Death is a part of life. It often happens suddenly and unexpectedly. Death is not convenient. It does not slip easily into the agenda of the person who dies or that of their family and friends, and it certainly will not fit into a normal work schedule.
When people return to their normal routines, it is a bumpy road. Nothing will feel the same and it is challenging to stay focussed on what you are supposed to be doing. The grief journey is fraught with chaos, confusion, and an inability to function as we had prior to the person’s death. Yet, at some point, it is important for the family to return to normal activities as a way of rebuilding structure into their life and healing.
What to Expect of Someone in Grief
The grief journey is extremely unpredictable and disorderly. There is no set time that a person will heal or feel ‘whole’ again. Each person will take the journey in his or her own way.
Do not assume the person is doing well because they show up to functions or work and get through the day looking and sounding ‘fine’. Do not assume the person is in desperate need of counselling or they are not coping because they seem distracted, burst into tears randomly, or look tired and unwell.
Grief attacks us emotionally, physically, spiritually, and socially. People experience a wide range of emotions, which includes shock, numbness, loneliness, frustration, anger, disappointment, sadness, and more. Physically, the challenge is with a lack of sleep, lack of appetite or over eating, and lack of exercise. The journey goes back and forth and up and down, one minute you can be doing fine and the next minute you are falling apart.
The only thing you can truly expect is that the person is on a roller coaster of emotion. This is the same for both adults and children. The early days are intense and as time passes, they may have intermittent breaks of ‘normalcy’ only to fall apart again, and again.
Loss Brings About Tremendous Fear
It is common for adults and children to feel a great deal of fear when someone dies or something catastrophic happens to someone they know. “Will this happen to me?” “Will it happen to my mom or dad?” Will my children die? “Will my husband or wife leave me?” These are normal responses and it is important to acknowledge the feelings people are having and to normalize the experience. They are not going ‘crazy.’ They are responding in ways that others do.
You Can’t Fix It
You cannot fix what has happened. All you can do is be present to the person’s pain, allow them the space to feel what they need to feel for however long they need to feel it. The person may ask, “Why?” You do not need to answer the question, nor should you try. It is in asking the question “why?” that we search for meaning to make sense out of what has happened to us. The person will usually find their answers in time. These answers will be meaningful and make sense to them and that is what is important. The question ‘why’ facilitates the search for meaning and it is an important part of the grief journey.
What Should I Say
This is where people struggle the most. They do not know what to say or they are afraid of saying something to upset the person. Here are some pointers:
- You cannot upset the person. Their heart is broken and they are already upset. You can hurt them more by not acknowledging the loss they have suffered.
- “I am sorry” are the three most important words you can say. Having empathy and understanding is a tremendous gift to give the bereaved.
- Do not apologize if they cry. When the person starts to cry, we quickly say, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make you cry.” You did not make them cry. That pain was sitting there just below the surface. Whatever you said, or perhaps you being present to the person allowed them to let it go. Simply be still, calm, and convey your understanding.
Help the Person to Be Proactive in Their Grief
There will be milestones in the person’s life as it unfolds. This means that important events or normal activities will happen and their loved one will not be there to enjoy it. This can be heartbreaking for them. By helping a person to acknowledge how they feel and finding ways to remember the person is helpful. Be mindful of events that could bring up some pain and address it if you can. For example, as a teacher, you may have a Father’s Day or Mother’s Day project planned for students. If a student has lost their parent, this could be a challenging project for them to get through. You should not feel that it would be best to not do the project, but instead, be proactive and speak with the student and other parent. Let them know what project is coming up and acknowledge that you understand it may make them sad. Encourage them to think of it as a wonderful way to remember their mom or dad. Then present options: Would they like to do the project with their friends or one close friend? At home with their parent? After school with you? Alternatively, they could opt out of it all together. The most important part is having the conversation. It shows you care and you understand and gives them permission to explore their feelings.
Tips for Supporting a Colleague
- Remember that grief is a process, not an event. The bereaved person may go along just fine for days or weeks and then, when they least expect it, grief overcomes them. Do not assume because they are going through the motions of daily activities that all is well.
- Don’t be afraid to say the name of the deceased. This will not upset your colleague. In fact, it brings comfort.
- The bereaved are constantly asked, “How are you doing?” Sometimes they really want to respond with, “How do you think? Try to be creative and ask this question in a different way, such as, “It is nice to see you. I cannot imagine what you are going through, but I am here to support you in any way I can. Do you feel up to having a coffee and talking with me about (insert the deceased person’s name)?”
- Don’t say, “Oh, don’t cry. It will be okay.” Tears (for men, women, and children) are a healthy way to shed stress. Tears help when we cannot adequately express in words how we are feeling. Tears are natural and normal. Instead, say something along the lines of, “I am okay with tears. It helps to release how you are feeling.”
- Don’t impose the myth of “Year One” on the bereaved. Instead, note these days on your calendar, including the birthday of the deceased and the anniversary of their death. This will act as a reminder for you to send an e-mail or card, or make a phone call to the family to let them know you remember and you want to send them some love today as they remember (insert the name of their loved one). This is truly a gift to the family and they will appreciate your gesture.
Healthy Healing – Healthy Helping
The best way to support someone is to do your own work. Supporting a person on this journey is important; however, you need to be aware of the following:
It is important that the supporter take care of him or herself in this process. It is much like the old oxygen-mask-on-the-airplane talk: if you do not take care of yourself first, you cannot possibly help someone else.