It may be Grief Awareness Week but, as anyone who has struggled with it will know, grief is something that is there 365 days of the year.
While grief waxes and wanes and feelings of loss or bereavement may feel more encompassing at certain points, and less overwhelming at others – it never leaves.
It’s one of the most difficult things we have to deal with as humans and, as such, it can be hard to know how to help a loved one who is having a tough time with it.
Often, people who are grieving speak about the initial support that you get – immediately after a loss for example. But as time goes on, there is an expectation that you will start to return to ‘normal’, which can be incredibly difficult and isolating.
And this time of year can be particularly hard.
‘Christmas is a time for celebration, partying hard and being super sociable, but when someone is grieving, this may not be what they want to do,’ explains psychological therapist Somia Zaman.
‘People carrying grief can still crave company, but also feel conscious that they don’t want to bring others down,’ she says. ‘This conundrum can leave them feeling particularly alone at Christmas time.’
Somia adds that the first Christmas spent without a loved one is especially poignant and upsetting, as memories of being together in previous years come flooding back.
‘Over time, these memories will feel comforting and even joyous,’ she says. ‘But, at first, they are all too raw and only add to the pain.’
What can you do to support a loved one who is struggling with grief?
As difficult as it is, the first thing to realise is that there there isn’t actually anything you can do or say to take away their pain.
‘Just being there for a friend or family member who is struggling is the best you can do, whether that means checking in on them by text, or spending time physically sitting with them as they grieve,’ says Somia.
‘You may feel helpless, but they are not expecting you to make it better. Simply by being there you are showing them that somebody cares and can see that they are hurting.’
Somia suggests that offering to help out with things shopping or chores can be of help, if someone is feeling overwhelmed and unable to take care of these tasks themselves.
‘I would say it’s helpful to let the grieving person be in control of the situation,’ she suggests. ‘So ask them directly what you could do to help, rather than assuming. The last thing a grieving person needs is you deciding to reorganise their kitchen cupboards if they didn’t ask.’
On a practical level, if someone has recently experienced a loss, financial and legal matters can often create additional stress, says Dr Venetia Leonidaki, Doctofy-reviewed specialist and founder of Spiral Psychology. ‘Offer to help them find a good accountant or a solicitor, sort out paperwork, or pay back existing debts,’ she suggests.
‘Funeral arrangements are extremely stressful. Help them by getting quotes from funeral directors or contacting the Cemeteries and Crematorium department of your local council.’
She also advises that ‘regular calls or texts to check in with them will help them feel that you’re keeping them in mind.’
What should you say to a grieving friend?
Sometimes it can be hard to know what to say – particularly if you think someone is struggling but is not being upfront about how they are feeling.
‘Starting a conversation about their general wellbeing is always a good place to start,’ Somia suggests. ‘This can then gently lead to questions like ‘do you feel like you might need some support in dealing with things right now?’
Linda Gask, psychiatrist and author of Finding True North, advises using simple, non-assuming questions like: ‘How can I help?’ or ‘How are you doing?’ She adds: ‘Not everyone wants to talk and it may be some time before a person is ready to after a loss.’
Laura McDonald, BWRT psychological practitioner advises that statements can also be helpful, in addition to questions. Things like:
‘This must be a difficult time for you.’
‘I am here if you need to talk, or just to have someone there.’
‘If I can do anything to help, let me know’
‘We are getting together on this date, you are very welcome to join us, if not we completely understand, just let us know if we can help you in any way.’
This can help a person feel supported, without putting any expectation on them to feel as though they have to provide an answer to what they are being asked.
What should you not say to a grieving friend?
‘Avoid pat phrases like “time is a great healer,” says Somia. ‘Although making statements like this often comes from a good place, it may not be what someone wants to hear.
‘When you are deep in grief, it doesn’t feel like time will heal and it may seem like the speaker is trying to diminish your feelings.’
Gary Bloom, clinical psychotherapist, suggests not saying things like: ‘I know exactly how you feel’, or, ‘I’ve been there’.
‘While the intention is good,’ he says, ‘it can be very undermining – no one knows how someone else feels. It completely takes away from that person’s grief and makes it all about the person who says it.’
It’s also really important not to try and offer suggestions, or encouragements to feel ‘better’, says Laura.
For example, avoid saying things like: ‘A night out/get together will do you good! It will take your mind off it!’
‘Again, while said with good intentions this can undermine the person’s grief, as if it’s as easy as just distracting yourself from it,’ she says. ‘It won’t make the pain go away.’
Laura also advises against saying unhelpful things like: ‘Cheer up, it’s Christmas!’ or ‘Your loved one would want you to be happy’. This can bring about feelings of guilt, as well as grief.
These kind of generic statements also won’t offer up much help for those who may be suffering from the many psychical effects of grief, such as chronic fatigue, or loss of appetite, to name a few, says Marie Friend of Harmonic Egg Healing.
She adds: ‘Feelings of anxiety and high emotional stressed states can flood the body with cortisol and weaken the immune system. It’s no wonder people can be wiped out and floored with grief, it can literally be an altered state.
‘It’s important to remember that grief is demanding physically, as well as mentally.’
What if it’s an acquaintance?
‘Although you obviously won’t get involved to the same degree, you can still be supportive to a colleague or neighbour who is grieving at Christmas,’ Somia suggests.
‘Checking in on them with a knock or the door, or quick message will help them to feel less alone in their grief. Let them know you are thinking of them and happy to offer practical help if required.’
Crucially, don’t be tempted to avoid talking about someone’s loss, or avoiding their grief, because you’re not sure what to say. It’s better to say something, than nothing.
‘The key thing is to show signs of support,’ says Marie. ‘Don’t feel like you have to tip toe round and act like nothing has happened, to avoid an emotional interaction. It’s helpful to, in your own way, show understanding and compassion.’
‘Sometimes there doesn’t have to be words,’ she adds. ‘The energy you give to someone can speak volumes.
There is no right or wrong way to grieve
Everyone deals with grief differently and there are no set milestones you should be looking to reach at one month, six months or a year after a bereavement, says Somia.
‘It’s important not to make judgements about whether somebody is grieving correctly if they appear to be totally unaffected by their loss, or, conversely cannot stop crying,’ she says.
‘Be prepared for any kind of response and stay open and empathic to what they are going through.’
According to Somia, when someone is still feeling very raw about a bereavement that happened some time ago, it helps to bear in mind that the pain is still very real to that person.
‘Again, keep your judgements about what ‘healthy grieving’ looks like at bay and offer as much practical and emotional support as you can,’ she says.
She adds that, ‘if someone doesn’t seem to be moving through their grief in any way or their mood seems to be getting worse, it may be worth them speaking to their GP about some counselling or psychotherapy.’
Private help will also be available if they can afford it.
There are no timelines in grief
‘Grief doesn’t have a timescale by any means,’ says Marie. ‘It does get smaller and easier to manage and you do start to swim as opposed to drowning. But it’s always there, it just becomes more manageable.’
‘The process of going though these stages is not linear or identical for every bereaved person,’ agrees Dr Leonidaki. People can go back and forth, and there is no certain time limit of how long they will stay in each of them.
She adds that the exact circumstances of the death, and the nature of the relationship with the person who died, will colour the process of grief.
‘Everyone’s grief is different and there are no rules to follow,’ she says.
‘There is no space for judgment when people go through a loss. Each person’s unique response to loss needs to be respected. Be kind with the bereaved person and encourage them to be kind with themselves.’
Need support? Contact the Samaritans
For emotional support you can call the Samaritans 24-hour helpline on 116 123, email [email protected], visit a Samaritans branch in person or go to the Samaritans website.
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