Life is a journey that is full of wonderful experiences, but the good does come with the bad. At some point in time, everyone will inevitably suffer loss and experience grief. This may sometimes be too much to bear alone though, and I’ve worked with many clients to help them manage and work through their grieving process. External support doesn’t just come in the form of therapy, of course. Instead, social support is an important factor that helps to alleviate the pain a person feels when they experience loss. This is, in fact, a crucial part of the healing process – I’ve seen clients who spiralled into depression because they didn’t receive adequate support, whether from their friends and/or family. But how exactly should we help or support someone through their loss and grief?
What is grief?
Loss and grief go hand-in-hand. In psychology, we usually approach the issue using the five stages of grief model, which was introduced by Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in 1969. This framework can be applied to anyone who has suffered a loss, whether it’s a job, a loved one, a relationship, or even one’s mobility after an accident. As its name suggests, the model details the five stages that a grieving person goes through following a loss. They are:
“This cannot be happening. It must be untrue. Someone has made a mistake.”
This stage is defined by the numbness that the individual feels, and/or the refusal to believe that the loss has occurred. This is a coping mechanism to help the individual survive the initial period of the loss.
“How can this have happened? This is completely unfair. I don’t deserve this!”
Here, the individual feels anger that is often directed externally. They may feel that life is unfair, and question why they had to suffer their loss. A common reaction is to blame other people, the world in general, or even their religion for what has happened.
“If only I had done that, then this wouldn’t have happened!”
In the bargaining stage, a grieving individual tries to reconcile the situation with what can or could have been done, in an attempt to regain control of what has happened.
This is the quiet stage of grief, and is dominated by feelings of emptiness, heaviness, and fogginess. The reality of loss has begun to set in, and with it the corresponding pain and sadness. A common symptom here is withdrawal from others.
“I still miss him but I will be okay.”
Finally, the individual’s emotions begin to stabilise and they adjust to the new reality. This isn’t a steady state though – there are still good days and bad days as the individual continues to cope with the loss.
If these stages look familiar, it is because we have all experienced this at various points in our lives. What is important to note, however, is that the progression through these stages is not linear. Individual can oscillate between them, regress, and even skip through stages – no two people handle loss and grieve in the same way, after all.
Helping someone through loss and grief
Even though everyone goes through the process of loss and grief differently, there are still common strategies to keep in mind when helping a person who is experiencing it.
For a start, we must respect the pain that the individual is going through.
Empathise and commiserate. Lend a listening ear. Simply be there for the person, or just give them space should they need it. These are things that we can do. We must also recognise that the grieving process is the individual’s alone – we are only there to help them through it, not to process through things for them in any way. We must also remember not to downplay or dismiss what they are going through, or tell them to “just get over it”.
In terms of practical support, what we find has been consistently the most helpful way to help someone are small, consistent gestures of support. This can be texts to let the person know that they are on your mind, or little notes of encouragement that still give them the space they need to grieve. On a practical level, we can offer to help out with practical tasks like taking care of the kids for a day, or cooking meals and bringing them over. These can take the mental and physical load off a person, which gives them the capacity to better cope with loss.
Keep in mind that there are things we should avoid doing as well. One mistake that people often make is to give advice. “Have you tried going out more to make yourself feel better?” is a common suggestion that is given to grieving individuals, but grief isn’t a problem to be worked on, and we must not view it as something to be solved.
Apart from dispensing advice, we must not forget that we have personal limits too. If you are uncomfortable with helping someone through their grief for any reason, then you must recognise it and work within your limitations. It could be more damaging to offer support, then retract it when you realise that you are not able to go through with it.
Like anything else in life, we get better with more experience in supporting a person who is grieving. Ultimately, every individual is different, but these guidelines will be a good starting point to help you support someone as they process their loss and grief. If you require any further help personally, or know someone who does, please feel free to get in touch with us.