Stages of Grief
I am sure that you have heard about the stages of grief model at some point in time. If not (or if your memory isn’t serving you as well as you deserve) let’s take a quick look at it before we too far into this discussion. The five stages of grief, as defined by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross are as follows:
- Denial and isolation
We won’t go too far into an exploration of these stages of grief in this article, but you can read about them a little more in-depth in an article Marika Fernandez wrote about The Basics of Grief. For now, let’s just focus on two important things about these stages of grief: everyone experiences them differently and they can be experienced in any order. In fact, not everyone even touches on all of the stages as they move through their grieving process – some people skip a few.
Your Loved One May Not Grieve as You Expect
If your loved one experienced a great loss (the loss of a spouse, a parent or child, for example) you may expect him or her to act a very particular way. You may expect anger. You may expect tears. And you may not see anything of what you expected.
Remembering that grief is a very personal process, and often not a linear process, can help you to better understand why your loved one isn’t acting the way you expected or the way you did act in a similar situation. Just like a dress, grief looks different on different people.
One person may move through the denial phase by making up conspiracy theories; another may move through that phase by refusing to move forward with his or her own life; another may deny reality by escaping from through drugs or alcohol. Anger may be directed toward the person who has died or left, the person who took something away, or even oneself. Know that, however odd your loved one is acting, he or she is simply trying to find a way to make his or her mind process that loss.
Acceptance Takes Time
Loss is a very difficult thing to accept. As people, we get very used to things working in a particular way. We like to keep things the same. In fact, many people will refuse to leave terrible situations (even when they can safely do so) simply because, as the adage says, ‘the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know.’ In regard to grief, people have a difficult time not only accepting that a major change has occurred in their lives, but even have a difficult time making their brain’s understand that the change has occurred. Acceptance takes time.
How to Help
There are many ways you can help your loved one. Of course, there will be different things you can do for different people in your life. Helping your child is different from helping your spouse or friend or parent. Let’s take a brief look at some of the ways to help your loved one.
Don’t expect them to just ‘get over it’ or pick up and carry on. Some people choose to stay busy and may seem like they are getting through things quicker than others. Some people may actually get through things quicker than others. Being patient and understanding is a great first step to helping someone experiencing grief.
We’ve already discussed that people move through the stages of grief at different rates and in different orders. It is also important to remember that, just when your loved one seems like he or she is coming to grips with the loss, something may strike them which seems to send them backwards. They may go from being very sad and unresponsive to laughing and smiling and then back to sad and unresponsive. This is often a normal part of the process. Let them know that this is normal and try not to put too much pressure on them to accept things before they are ready.
Listening sounds simple enough, but it can actually be one of the things people struggle with most. There is debate about who said it first, but one quote I love is:
The biggest barrier to communication is assuming that it has occurred.
We often assume we are listening when, in fact, we are talking, or thinking, or judging. The best way to listen to someone experiencing grief is to literally shut up and listen. Ignore your own thoughts and your urges to comment. I have struggled with this a lot in my life, because I often predict what the person is going to say next and feel like I will save us time if I just chime in and keep the conversation moving. While this may be effective in business, it doesn’t help a person who is grieving. Sometimes the catharsis of speaking their thoughts out loud is much more helpful than anything you can actually say to them. Just listen.
Sit in Silent Support
When my mother passed away one of the greatest things I had to help me through it was a dear friend. When it felt like the world was caving in around me I would call her and we would just drive somewhere and sit. Sometimes we would talk. Sometimes we would play Yahtzee in her car. Most of the time, though, we sat in silence. Just knowing that I wasn’t alone was really all I needed. I was very lucky to have a friend like her. Be that friend.
Help Them Remember and Help Them Forget
If your loved one wants to talk about their loss and remember the good times, join in. If they need to escape, help them do that too. Sometimes it hurts too much and we need a little break. There’s nothing wrong with finding a constructive and safe escape from the thoughts and feelings that threaten to drown us when we’re grieving. Understand that your loved one isn’t ignoring their loss by choosing not to talk about it or by doing things that help them feel happy. In the same vein, it’s okay to gently remind them that they sometimes need to talk about the loss or that they sometimes need to stop thinking about it and find happiness in life.
Take Care of Yourself
It’s okay to be there for someone. Remember, though, that you are not that person. You don’t have to be sad just because they are sad. You don’t have to grieve because they are grieving. Take a time out now and then and get back to your own life and the things that bring you happiness. De-stress. Laugh. Smile. If you are also grieving, it’s okay to do some of your grieving separately. It’s okay to let the other person know that you may not be able to help them as much as they’d like because you also need help. Don’t forget to deal with your own grief. Putting the other person’s grief at the forefront of your priorities denies you the ability to care for yourself and your own grieving process.
How to be Understanding When You Think The Other Person Is Being Silly
So we’ve talked about what to do when your loved one has experienced a deep and obvious loss, but what do you do when they feel they’ve lost something unfathomable and you think they’re just overreacting? It may not seem like a big deal to you, but even a small loss can really hurt someone you care about – it is important to understand this difference in perspective and be there for your loved one. Sometimes it is necessary to put aside our own interpretations and remember that grief is different for everyone. But how can you really be there for them if you think they’re just being silly?
My friend came over, about a week after my mom died, and talked about how sad she was that her car was broken. She was distraught about the money she lost and the fact that she lost her transportation. I wanted to slap her. I wanted to scream at her, “Are you kidding me?” Instead, I took a deep breath. I remembered how great of friend she had been. I remembered that she hadn’t experienced a loss like mine. I remembered that, to her, her car was a big deal.
Put Yourself In Their Shoes
Though people can, of course, go overboard and lose sight of what is truly important in life, it is still important to find a way to be supportive when they feel they’ve lost something. Before jumping to conclusions, try to put yourself in that person’s shoes. Maybe this thing that you think isn’t important holds a larger meaning to this person. For example, my friend’s car symbolized her freedom. Her car breaking felt like a personal failure to her. It wasn’t just about money and her car, it was about failure and self esteem.
All Losses Are Hard
When we talk about grief most people think about death. It’s natural to think about death and grief as things that go together, but we can grieve for any type of loss. People grieve for lost marriages after divorce. People grieve for the loss of their relationship with their children after a separation. people grieve for the loss of money (mostly because it represents security.) People grieve for the loss of a pet; the loss of a job; the loss of a house.
Perspective Makes a Difference
This is where I like to use the saying, “It could be worse, but it still sucks.” When I see people I love get distraught over things that aren’t all that important in the larger scheme of life I feel the urge to channel my mother and say things like, “But there are children starving and people dying.” It’s true. There are. And keeping that in mind helps me keep a healthy perspective most of the time. But I need to remember that the other people in my life may not see things that way and that it can be difficult to see things that way when we are sad.
Personally, I like to gently remind the person that things could be worse, then let them know that I understand that they are hurting anyways. I find that this helps ease their feelings a little bit by giving them perspective without totally invalidating them. Saying, “It could be worse, but it still sucks,” is much different than saying, “It sucks, but it could be worse.” Think about it.
When to Get Help
Let me begin by saying that you cannot force your loved to get help of any sort if the grief overwhelms him or her. This choice will, ultimately, have to be his or hers.
It is important to know when you are in over your head. If your loved one turns to drugs or alcohol, you cannot take all the responsibility to help him or her. If your loved one feels suicidal, it is probably time for him or her to talk to a professional – it is simply not fair or even healthy for you to carry that on your shoulders alone. If your loved becomes violent or abusive in any way, it is okay to take the space to help yourself.