Understanding grief: a guide to helping a loved one through bereavement

Bhavna Raithatha
By Bhavna Raithatha,
updated on Oct 19, 2022

Understanding grief: a guide to helping a loved one through bereavement

While it’s inevitable, discussions around death can be taboo. Here, our expert columnist Bhavna explores the ways grief can enter the rich tapestry of life

Grief is a curious thing. It invites us, sometimes against our will, to visit an internal world that leaves us shaken, staggered, broken, and bereft. It appears in our life unannounced, even at times when we know it is imminent – the end of a relationship, or through a terminal illness. Grief doesn’t always relate to death as a finality, but is a beacon that points at a loss that can feel just as devastating.

We know grief exists, but we rarely prepare ourselves to experience it. Grief is inevitable and natural. It hurts, which is normal. How much it hurts depends on how deeply we were affected by the person who died. It is also impacted by our relationship to ourselves – how well are we prepared to deal with a loss or death?

Grief can present itself in many guises and point to an end. It could be in relationships – perhaps the end of intimacy, or one partner coming out, or one partner having an affair. Or it might be at the end of a job – through a promotion, demotion, or complete end even when through choice, as a resignation. Perhaps it’s the end of an era of our lives – moving from one decade into another, leaving home, ending a friendship, or losing a pet. The loss of health perhaps is a great cause of grief, the loss of independence and autonomy, of relying on others. Grief can also come about through regret about missed opportunities, chances not taken, choices not made.

Of course the final ending is one through death. This is absolute, and leaves us in many states. We go through phases as we navigate a loss, anger, shock, numbness, denial, bargaining with a higher power, and finally acceptance.

There are different kinds of death – natural, expected, unexpected, sudden, suicide, murder, or accident for example – and will significantly impact how we are able to process our reactions and affect the duration of our recovery from grief.

Recovery is informed and affected by the level of support we have from friends, family, and professional or pastoral services. Most people will gradually come back from the depths of grief as they gain some distance through the passage of time. While there isn’t an exact timeframe for recovery, most people are generally able to return to some level of normality within months, some within years. Some, however, will struggle, become stuck in their grief, which then becomes chronic and debilitating. For some, it may be that they are not able to grieve at the time, thus delaying the grief. This may cause an increase in feelings of distancing from others and from day-to-day life and deep depression. For others, grief can be delayed indefinitely, for example in cases of murder or suicide, or where there is no body.

So how can we help someone who is bereaved? The greatest gift is that of time. It is normal for everyone to offer support and be available in the immediate days after a loss. However, while that helps hugely, it is during the time after the funeral when everyone goes back to their ‘normal’ that the bereaved most need support. As the dust and shock settles and they gain clarity, this is when the reality of the loss is felt more acutely.

Let’s look at some practical steps you can take with a bereaved person.

Step one:

Check in on them, give them a call or a text. They may not feel up to talking, but let them know you are there when they feel ready. Send them a card or letter, you will be amazed at how deeply touching this gesture is. Make this a regular thing. If there’s a group of you, make a rota.

Step two

Go to see them. People are sometimes scared of spending time with bereaved people, because they don’t know what to say! You can start with hello, and a hug if they are OK with one. Know that you’re not expected to say anything; your physical presence will have a huge positive impact on them. Make them a cup of tea, help them tidy, feed and water them. Bereaved people are in shock, their heart is broken, they need to be tended gently with love until they come back to themselves.

Step three:

It is OK to ask ‘How are you doing?’ You may get a response, or a shrug or a flood of tears – all of this is normal. You don’t have to fix it, just be there. You can offer to just listen and to hold their hand if they would like some physical contact. Take some tissues and chocolates.

Step four:

As the dust settles, offer to go for a little walk or coffee, if they feel up to it. For many bereaved people, it can feel frightening to go out for the first time. Keep it short, go with what they need. Being out can be wonderful, but it can also be very triggering. Be ready to whisk them off to the safety and comfort of their home if needed.

Step five:

Know that everything will be OK in time. However, if there is little or no change in your loved one’s state of grief and despair after a couple of months, and they are struggling with depression, sleep disturbance, lack or loss of appetite, angry outbursts, or have withdrawn and are unable to take care of themselves, get in touch with their GP and help to find professional support. You don’t have to do this alone.

If you are struggling with the effects of grief, visit the Counselling Directory or speak to a qualified counsellor.

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