The Do’s & Don’ts of Helping Others Through Grief

The Do’s & Don’ts of Helping Others Through Grief

Yesterday was my sister, Shannon’s, birthday. She would have been 36 years old. She died in 2007.

I’ve faced many birthdays and anniversaries, having lost two of my sisters, my brother-in-law, my beloved father-in-law, two dear grandfathers, and an incredible aunt. These “dates” are not as hard as they used to be; yesterday I didn’t tell anyone and I didn’t reach out for support. I really didn’t feel I needed it this time. I’ve learned, over the years, how to get through, reminding myself, “It’s just a day like any other. You choose its meaning.” And through time and a lot of hard work I am now at the point where I can choose to fondly remember and honor Shannon on her birthday.

Handling Grief is Hard for Most of Us

But how do we help those who just aren’t there yet? How can we be there for those in grief? The truth is that most of us have no idea how to handle grief, so most of us do not handle it well. We try our best to be there for the bereaved, but all too often our well-meaning gestures end up putting a wedge between us, our greif-stricken loved ones feeling isolated, judged, misunderstood, and alone. And though grief is deep and personal, it is not meant to be experienced all alone. In fact, families and friends who are able to share their grief find they have gained a depth to their relationship that would never otherwise have been found.

 

What NOT to Do: Common Grief Misperceptions & Barriers

So, what are some of the common misperceptions of grief that get in our way, and what can we do about them?

  • First we don’t always need to say “something”.  The truth is, when someone has just experienced a major loss, there is usually nothing that can or needs to be said. Just being with them is good enough.
  • Second, trite reassurances do not usually help. “They’re in a better place,” “At least they’re no longer suffering,” or “Time heals all wounds,” though well-meant, are better left unsaid.
  • Third, talking about our own loss experiences is not a good option. Sharing our experiences with loss–saying “I know exactly how you feel,” or “I understand completely”–usually makes the griever feel as if you are minimizing their experience or pain.

Because of these misconceptions and others, many bereaved find it difficult to feel supported. In fact, research shows that often the bereaved’s circle of friends significantly changes through their grief process(1). We tend to filter out friends or family members who were emotionally insensitive, who seemed to lack depth or perspective or who were simply absent in our time of need. Sadly, I fell away from a couple of my closest friends through my years of grief. One in particular, who was one of the first people I called after I learned Shannon had died, I never heard from again until two years later. Though I still loved her for the friendship of our past, I realized as I spoke to her that too much had happened in those two years, the years that changed me and my family.

For all of these reasons, seeking support through grief can be a challenge. Family members may not be available, due to their own grief, or they may expect the bereaved to continue to perform her “role” in the family system. Friends may or may not be capable of pushing aside their own fears about death and grief to be there for the bereaved. Community and church support can help if the bereaved feels comfortable reaching out and trusts those who are there to help. Sometimes professional counseling is the only place to turn, but it is important the person you turn to is familiar with grief work, allowing you to simply be in the emotions of grief without trying to turn the grief into something more “familiar” to them, like depression or relationship issues. The point is to keep trying until you find the support that is right for you.

 

What TO Do

Then, what is the best way to support someone through grief? It’s simpler than you’d think.

  • Just be there. Listen. Let them talk and cry and talk and cry without putting a time limit on it and without judging.
  • Don’t get tired of hearing them tell their “story”. Encourage expression of the facts, details and emotions related to the loss; it is a simple but profound method of healing.
  • Check in on them. Say, “I’m just calling to see how you’re doing today.”  No pressure or expectations, simply a friend checking in.
  • And hold your tongue. When you feel the urge to say something trite, like, “This too shall pass,” don’t. Instead, just say, “I’m so sorry,” let them cry, and cry with them.

 

The Do's & Don'ts of Helping Others Through Grief, www.drchristinahibbert.comJust Be There

We can all use a hand to hold in the dark. Be with those you love through their darkest times. Then, perhaps someday they will be able to say, like I said yesterday, “Today, I choose to remember fondly and honor the one that I love.” And they might not be referring to just the one they’ve lost; they might also be referring to you.

 

How have you helped others through grief and loss? How have others helped you? Have you experienced misconceptions that get in the way? What is your advice for those seeking to help the bereaved? Please leave a comment!

 

 

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Related Articles/Posts:
(1)Bernstein, J.R.  (1997).  When the Bough Breaks:  Forever after the death of a son or daughter.  Kansas City, MO:  Andrews McMeel Publishing.
About Dr. Christina Hibbert

Clinical Psychologist, Mom of 6, Postpartum Couples DVD Producer, Non-Profit Founder, and expert on Parenting, Women’s Emotions, Pregnancy & Postpartum, and Grief & Loss, Dr. Christina Hibbert loves songwriting, learning, and teaching what she learns. She really hopes you’ll join the Personal Growth Group and choose to grow together!

Comments

  1. Neha Chopra says:

    Hey Christina I just lost my sister who was 16 and died from non Hodgkin’s lymphoma and it has had a tragic effect on me. I was wondering can I please contact you I really need to talk to someone who understands me bc at this point in my life no one does and its hard for every moment.

    • Hello Neha. I am very sorry to hear of the loss of your sister. I do understand how very painful it can be, and you’re right–it will really help to be able to process what you’re feeling with someone you can trust. Since I don’t live where you do, I’m not sure what resources you have, but I encourage you to seek support through counseling, your faith community (if you’re part of one), your extended family, or friends. Support is one of the most important things you can set up for yourself right now. You may email me through my website if you’d like help finding resources. Sending you my warmest wishes.

  2. Marian Steury says:

    Thank you for your tips on what to do and not do. I also have an all too familiar relationship with death and grief. Since 2007 I have lost my wonderful dad, incredible mother, beloved brother (age 59), amazing mother-in-law and just last month my beautiful baby brother (age 50). In these experiences I know what has helped me. I could add to the list of what not to say. At my dad’s funeral, a friend told me that my mother also probably wouldn’t make it much longer and when that time came, I better be prepared to let her go. Wow! I still make myself consciously forgive that person. I appreciate what you said about not trying to turn someone’s grief into depression or “a problem”. I am a Christian and I don’t appreciate people who in subtle ways try to equate grief that lasts longer than a week or two as a “lack of faith”. Sure I have faith that God has my loved ones in heaven. I’m happy about that. But the hole they left is deep. I miss them! Another hard thing is when people just don’t say anything, don’t acknowledge what you have just gone through. I know you said you don’t need to say anything. But I appreciate when people make a point of verbalizing their sympathy, at least once. I have a close friend and a sister-in-law who just never have said anything. I realize they think they don’t want to make me sad or feel bad by mentioning it. This has hurt, but it helps to realize they mean well. And the last thing I would add of what not to do is to act like everything should be just fine with the grieving person. Express sympathy, then check it off the list. Done. Now everything is fine from now on. No! It’s not! It is good to keep track of the grieving person, to let them know once in awhile you are thinking of them. That you care they are in such pain. That you care they lost a dear dear one. That life is different for awhile, maybe for a long while. And this really will be my last tip. Do not ask how they are. It is a very hard question to answer. The grieving person feels pressure after awhile to say “fine”, or something like it. No one wants to be a downer, so sometimes it is hard to be transparent, honest. To say “I am having a hard time”. I think it is better to just say “I’m thinking of you, I’m sorry, would you like to go for coffee? I don’t know. I know people care when they ask how you are. I just always wonder what they will think if I am honest. Those are my thoughts. Thanks for asking.

    • Big thank you to Dr. Christina Hibbert & Marian Steury
      Thanks for all you have said, I couldn’t agree any better! I am going through very difficult moment from the death of my dear brother, the only person who has known me more than any body. He was my best friend, my hero, my source of inspiration… So very true that when people ask how I am doing? I feel forced to say I am fine & yet I am not. Some people have told me that ” why do continue mourning for your brother? it’s been too long since he has passed you just have to move on..” I have lost faith in God from the very minute my brother took his last breathe. Some people have told me may be God is punishing me & wants me to be close to him. Some family members have said things like, the fact that you went to see your brother at the hospital doesn’t mean we love him less… When my brother was very will, I was hurt when one of my cousins said ” even if Martin dies he’s going to heaven” I felt like she actually wanted my brother to die & was hoping & praying for him to get healed. some friends have told me be strong & see how others who have lost everything are stronger than you… There are days I have felt so alone, but there are days when I haven’t been able to pick up the phone or talk to people… Nothing personal, but at times I don’t know what to say or I just need that time to myself & other family members have been too harsh on me for not picking up my phone & saying all sorts of hurtful words. I don’t know how to deal with it & deal with the death of my dear brother at the same time; I don’t know if I am dealing with it the wrong way. At times I feel life is not worth living any more! I don’t understand why we were born in the first place. at this point I am taking each day as it comes trying to get comfort in alcohol & medications.

  3. Hello Marian,

    I’m thinking about you! I just lost my 47 year old super fit, health wise baby sister who did everything to preserve her health and had everything to live for…pouff, within 6 weeks she was gone…
    How difficult this has to be for you with so many losses!
    I feel the need to talk about this, if you’re in the same situation feel free to contact me. You can reach me at eurolanguages@sapo.pt
    A big hug,
    Hope

  4. A great big thanks to Dr. Christina Hibbert for trying to help out those who are grieving the loss of a loved one!
    Hope

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