When we think of loss, most of us likely know someone affected or has been directly affected by it. The context of loss can vary significantly for those enduring it; as a result, different people may need different kinds of support. This blog aims to understand better what a person you love might be experiencing in grief and deliver some pointers to be a positive and impactful support to them.

The Stages of Grief

During the tumultuous experience of grief, many go through what is known as “The Five Stages.” Contrary to its presentation, these stages have no order, and not everyone will experience them all. It is also important to note that as one processes the grief over time, one may revisit and share phases at different intensities. Below is a brief description of each with examples:

  • Denial – During this stage, it is common for a person to act like change isn’t happening or almost carry on as if things are normal. Denial is a defense mechanism used to slow things down and give a person more time to process and numb the intensity of the emotions that come with loss. Eventually, however, emotions push through this wall and must be acknowledged.

Examples: “This isn’t happening; there must be some mistake.”

  • AngerAnger is often one of the easier emotions for people to express because they can accurately represent the intensity of how they’re feeling without having to experience the raw experience that comes from vulnerability in other emotions. Anger hides other pain from a loss and might be displaced by the person gone or at other people, situations, or things completely unrelated. When experiencing the complications of grief, it is common for those suffering to have a much shorter fuse and thus be quick to anger.

Examples: “How could God let this happen,” “How could they not take care of themselves.”

  • Bargaining – At this stage, the person dealing with grief hopes to influence the outcome of an event or regain control when there is none. During this time, it is common for the person to consider all the potential consequences that could have happened if things were handled differently. Bargaining can also be when people look to a higher power for relief.

Examples: “If I had just picked up their call, they’d still be here.”

  • Depression – This is typically where all of the emotions we have been avoiding finally catch up, and it leaves us in the space to process and feel things deeply. It is common for people to isolate, feel disoriented or foggy, and show symptoms that might meet depression While this is typically a situational occurrence, it is essential to note if this phase leaves you feeling stuck for an extended amount of time where you find it difficult to function, it may be a good time to seek insight from a mental health professional.

Examples: “Is there even any point of being here anymore?”

  • Acceptance – is often misconstrued as when a person “feels better,” and to those grieving a loved one, this doesn’t feel entirely accurate. This stage is about understanding what this loss means to your life. There are still hard days, and at pivotal points, you may find yourself back in other stages, but this phase acknowledges the ability to have both good and bad days after the loss.

Examples: “I’ll always miss them, but I have so many wonderful lessons they taught me.”

Several considerations influence how a person feels about loss, including the personal relationship they had with them, how they passed, and how their loved ones are affected by the loss. It can be challenging to know how to respond for fear of not knowing the right things to say. Below are some tips and effective things to say to a grieving person.

The First Interaction After the Loss

It is essential to offer condolences sincerely and let the person you care about know that you love them and are thinking of them. Be genuine and avoid any long-winded cliches or stories. A sincere acknowledgment begins the conversation with empathy and helps the person feel supported. In times of adversity, it is common for people to want to solve or improve problems, and the hardest thing to accept in grief is that a person must walk through the motions of it and process it in their own way, at their own speed.

Normalize and Validate Feelings and Offer Support

If a loved one is grieving, they will likely experience a myriad of different emotions and may express them in intense ways. It’s essential to encourage them to share how they feel. There is no right or wrong way to experience grief, and offering them space to share also supports them in processing during this challenging time and reminds them that they are not alone. Here are some excellent ways to reach out:

  1. Asking if there is anything you can do to help: In grief, people frequently note who reaches out, even if there is little to be done. Sometimes, when there is no clear answer, acts of service can be beneficial. Some examples include sending gift cards to have food catered instead of food or flowers that might go bad, offering to take care of a pet, or getting the person’s mail while they deal with the logistics immediately following a loss.
  1. Being Present – Grief can be isolating and complicated. Some report wanting to feel connected to others but struggle to reach out. Offering a concrete and low-key plan, such as taking a walk, can be effective in helping the person get out of the house and provide a change of scenery. It also gives an activity to focus on to get their mind off things while offering space to talk about how they are doing informally, making them feel less vulnerable. Participating in activities is vital in normalizing grief and its coexistence with day-to-day activities. Many people feel immense guilt for having small bursts of happiness, even in times of grief. Part of finding acceptance is understanding that the good and bad can happen simultaneously.
  1. Share Memories – As people grieve, many share that their greatest fear is that they’ll forget their loved one; clients will specifically share that they don’t want to forget how they look or smell. Offering memories or asking the person for their favorite memories is a great way to encourage them to remember who the person was outside of how they passed, especially if their death was traumatic. There is often the misconception that no one should talk about the deceased person, as it might hurt those grieving; however, sharing stories and memories of the person helps keep their story and spirit alive and reminds those suffering of the positive impact of their deceased loved one. It is also a necessary part of how people will make meaning of the person’s role in their life.

*TIP* When in doubt of whether to share, take the grieving person’s lead and be ready to listen

  1. Be prepared to listen – Leave your judgments at the door; grief can come out in some intense and harsh ways and requires you as a support to recognize that the person suffering is in pain and this isn’t a reflection on them. Refrain from the urge to problem-solve or correct them, as it can come off as invalidating their pain. Using active listening skills and avoiding insensitive remarks, including triggers, is also pertinent here. When in doubt, silence is okay, accompanied by nods and nonverbal cues you are listening to, like hand-holding and hugs if they allow.
  1. Be mindful of important dates Try to be aware of important dates when the person you are supporting might be struggling more than usual; examples include birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays following the person’s passing.
  1. Respect the process – Avoid comparisons or judgments about the grieving timeline; this is an entirely personal experience that differs for each person. Your job as support is to walk beside them as they navigate.

It can be challenging to know precisely how to support someone experiencing grief. Be kind to yourself; you may not always know the perfect way to respond. Being present with the person and allowing compassion to guide your words and actions as you navigate this rugged terrain together is most impactful.

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