We all deal with grief differently. For me, I display a wide range of emotions from numbness to denial to feeling way too much.
The first time I lost a loved one I was 17. I had lost my grandma. The death left me with a long sense of guilt. The guilt I felt was because I never shed a tear for my grandma after she died- not even once. It was not that I did not love her, I did, but that was the state my brain chose to enter.
The next time I had to deal with the news of a loved one’s death was barely a few months ago. My friend sent me a simple text early one morning. It simply read “he died”. At first, my brain waved it off as a joke- but why would anyone joke with a thing like that. I texted back and willed her to say something funny along the lines of “he- meaning my love for you”. My brain does things like this when trying to control the narrative. The next text confirmed my worst fears. I cried. Wailed, was more like it. It was those type of tears that could not fall without sounds and was accompanied by running nose and quaking bodies. I could not accept it, I was a proud bridesmaid rocking a beautiful dress a few months ago and now I had to comfort the bride. I kept crying and everyone around advised me to stop crying, that I had to be strong for her, that I was not the one dealing with the loss, she was.
I did not know how to go about this. I did not know what to say to her. The death of a spouse was something people my mother’s age had to deal with. For 23-year-olds, we post things like “couple goals” or pictures of our married friends on vacation on social media and say how we cannot wait to find the love of our lives. Life was not supposed to be this unfair until we turn 60, have kids, and have learned how to deal with grief like this from our older friends.
In the course of adapting and learning how to help a loved one deal with grief, many things became clear to me and I would be sharing this briefly
1. JUST REACH OUT
When faced with the news of a friend or family member losing a loved one, we are faced with despair. We do not know what to say or we are scared of saying the wrong things that might actually worsen the person’s grief.
The urge to hold back and not respond to the news can and might also cross your mind, especially if you’re dealing with the grief of your own or some form of mental stress or anxiety, but we have to ignore it and reach out.
We can reach out in different ways. We can write a message, put a phone call across or visit them depending on the degree of closeness. However, no matter the method employed in reaching out, we should simply acknowledge their grief. There is no need to belabor the grief or pain they might be feeling. Also, if you do not know what to say, simply acknowledge the fact you do not. You can write something like “I do not know what to say, but my thoughts are with you….” Or anything similar.
2. UNDERSTAND THE STAGES OF GRIEF
In the book, On Death and Dying, Swiss-American psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross introduced the five-stage grief model or the Kübler-Ross model. These stages include
• Denial: In this stage, life makes no sense to our loved one. They are numb. They might try to pretend this event did not happen or is not happening. For me, my friend was absolutely convinced her husband was coming back and would not leave her. As one helping a loved one or a person deal with grief, there is absolutely no need to refute their claims. You do not even have to agree with them. You can just listen and give them an assuring hug.
• Anger: This stage masks the real feelings of grief. Not everyone would go through this stage but some will. They are highly frustrated and may lash out on anything they can. It is not uncommon for them to blame God or themselves or even someone close to them. At this stage, it is important to be tactful. Do not tell the bereaved how they should be feeling. Allow them to be angry. Get them to rant and even complain. Here the anger, rants and complaint can be important survival tools to help them cope if managed well.
• Bargaining: The element of hope plays a role in this stage. It is a line of defense to postpone the feelings of grief by imagining a different scene. The bereaved is just clutching on straws. There are many if only and what if thoughts. If religious, they would bargain with God and hope for different outcomes . My friend often ask God to bring back her husband from the dead as He did Lazarus. I did not tell her to come off it. I understood and just cried with her. There is little I can do but be her friend. It took me time to understand that, but I did.
• Depression: Here a deep sense of loss comes over the bereaved. The individual at this stage recognizes their loved one might never come back. They might withdraw and block everyone out. Do not take it personally when they block you out or want to be alone. You have to understand it is not about you.
• Acceptance: In this final stage, the bereaved has accepted the reality of their loss and can start moving forward with their lives. It does not mean they are past the grief. It only means there is a gradual acceptance of a new way of life and acceptance of an inevitable future.
3. UNDERSTAND THAT ALTHOUGH GRIEF IS UNIVERSAL, IT IS UNIQUE TO EVERY INDIVIDUAL
I made this point stand alone because it is absolutely crucial in helping a loved one cope with grief. Do not expect everyone to follow the five stages of grief in an orderly fashion. One might linger more in one stage and another individual in a different stage. It is also important to know there is no fixed timetable for grieving. So, do not attempt to hurry them through any of the stages. Practice patience, pain takes an undefined time to resolve. Ask them how they feel and be willing to sit in silence.
4. IT IS OKAY TO TAKE SOME TIME FOR YOURSELF
When helping a loved one deal with grief. It is tempting to want to lose yourself in an attempt to make them feel better. However, it is important to note that we are also battling with a cauldron of emotions and we might need a hug.
I remember how distraught I was when someone told me sorry or tried to comfort me. I always felt I was being over-dramatic. I was not the one that was affected directly. I had no right to be comforted. I wanted to feel pain because my friend was in pain. I finally realized I was not helpful that way to her in my distraught state. I could not help her because soon I became lost in my own sadness. I finally let my own friends and loved ones comfort me. I drew strength from their hugs and could extend that strength to my friend.
5. YOU ARE NOT A MONSTER FOR EXPERIENCING MOMENTS OF HAPPINESS IN THEIR MOMENT OF GRIEF
You need to understand that we cannot control how we feel. Feelings are neither good nor bad. They simply are.
I remember feeling terrible for laughing at a joke or watching a movie that made me happy while my friend was dealing with grief. My friend was in intense pain and I thought to myself “I had no business being happy”. I even tried sabotaging my own happiness.
I soon learnt that feelings of happiness do not make me inconsiderate of her feelings and no matter how much I want to feel what she feels, I could never do that. Like Faraaz Kazi said, “no matter how bad your heart is broken, the world does not stop for your grief”. Your life is independent of people’s and must go on. You should not blame yourself for this. Do not hesitate to say something funny to them depending on how close you are. I learnt not to treat her differently and just joked when I saw her mood was more receiving. The smile on her face or laughter in her voice was worth the effort.
6. ALLOW THEM TO GRIEVE
It is normal to want to smoulder your loved one and make them get over the grieve once and as soon as possible. You might want them to face the future as soon as possible. This barely helps.
After the first week, I wanted my friend to start thinking about the future and making plans but the prospect of the future left her in deeper despair. My other friends and I made constant calls to each other, attempting to think for her.
Each suggestion was met by a grave silence and ‘I will think about it’ that stopped short of frustration. We learnt we could not rush her and had to let her be until she was ready to think about the future. In helping people deal with grief, we should understand that things might not be the same again. They might heal- true, but things have changed. Do not make them feel like it has not.
Finally, let me leave you with a beautiful saying from Jose N. Hans tears shed for another person are not a sign of weakness. They are a sign of a pure heart.