to feel helpful rather than helpless. While others' grief has the potential to make us painfully aware of our personal limitations, it can also open our eyes to new and important ways of helping those around us.
(Written by Craig J. Vickio, Ph.D., BGSU Counseling Center)