When we discuss the grieving process we often focus on the individual or individuals who were connected to the person who has passed away. Most resources for processing and working through grief are centered around the person who has lost an individual. There are many different models we use to help individuals grieve based on how they lost the individual they are grieving. While there can be similarities in how someone grieves regardless of circumstance, there are many differences on how one processes death related to the cause. Research shows that an individual who loses someone suddenly may have a shorter grief process than those who watch someone pass slowly. In contrast, many individuals who lose someone slowly, due to illness or injury, may not blame themselves in the same capacity as someone who loses an individual suddenly. While it is important to understand the grieving process, in this post I’d like to shift the focus to how one can support someone through their grieving process.
As you may have noticed, I have been describing grief as a ‘process’ rather than referencing ‘stages’ of grief. I have done so intentionally as the field of psychology is generally moving away from the five stages of grief model. Here is an article with some more information about that. It is important to understand the role of the support system within the grieving process. As everyone navigates grief differently, it can be difficult to navigate how to talk about death and understand your role in support.
The first step in understanding how to talk about death and offer support may be to directly ask the individual what type of support they could use while grieving. It may be helpful to ask questions rather than use general statements. Questions like “how can I support you through this process” may be more impactuful than statements such as “if there is anything I can do to support you, please reach out” as the latter puts the responsibility of support on the individual navigating grief. As death is a deeply personal topic many people are hesitant to speak about a person who has passed unless asked directly. It can be difficult to lose someone and then feel like you cannot speak about that person without others only expressing sympathy. An opportunity for support may be to engage in conversation about the deceased by attempting to learn more about them. Questions like “what was your favorite memory of them” or “what was their best quality” may help an individual feel more comfortable speaking about them in a way that doesn’t foster sympathy.
When someone loses an individual they were close with they also lose a companion in a habit or activity they engaged in. For example if someone had coffee with their friend every other Friday, not only did they lose that friend but they lost the person who they looked forward to getting coffee with. One way to offer support would be to ask if they would like to join you for coffee sometime. It is not necessary to adhere to the same coffee schedule they were previously engaged with, your role just may be to briefly step into that habit so they don’t feel the additional loss. Stepping into someone's previous role does not have to be executed identically, in fact it may be more helpful to step into that role in your own personal way. Sticking with the previous example, if you don’t drink coffee you could go out to brunch, if you are not a morning person you could grab lunch, if you are not close enough to meet with them in person you could both make coffee at home and meet virtually. What is important about these alternatives is for the activity to be similar to what the individual used to engage in. This way you are not replacing the person but you are stepping into a role they previously occupied.
Now that we have a couple ideas of how to offer support, it is important to address what type of support may not be helpful. While well intended, giving unprompted advice about how to work through grief may leave an individual feeling confused or invalidated. Everyone moves through grief at their own pace and rhythm. Placing grief timeline expectations may lead an individual to feel disconnected and shamed for their emotions. It is important to validate someone's emotions without assuming the source of the emotions. Additionally, people can grieve the loss of someone even if they were not always on good terms. It is not helpful to mention their grievances with the individual they have lost as it may make them feel guilt for any conflict they had experienced with that person before their passing.
As mentioned earlier in this post, grief is complicated and a learning process. It is okay to make mistakes while trying to support, the important part is to continue learning how to best support that individual at the time. While supporting someone who is grieving you may find that you feel your own type of temporary grief. This is normal as you may take on other’s emotions and feel like you have lost part of someone while they are grieving. If you notice feeling at a loss, it is important to implement your own self care and seek support from others.
Madison Repak, LPC