Death is one of the most difficult life events. When a person loses someone they love it can have a devastating effect on their life. It can impact their physical and mental health and their emotional wellbeing. This can be a temporary change or it can last for years or maybe forever. One thing that can make a real difference is the support that the person gets in the short, medium and long term. This support will essentially come from friends and family members. It may come from professionals involved in the grieving person’s life but the most important help will be from the people who are closest to them, who may also have known the person who died.
At Arka, we have worked with grieving people for many years and also hold a support group for people who have suffered the death of a loved one. From talking to people, we felt there was more help needed in supporting friends and family to care for grieving people. Our experience shows us that people can be fearful of bringing up the subject of death. Or of talking about the person who has died, in case it upsets the grieving person. There are so many reasons why this may be difficult including cultural norms, or perhaps the way the person died.
What we do know is that it can be quite lonely facing this on your own. Gentle support and an acknowledgement of what the person is going through can make such a difference. We have put together this post to share some of our ideas for how to support someone who is grieving. Here’s what we think can help……
Firstly, if you’ve not experienced the death of someone close then gaining an understanding of what the person may be going through is a good starting point. Let’s say that the person you are supporting is your friend.
Shock: Even if the death was expected it may take your friend a long time to grasp what has happened. The shock can make your friend numb, and some people at first carry on as if nothing has happened. It is hard to believe that someone important is not coming back. Many people feel disorientated – as if they have lost their place and purpose in life or are living in a different world.
Pain: Feelings of pain and distress following bereavement can be overwhelming and very frightening.
Anger: Sometimes bereaved people can feel angry. This anger is a completely natural emotion, typical of the grieving process. Death can seem cruel and unfair, especially if your friend feels someone has died before their time or when they had plans for the future together. They may also feel angry towards the person who has died. Or angry at themselves for things they did or didn’t do or say to the person before their death. They may just feel angry that they are seemingly out of control of their emotions and their life suddenly.
Guilt: Guilt is another common reaction. People who have been bereaved of someone close often say they feel directly or indirectly to blame for the person’s death. Your friend may also feel guilt if they had a difficult or confusing relationship with the person who has died, or if they feel they didn’t do enough to help them when they were alive.
Depression: Many bereaved people experience feelings of depression following the death of someone close. Life can feel like it no longer holds any meaning and some people say they too want to die.
Longing: Thinking that they are hearing or seeing someone who has died is a common experience and can happen when one least expects it. Your friend may find that they can’t stop thinking about the events leading up to the death. “Seeing” the person who has died and “hearing” their voice can happen because the brain is trying to process the death and acknowledge the finality of it.
So you are left trying to navigate around these emotions, sometimes it may feel easiest to just avoid the subject altogether. Understanding that the person may feel some of these feelings at any one time and in any order can help in your approach to them. People who have been bereaved may (or may not) want to talk about the person who has died (but it’s good to have the choice!). One of the most helpful things you can do is simply listen, and give them time and space to grieve. Offering specific practical help, not vague general offers, can also be very helpful. Here are some ideas for how to support someone who is grieving:
Understanding why this can seem hard to do can go some way to alleviating the awkwardness. Seeing our friends or family members upset can be difficult for us and potentially embarrassing for them. It may be that going for a walk with the person could be a good thing to do. So that you aren’t face to face with them and that silences are easier to cope with. Making direct eye contact with someone can put the person on the spot to come up with answers to how they are feeling. When there really are none, the person is dead and they are just missing them terribly. This isn’t something that we can put right, there are no answers just gentle support and kindness is what’s needed.
In summary, a lot of the time it’s the thought of getting it horribly wrong that stops us offering support in the first place. Your friend or family member will need support during this time. Just asking questions, listening, being there for them will go a long way and your relationship with them will be deeper and more trusting because of it. The last thing to mention is that grief affects people’s lives for a long time. The person will feel the loss for months and years possibly in one way or another so keep talking and keep listening. Thank you for reading, we hope that this guide for how to support someone who is grieving has been helpful.