6 Ways to Support Someone Who is Grieving

This week Orlando therapist Risa Bos shares a recent personal experience of supporting a friend after a difficult loss and offers 6 ways we can support one another through the grief journey.

Risa Bos, MA, LMHC
Licensed Mental Health Counselor
Clinical Hypnotherapist

Death…it’s just a part of life.  It will happen to us all, whether by suffering the loss of those we love or going through the dying process ourselves.  That’s a really sobering and frightening concept, and yet we go about our daily lives somewhat oblivious to our inescapable mortality.

In recent years, there have been so many deaths of public figures, whether through disease, as a result of accident or by suicide.  This string of losses has played out in the media as we see the masses gather to create a shrine of flowers, letters and candles, or as we watch stock video footage of the deceased in better times.  Sometimes a public loss can spark awareness for mental illness, as in the case of Robin Williams or Chris Cornell, both of whom took their own lives as an apparent result of depression.

In my life, I have had minimal personal experience with death in my family or among my friends.  In fact, I can probably count on one hand the number of funerals I have attended.  My losses have been those that one expects: grandparents (all having lived to around 90 years of age) and pets.  Certainly there was a sense of great loss and sadness that I experienced.  Yet my major losses remain in the “someday” category, when I will lose my parents, a best friend, and my own life.

In the last few weeks, I have been observing my best friend’s grief over the loss of his sweet mother, who died last month with full mental clarity—her body failing.   My beloved friend has been struggling to function and begin to reclaim his life, even though on many levels he knew her death was imminent for months and even years.  His suffering has taught me a lot about the grieving process, and has obliterated what I thought I understood about the permanent loss that is death.  Even as a mental health counselor, I am struggling to find a way to be helpful or to ease his pain.  How can I make it better—after all, I’m a professional and I should possess these skills, right?

The reality of grief and its process is that it varies wildly among people and relationships, and one cannot assume that there is a one-size-fits-all blueprint for moving  through grief.  Relationships differ, dependence and reliance on the lost loved one differs, and people’s attitudes regarding death vary greatly.

Most of us have heard of the 5 Stages of Grief : Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance.  This is a somewhat organized system to help sort through the feelings and emotions that are present when a death occurs.  It is important to note that this is not a 5-step program, after which there is no more grief.  The amount of time spent in each stage varies, and a person typically moves non-linearly through the stages, even bouncing around out of order and revisiting earlier stages.  For instance, a person may experience denial, anger, bargaining, and be well into the depression stage, and be overcome by anger again.  Or he might be all the way to acceptance, which is not without pain, and go back to bargaining with his Higher Power or the Universe to make the pain go away.

In the presence of this grief and trying my best to be helpful to my friend, I asked him what he’s found helpful within the words and gestures of the many people who have reached out to him.  His response helped me to organize these six ways to be supportive, reassuring and otherwise helpful during grief.

  • Anxiety is a painfully present component not included in the classic stages of grief, and it is possibly the most uncomfortable. Sitting with someone through their anxiety: holding his hand, placing a hand on his shoulder, or just being present with him or sending a thoughtful message is comforting.
  • Honor your grieving loved one’s boundaries and preferences in supporting them. Sometimes, my friend doesn’t want to talk about what’s happened, and rather just wants to know I’m thinking of him and I’m here if he needs me.
  • People who are trying to be helpful often make assumptions about what the grieving person wants. My friend made a distinction between the genders, and said that he finds women more prone to want to talk about emotions and discomfort around the death, while men—since they can’t fix it—tend to want to be more practical in their inquiries regarding needs. (“Are you able to work okay?  Can you still take care of your responsibilities around the house?  Can I help you with that project that needs to be done by next week?”  Both response styles are helpful in their own way, so follow what feels natural to you.
  • Listen and try to anticipate the practical needs of your grieving loved one. My friend told me that he has been unable to go grocery shopping because of his depression. I will respond by picking up some things that I know he likes to eat, and taking them to him at his home.  Grieving and depressed people tend to neglect their personal care.  Arrange an outing to the hairdresser or manicurist, or arrange to bring these services to their home, or provide them yourself if you have the skills.
  • Help your grieving loved one identify a space—whether in a particular setting or created by collecting items for a shrine—where they feel the presence of the person they lost most strongly. This can be somewhere like a park or garden, at the ocean or in a room or other space where the deceased person liked to spend time. Encourage the grieving friend to sit with his feelings, allow them to flow—often through tears.  There is no way to get beyond painful emotions other than to go through them.
  • Remind the grieving person to hear the voice and wisdom of their lost loved one in various situations. “What would your mother say about this funny incident? How would your mom respond to this problem?  What do you recall your mother doing in a situation like this?”

Understand that someone in the throes of grief will not seem like their normal selves, possibly for quite a long while.  Hold space and allow for the uncomfortable emotions, and the silence.  While grief never really goes away, it is encouraging to know that it changes into something lighter and less desperately painful.  This too shall pass…into another form that allows for and even encourages growth and forward momentum.

If you are suffering with a loss, use these suggestions to identify and ask for what you need.  In many cases, that involves talking to a caring professional who can help you organize and understand what you’re feeling.  If you need comfort and support for your, we have several skilled Orlando therapists at Life Skills Resource Group who are able to be with you in your grief and help you move through the stages.  Call us at (407)355-7378 and get started along the path to healing with a FREE phone consultation.