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

Preventing compassion fatigue: Simple ways to help family members struggling with their mental health

Living with someone who is suffering from a mental health problem can be challenging to say the least. Whether the individual is formally diagnosed or you’re noticing a shift in their moods, the ripple effect it has on the home is significant. One in five people are living with a mental health struggle, and with such a high occurrence rate, family members deserve some support and strategies. Compassion fatigue is a huge consequence when it comes to mental health. We care so much about a person and we give, give, give until we get to the point of feeling burnt out. It’s really scary to get to this point. As much as we’d love to continue supporting the relationship, we feel a level of caution. We question how our words will be interpreted or whether there will be repercussions in reaching out. We don’t know how to fix the situation, or make things better. Suggestions seem to be dismissed or addressed with anger. 

Compassion fatigue: Using validation to help a family member struggling with mental health

Compassion fatigue is a result of well-intentioned efforts to help our loved ones. We try as much as possible to express reassurance, but this can become disheartening after repeating the same conversation 30 times. It can feel overwhelming when you are experiencing yet another power struggle or argument. Rather than our usual supply of empathy and nurturing, we instead experience apathy and anger. While all of this might sound strange, it is natural to feel weighed down by our good intentions of helping. 

There are many ways to address compassion fatigue, and I’d like to focus on one particular strategy today. Fixing things, taking over another person’s responsibilities, being a constant cheerleader, and similar roles can lead to exhaustion. Instead, the following interpersonal and communication strategy will help your loved one feel supported, without you experiencing compassion fatigue.

Using validation

Preventing Compassion fatigue: Using validation to help family members struggling with their mental health

I had previously written about validation and how it can help us become better communicators with our loved ones. Validation is the skill of acknowledging how another person’s opinions, emotions or behaviours makes sense given the context. It means finding even a small morsel of detail that you can appreciate. For example, let’s say you arrive home from work and your partner is cantankerous. Validation involves looking at the context (perhaps a stressful day at work, time spent with the children, being caught in traffic, etc) and trying to appreciate how someone may be in a bad mood after being in this situation. Validation is NOT approval. It does not mean agreeing to what the person is saying or doing. Validation does not mean problem solving. You are not trying to come up with a solution or assess whether a situation is right or wrong. You are simply letting the other person know you get why they’re thinking or feeling a certain way. 

Why is this so important? When we validate, it helps the other person go from 100% cantankerous to perhaps 50% annoyed. For your loved one, someone has finally acknowledged that they are not wrong, bad, unintelligent (or any other negative, critical comments they think about themselves). Instead, with validation, our family members feel understood for the first time. When the individual can calm down to a 50% of emotional intensity, she/he/they may be able to problem solve independently. Alternatively, your family member may drop the issue all together because it doesn’t seem as important when the intensity goes down.

Validation does not cure the issue. You may have to validate a few times in a row before your loved one can hear your words. However, validation allows for you to have a better relationship with the person without experiencing compassion fatigue. It helps the other person feel less isolated so that they have the capacity to a) reach out for help from a professional or b) think more clearly and problem solve on their own or c) drop the issue all together if it’s not really important.

Levels of Validation

Compassion fatigue: Using validation to help a family member struggling with mental health

There are six different ways that you can validate someone. In DBT, we refer to these points as the six levels of validation. It goes from the easiest way in which you can acknowledge someone’s perspective to increasing complexity. Choose whichever skill feels right for you given your own comfort zone and your emotional capacity in that moment. 

Level One: Being Present

  • Give your undivided attention. This means putting away your phone and turning towards the person to pay attention.
  • Check in on your body language: Are you facing your family member? Do you have a defensive posture (e.g. arms crossed)? Can you maintain eye contact?  
  • Listen without providing comments. This is a tough one for those who love to “fix” and offer solutions. As you stay quiet, and show that you simply care, your family members are able to become more grounded. At this point, they are better able to problem solve and regulate on their own. If they need help, trust that they will come out and ask you directly. 
  • You’re working on the skill of being present with an intense emotion. You don’t have to do anything about the emotion other than simply letting the other person know you are not scared off by them. 

Level Two: Reflect Back 

  • This involves summarising what the person is saying. 
  • You are not guessing what the other intends to say but just repeating or paraphrasing their words 
  • By reflecting back their statement, you show that you are paying attention and care enough to clarify. 
  • Remember to use a non-judgemental tone when reflecting back.
  • E.G. “So I hear you saying that you’re angry about your test scores.”  

Level Three: Reading Minds

  •  This skill involves paying attention to facial cues and body language to help you consider how they may be experiencing the situation. 
  • Consider what you know about the person already. How would they typically feel, think or behave in this type of circumstance?
  • You will sometimes be off about your guess work, and that’s okay. The other person will correct you when this is the case. The beauty in doing validation is simply letting the other person know you are trying to hear them out. 
  • E.G. “You look a bit tired. I’m guessing the kids weren’t giving you the easiest time this afternoon.”

Level Four: Understanding based on their history 

  • Consider the person’s history or recent life events. How might these factors be affecting their perspective? 
  • What about their response makes sense given the ways in which they have grown up? 
  • If you were in these similar positions, how would you react? 
  • E.G. “Since you didn’t do as well as you had hoped on your last test, I can understand that you feel really anxious going into this exam.” 
  • E.G. “It makes sense that you’re scared to go to the store right now given that we’re in a pandemic and everyone is practising physical distancing.”

Level Five: Acknowledge the Valid

  • Consider the current context that the person is experiencing. How does their responses or emotions make sense given the situation? 
  • Valid responses are logical and fit the facts of the current situation. Your loved one is reacting in a “normal” way, and other people would be feeling, thinking or behaving similarly in the same situation. 
  • Normalize the person’s response, and explain how others would have felt, thought or behaved similarly. 
  • E.G. “I get that you were panicked in that fire. I would have also wanted to get out as quickly as possible.” 
  • E.G. “Being up all night with the baby is tough. I hear moms talk about these struggles all the time, and it’s not easy.”  

Level Six: Be Genuine

  • If you truly appreciate what the person is experiencing, express it! Don’t try to sugar coat, patronize, or fragilize the other person. Be yourself, and treat the other person as an equal. 
  • Be genuine about your empathy towards their feelings, thoughts, and behaviours. 
  • This involves being attuned to the person, and expressing that attunement via words and body language. 

When it comes to compassion fatigue, there are a lot of ways to address this difficult issue. One means of preventing compassion fatigue from taking place is shifting the relationship you have with your family members to one of support and validation. Moving away from a sense of responsibility to take care of another person or resolve their struggles can help create more space for you.

Every family is unique. If you would like to address some of the details mentioned in this post, please feel free to reach out.

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 · Parenting

Using validation to improve your relationship

When it comes to some challenging relationships, we all recognize that miscommunications and frustration seem endless. It feels like every conversation hits a roadblocks, and both you and the other person walk away feeling hurt, pissed off, and unheard. So how do we work through these blocks so that we can improve our relationship with these individuals? Whether you are a family member, a partner, a friend, or a work colleague, validation is an incredibly simple and powerful skill that can help reduce conflict and improve your relationships.

What is validation?

Validation involves acknowledging how another person’s thoughts, behaviours, or actions make sense given the context. This means finding even the smallest piece of the other person’s argument that you can appreciate and find valid or reasonable. Not only do you need to recognize this understanding, but you’ll need to take the time to express that understanding to the other person.

Validation to improve your relationship. Kasi Shan Therapy offers counselling services online and in Kitchener, ON.
Photo by Christina Morillo on Pexels.com

There might be some guess work when it comes to validation. After all, you can’t know for sure what a person is thinking or feeling unless they are actually stating these points. However, can you look at the situation with an empathetic perspective, and guess as to what may causing them to behave this way at this time? If not, can you ask them to help you understand why they feel so passionately about a certain stance?

Let’s take an example of parenting teenagers. Let’s say that, most recently, your arguments have been about curfew and arriving home on time. Typically, when you and your teens get into a conflict, it is the most exasperating conversation. It feels next to impossible to find any points that your teens are voicing that makes sense. In the end, you all end up screaming at one another, and the relationship stays rocky.

Validation to improve your relationship. Kasi Shan Therapy offers counselling services online and in Kitchener, ON.
Photo by Moose Photos on Pexels.com

If you could step back from the conflict at this moment, is there any understanding for why your teenagers want to push back a curfew time, and how that makes sense? If you were in your teens’ shoes, what might they be feeling? What does staying out later mean to them? What opportunities are they hoping to meet by staying out later? Would having a slightly later curfew mean more time with friends? Would it mean they feel like they belong in their peer group? Are they worried about not having time with their partners? What do they worry will happen if they don’t get to have this time? If they are worried about their social status, does it make sense that they are pissed off right now that they can’t stay out later? If they are wanting to spend time with their friends, and feel socially isolated right now, does it make sense that they are arguing so strongly?

Validation is not approval or agreement

Validation to improve your relationship. Kasi Shan Therapy offers counselling services online and in Kitchener, ON.

I tend to lose parents in trying to see things from their teens’ point of view because they worry that validation will mean approval or acceptance of their behaviour. And of course, at the end of the day, you don’t want to condone them to stay out later. You’re worried about what kind of trouble they’ll get into at later hours. You’re concerned about safety and whether their peers will be making responsible choices at this time. You’re tired of being anxious, and staying up late in order to ensure they’re coming home safely…. Did you notice what I just did there? I focused on validating how you may be feeling. I didn’t agree with you or claim that your point of view was correct. However, I focused on trying to find kernels of truth that I can appreciate from your point of view, and expressed how they are valid and reasonable. When you read these words of validation, how did they land with you? Did you get more upset or was there some softening on your part?

When we validate, it helps us shift out of stuck patterns of all-or-nothing thinking, where either you are right or the other person is right. When we are focused on findings things to validate, it forces us to pay attention to how an experience might be for another person. This can be tough because our natural instinct is to focus on our own emotions, thoughts and feel affronted that the other person “doesn’t get it.” By taking their perspective, it helps us move away from the extreme all-or-nothing framework that we often get caught in when we’re angry. Validation helps us shift into more dialectical thinking, teaching us that there can be more than one side to an argument.

Validation to improve your relationship. Kasi Shan Therapy offers counselling services online and in Kitchener, ON.
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Once the emotional intensity goes down during an argument, there is more capacity to work together and find options that likely fall somewhere in the middle. When we express words of validation, the other person will feel more understood, and therefore, more amenable to talking. While the actual problem will still need to be addressed and resolved, you’re both more grounded in order to have a conversation that improves your relationship rather than cause harm.

When it comes to validation, I try and follow the rules of Dr. Adele LaFrance, founder of Emotion Focused-Family Therapy Dr. LaFrance recommends working validation in sets of threes, meaning, can you find three points to validate? Let’s assume that your partner is really angry that you didn’t wash the dishes. If you were to say the following validating statement to your partner, how do you imagine it would go?

I can really appreciate that you’re frustrated right now. (1) You’ve had a long day at work, and (2) you’ve been so excited to come home and relax, and (3) seeing the pile of dirty dishes would feel so cumbersome when you already feel so tired.

Notice how in the above statement, there was acknowledgement of how your partner may be feeling, thinking or behaving, and how you can genuinely empathize with these factors. If you’re feeling stuck with how to validate, try and begin with statements such as:

  • I can appreciate that you
  • I could understand how you…
  • I could imagine that..
  • It makes sense that…

Stuck places: When does it go wrong?

  • Not knowing what to validate: If you really feel stuck, and can’t guess what to validate, simply ask. Ask the person to help you understand why they feel this way or to explain why it’s so important that they push this specific agenda. By asking for clarification, it will give them a chance to express their feelings, and also provide you some opportunities for potential validation points.
  • Using BUT after you validate: There is no other way to kill a beautiful validating sentence than using “but”. It negates the initial positive statement, and focuses more on selling your point of view. It’s not that your point of view is wrong. However, validation is all about helping to lower the intensity of emotions so that the other person will be more willing to listen and work amicably. This won’t happen if you’re agenda is to convince them that you’re right (even though you may be right! Nevertheless, it doesn’t change their willingness to work with you).
  • Forgetting to be mindful of our tone and non-verbal cues: What’s the point of saying all these lovely words if we don’t express them in a genuine and gentle fashion? Your friend will not feel understood if you’re rolling your eyes and scoffing while you tell him/her/them that you get it. So check in on your external presentation. Can it soften? How is your volume? Does it need to lower? What is your body posture like? Is your tone clipped or curt? Can you express your interest in hearing what the other person has to say?

So the next time you find your in a stagnant conflict, give validation a try and let me know how it goes. As always, if you have any questions or comments, feel free to reach out.