Mental Health

How to help someone who is grieving

What has been your experience with grief? Have you gone through the process yourself? Do you feel overwhelmed when others experience loss? Working in the perinatal field, I am surrounded by parents who have survived loss. These experiences vary vastly from the endless cycles of hope and loss during IVF treatment, to processing a miscarriage, or coming to terms with the dissolution of marriages. Grief can be isolating, and I hear repeatedly how much these parents yearn for understanding from their friends and family members. This post is for those who would like to help a grieving friend or loved one. I hope the following strategies will give you an idea of what you can do in these times of need.

8 Things to Consider when Supporting a Grieving Loved one:

1) Know that your job is to listen

Listen to what your friend is sharing and how he or she is feeling. Focus on maintaining a safe and nonjudgmental space for him or her to experience emotions openly. Respect boundaries if this individual is not ready to talk.

Listening to help someone grieving. Validation. Loss and support.

Supporting a grieving individual involves being genuinely present. This involves actively listening, reflecting back, asking questions, showing interest, validation, and providing compassion. There is no need to fix things or make it better because this is not possible. We often worry about being effective support persons, but I encourage you to consider what “effective” truly means in this context. You are not able to bring back the person or experience that has been lost. The best way to support is to be available and present if or when the grieving party is ready to talk or have company.

2) Show that you care

There are lots of ways to show you care from visiting, calling, dropping off food, offering practical help, or giving a hug. If you’re not sure that you’re properly supporting the other person, just ask. We sometimes worry about being a nuisance. Trust that the other person will tell you if they do not want this type of support.

Sometimes our own uncertainties get in the way. We question how often we should stop by, or whether we’re making much of a difference. In these scenarios, listen to your own capacity. Burning yourself out in the process of helping someone’s grief will not work well for anyone at the end of the day. Offer as much as you can comfortably manage.

Again, remember that the goal does not involve the other person necessarily “feeling better”. Sometimes we look for reinforcement that we are doing the right thing because the other person responds back, smiles, offers reassurance, and so forth. Depending on the intensity and recency of the grief, your loved one may not be able to offer this feedback.

3) Stop giving advice

A lot of bereaved individuals are provided support through advice giving. They hear endless phrases like:

  • You should talk about it more
  • It’s important to let it go
  • “Make sure to take some time to do the things you enjoy
  • You can always try again
  • Count your blessings
  • Think of your other children

These phrases are not meant to be malicious and the speaker has good intentions. However, it’s important to recognize that in these remarks are subtle messages informing the bereaved that they are grieving incorrectly. They are being told to feel or act differently from how they are currently experiencing their loss. Recognize that your role in this scenario is not be an advice giver, but to be a friend. Let the person feel how they feel, and trust that this is their way of processing.

4) There is no set time for when a person is done grieving

Some people come to terms with loss within a few months, whereas for others, it will take years. There’s really no set timing when it comes to grief. As far as the support role, the difficulty comes with being patient when the other person’s grief continues despite a lengthy time. I get that you want the other person to feel better, but be cautious of how this comes across. So long as the person is safe and not a danger to themselves (e.g. suicidal intent), step back. As worried as you may be that they are stuck, continue to let them know you are available, and let go of the pressure for them to “move forward” until they are ready.

5) Pay attention to your own discomforts

The pressure we feel to make the other person feel better comes from our own agendas. It comes from our own discomfort in seeing a loved one in pain. Of course, you want the other person to feel better. This is your spouse, your sibling, a dear friend, and you would never wish this type of sadness on them. However, it’s important that, in the grief process, the focus is not about you, but about the other person. We can easily shift into noticing our own systems feeling uncomfortable with intense emotions and wanting to help the other person shut down these feelings. This can be incredibly invalidating, and reinforces a sense of isolation for the grieving individual.

It is helpful to reflect on your own experiences with grief and intense emotions. How have you been supported during times of distress? Were you forced to manage on your own? Did your family members display big emotions? Were feelings welcome, or were you taught to bury your emotions? Did you witness your parents experience big emotions and start to fear them?

Understandably, we can have avoidant parts of our system that shy away from intense emotions based on childhood experiences. We want our caregivers to show us that the world is safe and that they can keep us protected. We need our caregivers to provide a safe environment for us to feel and process our emotions. When parents continue to present in dysregulated manners (e.g. intense grief, shaming us for experiencing distress), children have a hard time coming to terms with these emotions. They may learn to fear strong feelings as unbearable or a problem that must be resolved.

6) Try not to personalize.

If a loved one is grieving, chances are their emotional capacity can feel incredibly restricted. They may not have the space or awareness to consider how their remarks or feedback is landing on others, and you may bear witness to significant mood swings. It is normal to have ups and downs during grief. As a support person, this does not mean you tolerate becoming the emotional punching bag. You are always encouraged to set boundaries if someone is treating you poorly. However, in situations where the other person turns down spending time together, presents as moodier, is not emotionally available, or appears uninterested in your updates, try not to personalize. They are not doing this to be intentionally unkind, but are caught in their own feelings of loss.

7) Don’t be afraid to bring up the loss.

Grief. Supporting grieving individual.

Grief can be a taboo topic, and we are cautious about triggering the other person by avoiding bringing up the circumstances. Simply avoiding the topic does not mean the other person is not thinking about their loss. They are well aware of what’s changed in their life, and need the opportunity to talk about it. Rather than avoid, acknowledge the grief. Comment on milestones, anniversaries, birthdays, and other important dates. As time goes on, your loved one will appreciate that you are not forgetting their loss, and use the opportunity to talk, if it’s needed.

8) Be genuine.

If you truly understand the other person’s pain and have been through a similar experience, let them know. Otherwise, avoid saying phrases like “I understand” or “I know how you feel.” While these types of phrases are meant to offer comfort, they can unfortunately feel really invalidating. Pay attention to whether you use platitudes. While you may find comfort in trying to find the silver lining, the other person may not be ready or wanting to these hear these comments. Again, try not to personalize this, but work with the reality that this is not the way that this person processes grief.

Reach out

reach out. contact for therapy. counselling services for grief. postpartum loss

Whether you feel overwhelmed by witnessing grief, or if you feel your loved one can benefit from additional support, therapy can provide a safe space to process these emotions. It helps to have a neutral party to discuss intense feelings without fear of repercussion, needing to stay strong, or concern about overwhelming others. It takes a lot of courage to seek out for help; reach out when it feels right for you.

Take care,

Kasi

Kasi Shan, MSW, RSW
Kasi Shan, MSW, RSW

Kasi Shan Therapy is located in Kitchener, Ontario. She offers in-person and online appointments supporting individuals with struggling with trauma and perinatal mental health.

Mental Health

Disenfranchised Grief: When no one seems to understand your loss

I’ve been talking to many individuals lately who have experienced ectopic pregnancies, chemical pregnancies, and complicated deliveries. During all of these conversations, I noticed a theme of disenfranchised grief. Disenfranchised grief refers to “the types of loss that are not so readily recognised or supported by society.” Grief therapist Lisa Zoll explains that this type of grief happens in one of three ways: 1) the relationship is not recognised, 2) the loss is not recognised, or 3) the griever’s right to grieve is not recognised.

disenfranchised grief: What is it, and tips to support.
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When it comes to the death of a partner or child, society can empathize. It’s clear: there once was a person, and now this person is no longer here. However, when situations are not as clear-cut, it’s as if others don’t understand how to support us. Our grief experience is real and intense; yet, it feels we’re not entitled to our sadness and distress. There is little acknowledgement or validation of our experiences.

Examples of disenfranchised grief:

  • Grieving someone you didn’t like or who did not treat you well. There are many confusing emotions when our abusive partner or parent passes away. In this moment, it is so important to recognize dialectical thinking. We can be relieved that we are no longer experiencing abuse AND grieve the loss of this person. With complicated relationships like these ones, there are many questions that will be left unanswered (e.g. Why did you do this?) There is also the finality of circumstances, which prevents us from ever repairing this relationship. It’s very easy in this phase to get caught up in “what if” questions.
Disenfranchised grief: What to do when others do not recognize your grief.
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  • Parents who have experienced difficult child birth experiences (e.g. NICU visits, unplanned C-sections). Friends and family can feel confused by the grief experienced when a baby comes home, but parents are still caught in a state of mourning. These parents have had many components of their pregnancy and postpartum care taken from them. They have lost weeks of blissful pregnancy. They have had days or hours taken away from them as they watch their baby in the NICU uncertain when they will be able to leave safely. It feels like there is no closure or resolution to the sense of panic despite having left the hospital. These parents can experience difficulties with attachment to their little one, or low self-confidence in their parenting because they are caught in that moment of loss.
Disenfranchised grief: What to do when others do not recognize your grief.
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  • The loss of a partner from an extramarital affair/taboo relationship. Grief is grief, irrespective of how the relationship formed. When we lose someone we love, it hurts. Because affairs are taboo in our society, publicly mourning the loss of this partner is met with less support or compassion. Similarly, individuals who are not ready or able to identify openly as LGBTQ (+) can experience disenfranchised grief when mourning the end of relationship. If these individuals have not informed others about their sexual orientation, there is no space or safety to grieve the end of a relationship.
  • Our loved one has not passed away, but is no longer available to us. This can occur for a variety of different reasons such as: divorce, moving away, family conflict, mental health, etc. In these moments, grieving individuals are often given dismissive feedback such as :”You’re better off with him”, “It’s a normal part of life, why are you so upset?” or “I would be so angry if I were in your shoes.”
  • Our loved one has passed away due to suicide, overdose, or some form of mental health struggles (e.g. complications from eating disorders). Unfortunately, because the circumstances surrounding these deaths are complicated and often stigmatised, community members may not know how to address the grief. This can often lead support people to avoid the topic, or worse, avoid grievers in order to prevent an “awkward” conversation.
  • Reproductive loss: e.g. chemical pregnancies, miscarriages, still births, elective abortions. Parents can experience a variety of emotions when facing the struggles of reproduction. Miscarriages are so common, occurring in approximately 1/4 pregnancies. Infertility issues happen in approximately 1/6 couples. These individuals are on a roller coaster of hope and grief with each attempt in reproduction.
  • Becoming a parent. By transitioning into this new stage of life, old friendships may fade. There is less time for our former hobbies and interests. A solid night’s rest is no longer guaranteed. Body shapes and sizes may fluctuate following delivery. When others come to visit, we are more likely to receive positive feedback about the baby. However, there is limited discussion and less acceptance about a parent’s sadness in adjusting to this new lifestyle.
Disenfranchised grief: What to do when others do not recognize your grief.
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  • The grief has happened a long time ago: Somehow, a metric was created that classified grief as “complicated bereavement” after 6-12 months from the date of a loved one’s passing. This metric suggests that after a year, the grief should have become integrated into your life. While it’s okay to be sad about the death, it’s not considered “normal” to feel grief as intensely.

What can I do?

  • Recognise that your symptoms are in relation to the grief. Grief can vary for each individual. It may show up as anger, avoidance, endless tears, guilt, emotional numbing, or other forms of expression. Allowing yourself to accept that you are grieving helps you shift away from dismissing your own experiences. Your loss is real and valid.
Disenfranchised grief: What to do when others do not recognize your grief.
Photo by Mat Brown on Pexels.com
  • There is no time line for grief. You do not have to be okay after 12 months. This loss meant a lot to you. It had a significant impact in your life. Why should you feel at peace after a year? That doesn’t mean you will not adapt, or that there is anything wrong if you feel better after a year. We all process and cope differently. It is not a race, there is no magic formula that will tell us how quickly we’ll be “over it.”
  • Let go of the pressure to “get over it”. You can decide if or when you want to talk about the grief. Writer and psychotherapist Megan Devine has a beautiful framework she uses with grief called “the vomit metric.” Whenever you feel the pressure “to move forward” from the grief, think about how intensely the thought makes you want to vomit. For example, if thinking about decluttering your child’s room 4 years after they have passed away makes you want to vomit, it means you’re not ready. This is okay! Again, it’s helpful to shift away from focusing on what we “should do” by accepting what we are ready to do. Whenever you feel motivated to declutter, that is the best time.
Disenfranchised grief: What to do when others do not recognize your grief.
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  • Find like-minded people. While your immediate social circle may not understand the ins and outs of this grief, there may be others who are struggling with similar grief. Sign up, whether it is via an informal facebook group or a formal support group, to connect with others who are sharing these experiences. Examples of support groups include: Pregnancy and Infant Loss Network, Family and Caregiver Support (for those whose loved ones have mental health diagnoses), and Divorce Care Recovery.
  • Consider how you want life to look like today. You may not be ready to think of a five year plan just yet. However, when you consider your readiness and your current distress, what would you like to do today? What are you able to manage? What can you push for, and when do you need to stop? Every day will vary, and this is normal.
Disenfranchised grief: What to do when others do not recognize your grief.
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  • Create a ritual that works for you. Give yourself the opportunity to remember your loss on a regular interval (if you want to). This may involve writing a letter to your unborn baby on the day of her birth. You may chose to journal regularly whenever the grief is at its peak. Perhaps you send a financial contribution to the mental health organization of your choice on specific anniversaries. Alternatively, you may decide to stay in your pyjamas, take the day off work, and allow yourself to cry and reminisce about your loved one on the day of his passing. There is no right or wrong way to do this ritual. It truly depends on what feels most natural and comforting for you.
  • If and when you’re ready, speak up. Talk about the loss as much as you need to with your support system. Do this when you are at a place of patience, as many of your friends and family will likely botch up in knowing what to say. If you have the patience for it, guide them in what you need from them. Be clear when certain comments are not helpful. None of these people will make the pain or sadness go away; however, there is incredible power that comes with knowing you are cared for.

Every social system is different. Some individuals experience grief, and are met with support and empathy by friends and family. I hope this is the case for you. However, if you are struggling with loss and finding yourself isolated, please reach out. There is no right way or right time to work through these emotions. When you want to work through the grief, please know that there are a variety of options to support you in processing these feelings, such as journaling, support groups, or individual-counselling.

Kasi