Coping with Grief and Supporting the Bereaved

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Grief is a natural response to losing someone we love or something we treasure. Although grief is universal, there are common elements to every grief experience and each of us grieves each loss in a unique way.

The more significant the loss the more intense the emotional suffering associated with its loss.   There is neither a “normal” timetable for grieving nor is grieving a process that follows a straight line.  The suffering will ease at some point but the feelings of loss will pop up time and again more or less intensely – especially at significant times.  It is a myth that once the first year is over it gets easier.  That may or may not be the case.

What is most important to remember is that grieving is not a weakness or something to be avoided.  It is essential for the healing process to feel the pain.  Being strong does not mean not feeling the pain or not crying.  Being strong means knowing that you will survive, go on, and be strengthened by the experience.

Common symptoms of grief include: shock and disbelief, especially in the case of a sudden loss; sadness, which can range from despair to a vague sense of depression; guilt about things you said or didn’t say; anger at your helplessness; fear of your inability to go on, and many more.  Physical symptoms can include the lack of ability to focus and concentrate, extreme fatigue, diminished capacity of your immune system, insomnia, etc.

It is important to remember that death is not wrong.  It’s not something that should not happen.  It is the rational end to every life.  You may rage at the suddenness or the untimeliness but it is worth remembering that the value of a life is not measured by its length.

While coping with grief it is helpful to know that research has found that the single most important factor in healing from grief is having the support of other people.  Accept the help that others are willing to provide you. 

Another important aspect to keep in mind while you are grieving is to take care of yourself.  Give yourself the best nutrition and gentle exercise you can so that your body can help you cope with the stress.  Drink plenty of water to help your body get rid of the stress related chemicals.  Cut yourself some slack in your personal and professional responsibilities.  It won’t last forever, although it may feel like it at the time.  

In providing support to a friend or relative who is grieving remember to let the person talk about their experience, their loved one, recount how it happened, etc.  Recognize that there is nothing that you can say that will help so say as little as possible to avoid falling in the trap of not knowing what to say and saying something like “you’ll find another partner” or “you’re still young” to a man or woman who has lost a spouse, or “at least you have other children” to a parent who has just buried a child. 

Don’t ask if there is anything you can do to help or to call you if they need something because the person is not likely in a head space to know what needs to be done or to ask for the help they need.  Bring food, take them out to eat or for a drive, suggest that you do the laundry or vacuum, bring flowers and tissues.  Don’t try to cheer the person up; they have a right to be sad, to be grieving, to cry.

Last, but not least, remind the grieving person that it’s never too early or too late to seek the help of a counselor.  Especially if they don’t have friends or family with whom they can speak about their feelings.

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