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Advice on helping a loved one through the first year of grieving

Elizabeth Berrien Author of Creative Grieving: A Hip Chick’s Path from Loss to Hope Co-founder of The Respite: A Centre for Grief & Hope Elizabeth Berrien

Helping a loved one through a difficult loss can be challenging, confusing and painful. Your heart aches for your friend or family member, and you may feel helpless that you don’t have the power to change the situation for them. This can lead to frustration--and even exhaustion-- if you are your loved one’s main support system. While you may feel responsible for making things better, this type of pressure can end up creating larger issues for both you and your grieving loved one.

It is important to take care of yourself throughout the process of helping someone grieve. It is not an easy task and there is no perfect way to provide support. You will most likely experience your own emotional ups and downs, while trying to remain strong for your loved one. Whether it is simply being there as a supportive presence, participating in deep conversations, or helping your loved one get back on his or her feet, there are many tools that can help you through this experience so that you can stay healthy for your own well-being, as well as for your loved one in need.


Do

Do seek healing resources

The first year after a loss is often very emotional and intense for the griever. It is likely that your loved one may not have the energy to seek out resources, such as counselors or support groups, to help her cope with the loss. Even if you think your loved one might be resistant at first, it is important to remind her that professional support is an option and provide her with local resources. It is helpful to write down the dates and times of support group meetings or provide the name and number of a therapist. Taking care of this first step will make it easier for your loved one to get the support she needs as she moves through her grief.

Do be a good listener

You may feel a lot of pressure about what to say to your loved one in pain. The last thing you want to do is make him feel worse. While there are no perfect words that you can say to alleviate someone’s grief, simply being a solid presence and letting him know that you are there to listen can be vital. By offering your listening ear, you are giving your loved one permission to share his feelings with someone whom he trusts. This is a huge gift that you are giving, and you may learn what he needs from you in the process.

Do be patient

Grieving takes time. If your loved one has lost someone very close, such as a spouse or child, she will be moving through her grief for a while. Your loved one will likely not feel up to going out, participating in activities or taking on responsibilities for many months. You may watch her progress a little and then move backwards again. This is normal as your loved one is on a rollercoaster of emotions. She may not be her old self, but she will eventually get to a better place again. It is important to allow her to move through it in her own unique way, as long as she is not causing herself or anyone else harm. Try not to force her to do things she is not ready for, but provide encouragement and gently acknowledge her when she takes baby steps forward.

Do find your own support

It is critical to have your own support to turn to. Speaking with a counselor can help you address your own feelings and concerns regarding your situation. You also can gain some new tools with which to help your friend or family member as they move through the grieving process. When it is someone very close to you, their loss can bring about your own grief--grief for the loss that occurred and for the sadness of seeing your loved one go through something so difficult. Remember that self-care is important for you as the supporter. It is vital to have a healthy release for the mix of emotions you will experience while helping and witnessing someone else’s grief journey.

Do create healthy boundaries

Preserve your energy when helping a loved one through the grieving process. It can be draining to feel that you need to be by their side 24/7. Be sure to take time for your own piece of mind. The reality is that you will not always be available, and you deserve time for yourself. You have your own life and responsibilities to tend to--and that is okay.

There may be times when your loved one needs someone to talk to, but you can’t be present immediately. Make it clear that even though you can’t listen in that moment, their well-being is important to you, so you will arrange another time to connect. Good communication is key. By managing your time and creating healthy boundaries in the beginning, your are less likely to get burned out, and more likely to be helpful and present during the times that you are there for your loved one.


Don't

Do not be controlling

Give your loved one room to make his own decisions when it comes to the grieving process. If you try to assert too much control over the situation, he may end up becoming too dependent on you. On the other hand, your loved one might become angry and resentful towards you if he is used to being very independent. If he feels that you are suddenly making all of the rules, he may start feeling even more helpless in a situation where he already feels little control. It is beneficial to ask if he would like you to temporarily take over certain tasks, while he gets back on his feet. But make sure you are not overstepping any boundaries and allow your loved one to make all of the important decisions. This will help empower your loved one and validate that he is still fully capable of functioning as an individual.

Do not be too self-critical

You might feel that you are saying the wrong things, or wonder if the things you are doing are actually helping your loved one. Moving through grief is a very uncertain and complex process--particularly if you don’t have any background in mental health or have difficulty facing your own emotions. You may feel that you are in way over your head, while trying to help someone who is suffering so deeply. Just remind yourself that you are not a professional or trained to specifically handle grief and loss issues. Most people don’t know what to do when it comes to grief, so you are not alone. You are in your loved one’s life for a reason, and often your presence alone may be enough. If you start beating yourself up about trying to do everything perfectly, you are not doing any good to yourself or the person hurting.

Do not try to fix it

Because it is extremely difficult to see your loved one in pain, you may try your best to “fix” the situation. But in reality, there is nothing to fix. Loss is a transition that takes time to work through. This may leave you feeling helpless and uncertain; however, the best you can do is offer your support and allow your loved one to move through her feelings and gradually navigate her path through grief. There are things you can do, such as offer a shoulder to lean on, cook some meals, or provide a temporary place to stay or a listening ear. But don’t put pressure on yourself to fix anything. With loss comes growth, and it is important that your loved one travel her journey. Loss is a part of life. We all experience it at some point, and the sacredness of the grief journey should be allowed to unfold in its own time. If your loved one truly works through the grief and seeks healing, she will be blessed with her own gifts and newfound strength in the long run.

Do not be judgmental

It is easy to judge someone who is grieving--regarding their actions, choices and behavior--especially if you have never been in their shoes. Everyone handles grief differently, and it is vital to allow your loved one the space to be themselves. For example, if you have a friend or family member who lost a spouse, and he does not feel like attending a social event several months after his loss, it is wise to respect his feelings. There is a reason that your loved one does not feel ready, even if you don’t understand it. Your loved one also will be able to sense if you start becoming judgmental about his choices, and this could result in him putting a wall up to emotionally protect himself.

Do not make assumptions

Try to avoid assumptions around how your loved one is doing. You may end up believing she is perfectly fine when she is not. For example, just because she might be able to laugh again or has rejoined activities, does not mean that she is not still hurting inside or may end up taking a few steps backwards again. Grieving is a rollercoaster, and you should be prepared for ups and downs to occur. It is good to ask your loved one directly how she is doing while you are in a personal space, so that she can be fully open with you. This will help you both stay emotionally connected and may inform you about how you can best support her as she shifts through different stages of healing.


Summary
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Supporting a loved one through their grief journey can be challenging. You might feel a bit lost at times and unsure about how to best offer support. There are many tips and tools that can help you as you move through the process. It is important to be a good listener, be patient and not assume that you know what the other person is feeling. It is likely a new experience for both of you, so don’t put too much pressure on yourself to try and do everything perfectly.

Remember to take care of your own needs, while being there for someone else. You must conserve your own energy so that you can maintain a sense of strength for both yourself and your loved one. Self-care always comes first. Through open communication, non-judgment and compassion, you will be able to help your loved one through the grief process in a way that can potentially deepen your relationship even further. You will be able to move through the journey together--and eventually reach a place of hope and healing.


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Photo Credits: friends will be friends by marco monetti via Flickr; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas - Fotolia.com

Elizabeth BerrienAuthor of Creative Grieving: A Hip Chick’s Path from Loss to Hope Co-founder of The Respite: A Centre for Grief & Hope

Elizabeth Berrien is the co-founder of the non-profit The Respite: A Centre for Grief & Hope (www.TheRespite.org) and also the founder of the organization Soul Widows (www.SoulWidows.org) for widows age 60 and under. Her journey began in 2008 w...

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