Losing a loved one is one of the most difficult things a person can go through and unfortunately, as we age, the death of a partner, friend or family member becomes an inevitable reality. It can also be hard to watch those closest to us say goodbye to their loved ones and knowing how to help them through their loss isn’t always easy – no matter how much we want to help.
There is a fine line between being there for someone and overstepping a line, while some people struggle to know the right things to say so they don’t upset their loved one further. But don’t fret as Lauren Breen, Associate Professor of Psychology at Curtin University, tells Starts at 60 that there’s no ‘right’ way for people to show their support.
“People could start by expressing their condolences,” she says. “Don’t worry if you can’t think of the perfect thing to say or do – there is no such thing. Instead, be open, honest, caring, and compassionate.”
Still, she says there are phrases people should avoid when it comes to helping someone through grief which – even though the intentions may be good – could leave people feeling unsupported or offended. For example, “you’ll get over it” and “time heals all wounds” are phrases that shouldn’t be used because they can leave people feeling like their loss is minimised.
“Instead, they want to feel supported to say and feel and think what they want to,” Breen explains. “Being there, in a way that is wanted by the bereaved person, is really important.”
Similarly, social media and the internet has made it easier for people to send their condolences online, but Breen advises to be careful when it comes to posting a public tribute too soon in case that results in other people finding out about the death. Still, these posts and online memorial sites can be helpful for a person grieving, with Breen explaining: “Knowing that other people remember the person can be comforting.”
It’s also important to know that people grieve differently so while it’s perfectly normal for people to cry or talk through their emotions, it’s equally as normal for some to show no emotion or to push people away. People should always consider their motivation for wanting to help, with Breen saying: “It should be to support the bereaved person rather than remove the helper’s discomfort.”
A recent study published in the PLOS One Journal showed that the trauma caused by the death of a close friend actually lasts four times longer than previously believed. Researchers from The Australian National University found there’s a lack of recognition about the time it takes to mourn a close friend — with family members’ deaths taken more seriously — and this is leading to inadequate support being made available.
While previous studies claimed the grieving process lasted for around 12 months, the results of the ‘Death of a close friend: Short and long-term impacts on physical, psychological and social well-being’ study showed that the grieving period can last four times longer. Meanwhile, Breen believes grief actually has no time line, so while some people may be back to their usual selves just months after losing someone close to them, others may struggle for the rest of their lives. In most cases though, people simply learn to adapt and accommodate the losses in their life.
“Sometimes, grievers might really struggle with this process or have limited options for support from friends and family and therefore might benefit from help from a grief counsellor,” Breen says. “There’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. Be guided by your knowledge of the person or family, and listen carefully to what they have to say. Otherwise, these attempts to be supportive can make the bereaved person feel even less in control.
And, just as emotions are important, sometimes people will require physical support to help them through the grieving process. This could be as simple as offering to organise things for them, helping them with the housework or gardening or even helping them prepare meals, with Breen saying: “You might know the grieving person or family well and be able to anticipate what they would need or like.”
It’s always best to try and tailor any support for the person who is grieving as what works for one person won’t be what’s best for another.
“Everyone grieves in their own way,” Breen says. “Be supportive of that.”
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