How to be a friend when your friend is grieving...
Losing a loved one is one of life’s most difficult events to understand. The grief experience can be compounded when the loss is traumatic. While the grief process may look different to everyone, I want to discuss what some people experience, and how you can be supportive to those you know who are going through what is one of the hardest events of their life.
To be honest, most people feel uncomfortable by other people’s grief. We even have social expectations of “this and no more.” Meaning, people are allowed to grieve publicly for a certain amount of time before the rest of the world moves and starts to lose patience with the person for not “snapping back” within a certain timeframe.
This blog may help the person that has that framework of keeping to themselves to accept the challenge of extending a listening and compassionate ear. This blog also may be helpful for the individuals who want to help but often feel helpless to do so. And while this list is not comprehensive, it’s a starting point and the first thing I would say is:
Give them time- People may be comforted knowing there is no imposed time limit on grief. While there are some parameters mental health professionals like to set that separate what is considered a normal grieving experience from one that is not, generally speaking, there is no time limit. Everyone grieves differently. The first year is hard, but year 2+ is also hard. I have even heard some people say year 2 is the hardest because the individuals support network often go on with their lives and now the individual is adjusting to ongoing life without that loved one. Also, as time goes on, grief is compounded. Two realities in life is that we live, and we die. I’m not going morbid but just speaking the truth. Later years may be harder in their own way because we may be compounding multiple losses on one another. That’s ok. It’s life and without death we would not appreciate life and the time we have. It doesn’t make it any less hurtful and sad though.
Allow the person to grieve in their own way- Maybe you wouldn’t do “this” or “that” but they do. And unless they are hurting themselves or others, that is ok too. Allow the person to grieve the way they grieve without imposing your behavioral expectations on them. Some people may have a variety of reactions to grief ranging from behavioral reactions (e.g. aggressiveness, withdrawing/isolating, reckless behaviors, hyperactivity), cognitive reactions (e.g. poor concentration, exaggerating or over projecting their role in a persons passing, changes in self esteem), emotional reactions (e.g. self blame/guilt, feeling helpless/hopeless, feeling angry), and spiritual reactions (e.g. questioning/blaming their faith or faith in general). While all of these within themselves sound “bad”, they inherently are not. People have a range of emotions they use to cope and process, and it is all normal and healthy. Most of us have heard of the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. We like to think of them as linear, but I like to think of them as layered. It’s not that we experience denial, and then once we get over that we experience anger, and then we bargain, and so on. I think we can experience anyone of those things are any time, or at no time, and that is completely normal. We start to get concerned when the loss is impacting a person’s life negatively over an extended period of time in a way that is interrupting work, social relationships, engagement in activities the person would have previously found interesting, and so on.
Listen openly- This means don’t judge the emotions the person is discussing, AND don’t try to fix the problem unless the individual specifically asks you for advice—and even then, tread lightly. Try using open ended questions (meaning questions that do not require a simple yes or no answer). If appropriate, reminisce on the good times. Ask the person for their favorite or funniest memory. There is a time for this so feel out the direction the conversation is going before doing this. Also, simply ask the person what can I do? If they can’t identify anything, ask if you can just sit with them. If they say yes, do that. If they say no, that’s fine too. Also, it’s ok to be overwhelmed by someone’s emotions. Remember that you aren’t the person’s therapist. You are a friend/family/coworker/church member—aka you are someone trying to be supportive and help in the way that you can. I would say just to caution yourself as to how you share that. One way to express concern while lightening your own load is to encourage the person to seek help from a professional or a group. If you can, even offer to go for them the first time or offer to help them to find someone to talk too. This is true for therapists too. We have to especially guard our friendships and relationships from mimicking our therapeutic relationships.
Be aware of your non-supportive cues- This may be verbal or non-verbal. Talking too quickly, preaching/lecturing, using most cliché sentences, or rushing answers is probably good to avoid in general conversation, but definitely if your friend, family, or loved one is in the midst of sharing their loss with you. Also, be mindful of your non-verbal cues. I am notorious for making faces and it is something that I have to actively work on especially when in session. Sometimes my face says things I would never say with my mouth and sometimes it says exactly what I’m thinking, but probably shouldn’t say! I know this is true for many people and it’s always important to be aware of our body language (gestures, facial expressions, demeanor, and so on).
Know when to get help- We touched on this a little bit earlier, but this is VERY important. Unless you are a trained professional, and even then, there may be a time when you need to refer the person to someone else. Often times they can have access to mental health providers that specialize in grief and loss counseling through their insurances. Most hospice agencies offer grief counseling in groups even if the individual was not on hospice. If the loss was traumatic there are crime victim advocates in most states that provide groups based on county. You may be talking with someone and aren’t sure if it’s time to get help.
Some key things I look for are:
1. The individual’s quality of life being impacted for an extended period of time (e.g. trouble with work, isolation from others, etc).
2. The individual often expresses feeling hopeless or helpless
3. The individual has expressed thoughts of harming his/herself or someone else. If this is the case, you can call 911 in the case of an emergency or the national suicide prevention hotline at 988.
I know these situations in life are tough but, unfortunately, we all will experience it at some point in our life. We can just hope that someone takes the time be be compassionate and understanding to us during our time of need. If you have questions about anything in this blog, you can reach us on our contact page.