One night, when I was twenty, my dad uttered a sentence to me that in a split-second thrust me into a world of overwhelming pain, shock, denial and bewilderment. “Your brother has died”. To say I was unprepared for this devastating turn of events is an understatement, and of course it is not possible to fully prepare for learning that your brother has just taken his own life. I had spent no time in my first twenty years contemplating the reality of death (in fact I had been avoiding those thoughts at all costs), and I had no concept of how to help myself during this time, or support my family members. I didn’t want to appear to be not coping, to un-burden myself on my friends or make anyone feel uncomfortable, and to be honest very few seemed keen to talk about my loss. My pain therefore got locked away; however it regularly resurfaced over many years in many complex forms that initially I did not even recognise as denied, unresolved grief.
Why do we often find it so hard to talk about death? Why is another person’s grief, for some, just too uncomfortable to be around? The reasons for this are of course complex and our history of how grief and loss has been treated would shed much light on this, along with our innate fear of death. One reason that stands out to me is that if we have been conditioned from a young age to not allow the expression of strong emotions, if our pain from inevitable losses – loss of friendships, a pet, trust in another, the life of someone we love, a cherished toy – have been denied, shut down, suppressed with immediate offers of distraction, we will then carry a lot of unresolved pain and grief (and perhaps anger and despair). These become trigger points for us, they don’t go away, and when we are exposed to the palpable grief of another it will generally feel unbearable to be around; it will push on our own simmering, unexpressed, dormant emotions and we understandably will want to escape that or even try to shut it down.
It is from my own experience of a tsunami of grief as a young adult, of feeling as though I was drowning in my pain of loss and often becoming quite isolated, that I now have a vision that one day, we as a society, will be much better prepared for our own inevitable grief, and for supporting those in our lives that are adapting to their own loss. There is no formula, in my opinion, for how to support someone else with their grief. How an individual grieves will always be unique, although there are of course some common elements of grief. In light of these commonalities, here are some thoughts on how you may be able to help someone you know who is in a grief stage in their life;
- Recognise your limitations – it does take energy to support someone else in their loss. If you are feeling frustrated, uncomfortable or even angry with a loved one who is grieving, understand that this may point to your own unresolved grief that ideally needs exploration.
- Offer your empathy. Empathy is open, non-judgemental listening which involves actively engaging in another‘s feelings. Empathy can provide a safe space where grieving is accepted and acknowledged. Allowing the expression of pain, confusion or frustration will help your loved one to begin to accept and understand their new reality.
- If you have the capacity to, sustain your support even after a few weeks or months. Whilst maintaining the other’s need for space and right to grieve exactly as they need to, continue to be there offering practical and emotional support where it is needed and accepted. It is a myth that grief is a short process and normal life should resume after a few weeks or months. The mourner is likely to still need to talk through their difficulties, and express their feelings well over a year after their loss.
- A point from a friend of mine, Sharon, who sadly lost her husband over two years ago; “Nobody knows what to say! Don’t be afraid to say, “I wish I knew what to say” instead of avoiding contact with a grieving person. Nine out of ten times they don’t know what to say either and will be much relieved at your honesty”.
- And this final comment again comes from Sharon, “Words not spoken – sometimes it’s nice to just sit in silence and share time and a cuppa with another person without feeling the pressure to discuss how you are feeling”.
It is amazing, the power of a quiet cuppa shared with someone who cares. In closing, it takes effort, contemplation, and even some soul searching to provide the much needed support for someone who is grieving. Rest assured that they very rarely actually need rescuing from the tidal waves of grief – they won’t drown as long as they feel safe enough to express the truth of their feelings, the ongoing complexities of their current adaption to their new world, and to confidently reach out for genuine support as they need to.
For more information about Nicki and the type of counselling she offers please click here or visit Nicki’s facebook page here.