Helping someone handle their grief is one of our most difficult challenges we can face. When the loss is significant it is often a long slow road.
I was visiting the countryside a few weekend ago and met some people my wife knew when she lived there around 50 years ago. To our dismay, they informed us their daughter had died suddenly two year ago. It was quite a shock to find that someone known to her, had passed away so early in life, but it more of a shock to the parents. They still spoke with pain in their voices of the tragic events and the bravery of her little boy who phoned the emergency services.
So the question for me was how can I help these people? Is there any way to help people struggling with their loss and can I do it over the long term?
A few years ago I was listening to a journalist who had a friend who was a Rabbi. The Rabbi had lost his wife and then his children in some terrible circumstances. When he was asked if he would give up on God, his answer was “Why should I? Then I’d have no one to complain to!”
I have to say that even for secular people, a time of loss is a time when they often pray. Their prayers are not always theologically correct but I know God has heard so many theologically incorrect prayers that He can cope with a few more here and there. In addition, some people feel a need to ask “why did this happen”. Unfortunately that is a question, which is very unlikely to be answered and even if you got an answer, it would only lead you onto another series of questions.
So if you need someone to yell at, try going to some place away from the crowds and let yourself pray loud prayers. It may not give you any better information than what you have now but it may help you feel better and move forward a little.
The Stages of Death, Dying and Grief
A few years ago a Swiss Psychiatrist named Elizabeth Kubler Ross wrote a book called “On Death and Dying” – first published in 1969. This book became a best seller because she was able to spell out 5 things she observed in people who knew they were dying. Her theory has since been worked on by many people and David Kessler adapted these stages of dying to stages of grief. He thought they also applied to those of us who go on living but who have suffered significant loss as well.
Kubler Ross said the five stages were:-
- Denial – often characterised by people saying maybe the diagnosis/scan/doctor was incorrect.
- Anger – sometimes anger at God “Why me?”, sometimes anger at others – “how come they get to enjoy life” or misplaced anger towards doctors or nurses.
- Bargaining – often between a person and God.
- Depression – facing the loss and mouring.
- Acceptance – not a happy acceptance but an understanding what will happen will happen.
Others have pointed out these stages are not always worked through one by one and sometimes people don’t experience some of them at all. But I think its helpful to see the things people experience and to recognise these things are part of normal grief.
Perhaps you recognise these stages in yourself or someone else. If you are going through grief yourself, recognise that every week may feel different and don’t stress that your feelings are changing over time. You are not strange or going mad. It is normal for people to feel differently from time to time. You can read more about David Kesslers work here.
While these stages may be experienced by someone grieving, some people skip from one stage to another, some miss out some stages altogether and others get stuck somewhere along the line. So every persons experience is different.
Of course it should also be said, these stages will always take differing amounts of time as well. If for example you have been watching your loved one die for a couple of years, you may have already experienced many of these stages before they die and so when they pass away, grief will be shorter for you. If on the other hand someone you love has been lost unexpectedly, you may find the process may take years!
Helping Someone Grieve
So, if you are watching someone grieve, then what should you do after you have said “how are you today?” I have sat beside many people who are in deep grief in my working life. If you ask those who are grieving what they need, there is one thing that is usually on their list of things – “listening.” In my experience, that has often led to what for me, feels like an awkward conversation, with many gaps and quiet periods. I am always tempted to fill in those gaps but when I have done that in the past, it’s not been helpful. So the best advice I can give you is to sit and listen and wait. They may not say a lot at times but its better for you to count the bricks on the wall beside you, than try to lead the conversation somewhere. And if you wait long enough, the words of grief will flow and take you and them somewhere you have not been before.
When Do You Call for Help?
If someone you know is struggling for a long time or seems stuck in their grief, perhaps its time to suggest they get some professional help. In my experience, this has been for most people, the best suggestion I have ever made. Most men will resist this to a certain extent because there is this hangover from the past in which men were expected to be strong and never need help. That of course, is based on the wrong perception of manhood and does not apply if you have a tooth ache or broken arm. So, we often need professional help, and when we are grieving, people often need the help of someone who is a great listener, and helpful at finding the way forward. Often if they do nothing else, except help the person see their feelings are normal, it will be an achievement. So if you need it – seek help today.