What is grief?
Grief is the emotional experience one goes through after loss. It is usually associated with the loss of a loved one but can also occur after a loss of any kind. For example, after a divorce, loss of a job, or a terminal diagnosis. First off, it is important to realize that the process of grief and the time it takes to go through this process is very different for each individual. Research on grief has shown that there are 4 typical experiences while processing grief. Not everyone who experiences grief will experience all these components or experience them to the same intensity:
- Separation Distress. This results in a range of emotions such as sadness, anxiety, anger, pain, loneliness, etc.
- Traumatic Distress. This is associated with feelings of unreality, disbelief, shock, and avoidance of emotional triggers.
- Feelings of guilt and regret.
- Social withdrawal.
Later on in the grieving process, as the pain subsides, feelings of acceptance and understanding tend to arise. This is when the person will begin to experience more positive emotions, accept the circumstances and often derive some meaning from the loss. The grief still remains but it no longer affects their daily functioning. Some people experience more intense grief that instead gets worse over time and affects their functioning for a long period of time; this is called complicated grief.
What does someone dealing with grief experience?
The experience of grief is vastly different for each individual, both in intensity and length of time. The individual can experience a large range of emotions, such as the ones described above; sadness, anger, guilt, disbelief, regret, etc. That can be overwhelming at first. They may have difficulty accepting the loss or experience a feeling of meaninglessness or detachment. They also may find it difficult to function normally, for example when going to work or carrying on with their daily life. They may socially withdraw from their friends and family or begin to avoid things that remind them of the loss. Some people may even feel numb and ‘emotionless’. Many people also have symptoms of depression, especially if they suffer from long-lasting, ‘complicated grief’. This can include symptoms such as a consistently negative mood, sleeping problems, a change in appetite, fatigue and lack of motivation.
What can you do to help?
- Be empathetic and listen compassionately. Someone grieving is going through a lot and is probably experiencing a wide range of emotions. They may not be able to function properly and perform to their usual standards. In this case, it can help to be sympathetic and understanding, and support them in a non-judgmental way.
- Give them support. Try to be warm and patient. Check in on them occasionally to see how they are doing and be there when they need it most. It can be good to plan days out or things to do with them and encourage them to remain active. However, it is important that you don’t push them into doing things they don’t want to do.
- Accept the other’s experience. Let them know it’s okay to feel the way they do.
- Be careful when giving advice. It is important to be careful when giving advice, because you don’t want to give them the impression that you dismiss their feeling of guilt or loss. Instead, acknowledge their emotions and experience.
- Don’t avoid the topic. It can aid the process to talk about their loss and what they are experiencing. Ask them how they feel occasionally. It can also be helpful to encourage them to remember some positive memories, too.
- Don’t overthink it. Just being there to support them and as someone to talk to who listens is often enough. Your presence and support are already a great help and source of comfort!
- Offer help. Offer help for small things that can ease the burden of daily life, such as administration processes regarding the loss, or grocery shopping or taking on house chores. This can help them find some time to focus and process the loss.
- Communicate about their needs. If you are feeling unsure, ask them how they want to be supported and helped, then you know what their needs are and how best to help them.
- Be patient. The process takes a varying amount of time for everyone, try not to pressure them to move on, this can hinder the process.
Take care of yourself!
Be careful not to overburden yourself when caring for another. Be there to support them, but also make sure that you get plenty of rest and relaxation, too. It can be a long, tough process, and the emotions they experience can be quite intense to be around. Make sure you find some space for yourself and, if it becomes overwhelming, don’t hesitate to seek (professional) support yourself.