About two and a half months ago I learned that my Dad had died. The death of a parent, being an occurrence in most peoples’ lives, is the sort of thing you occasionally wonder how you would deal with but never really give serious consideration (not least because that would be unbearably morbid) and certainly isn’t something you can prepare for. In this instance my Dad’s death was not completely surprising, if still out-of-the-blue, which may have numbed my reaction to it, as well as the fact that I hadn’t had regular face-to-face contact with him for several years – although we’d stayed very much in touch. Therefore my experience of grief may not be as sharp or overwhelming as that experienced by others who’ve lost a parent, but nevertheless I think I’m in a position to give some advice on the best ways to help someone that is experiencing it.
Because grief isn’t something anyone really knows how to respond to unless you have extensive experience of it. Our society has quite a strong taboo on the subject of death, I suppose because mortality is scary, and I certainly wouldn’t have known how to respond if one of my friend’s parents had died. Maybe this is just me but I always felt very awkward whenever someone’s bereavement came up in conversation since I knew I had no way of empathising with their loss. Then when my Dad did die I suddenly felt as though I could relate to everyone else I know of who’ve experienced similar losses, which I think is an overly simplistic way of looking at it; everyone experiences grief differently. If you can’t necessarily relate to someone’s individual grief even when you yourself have experienced a loss, no wonder it’s challenging when you haven’t.
That said, the support I received from friends, other family members and university tutors was absolutely incredible, showing me just how many wonderful people I have in my life. Without their support I’m really not sure how I’d have got through it. By writing this post I don’t mean at all to suggest the support I received was in any way deficient; my purpose is more to relay the things I’d have liked to know about grief before I experienced it myself (…if that makes sense!). So, drawing entirely from my own experiences and in the full knowledge that this may not apply to everyone, here are some ways I would suggest you can help someone experiencing grief:
Be there for them.
An obvious one. I was astonished at how so many of my friends, many of whom I hadn’t even known for very long at all, rallied round to offer me their company, condolences and support. My initial reaction upon hearing the news was a fear of being on my own – for whatever reason – and, through the kindness of my friends, I didn’t have to spend any time on my own for the next 24 hours, by which time it had begun to sink in. I often felt incredibly lonely during the weeks which followed but there was always someone willing to meet up for a chat. There’s no way you can fill the gap the bereaved person has left in your life, but I found surrounding myself with people did ease the overwhelming nature of that gap. On the other hand, there will also be times when the bereaved person needs time alone, which most people also recognised. I think the best strategy, is to tell the person that you’re available if they ever need someone to talk to – and make clear you really don’t mind, as our society also seems to discourage asking people for things. This lets them decide how much company they need without feeling they have no space to grieve privately.
Don’t be afraid to talk about the bereavement.
This could be entirely subjective, but after my Dad died all I wanted to do was talk about him. I wanted to remember the things I liked about him, bring back long-buried memories… I suppose I wanted to resurrect him in my mind. I think the initial reaction most people have – it’s certainly how I’ve always reacted – is seeking to avoid the topic for fear of saying the wrong thing. Again, this could just be me, but in my experience I think it’s very difficult to say the wrong thing. You don’t even really need to say anything, just listen. They’ll talk about as much as they feel comfortable discussing. I think talking is also a way of simply getting your head around this massive event.
Keep in mind grief doesn’t follow a pattern.
I think there’s an assumption that grief is a process which hits extremely hard shortly after the bereavement, perhaps after a brief period of numbness, but gradually improves over time. This isn’t wrong, but in my experience it definitely hasn’t been that straightforward. If you were to make a graph of grief, rather than look like this:
For me, it looked more like this:
The massive spike in the middle of the second graph is admittedly artificial – my Dad’s cremation – while the relatively subdued nature of the beginning was due to my attempt to block it out while remaining in Edinburgh before returning home, but the point I’m trying to make is that my experience of grief varied extremely rapidly. Sometimes I’d be fine when I had no right to be fine, such as during the 24 hours after hearing the news, while weeks later I would break down with no apparent trigger. It’s definitely improving over time as I’m coming to terms with it, but there are still moments when it feels overwhelming. So what I’m basically saying is that don’t assume the bereaved person is doing better just because time has passed. I think in most cases the grief actually has to get a lot worse before it gets better. So when you’re being there for the person, I’d say make sure they know you’re still there if they need to talk or any other support weeks later – though at the same time without smothering them (grief is complicated and weird)…
Try to follow their needs.
Since none of us can read minds I’m aware this is virtually impossible, but what I mean is that the bereaved person may switch between wanting to do something fun as a distraction and then feeling upset and needing company within a matter of minutes. This is a natural part of how all over the place emotions can be during grief. I’d say just try to go with what they seem to need at any particular moment.
Remember grief is confusing.
I think the most noticeable reaction to my Dad’s death was the way it messed with my cognitive abilities. My short-term memory completely broke down – it felt like I just couldn’t keep remember anything – while my sleeping patterns became slightly erratic. I wasn’t acting in entirely normal ways; for instance, one day I made a sudden decision to board a train to the countryside somewhere in Fife, with no pre-prepared plans, which anyone who knows me can testify is not the sort of spontaneous action I generally take. I just felt an irrational need to get out of the city to somewhere peaceful. I also found it difficult to communicate things to people in the way I always tended, and occasionally felt quite incoherent in my thoughts. So just bear this in mind also when someone’s been bereaved.
As I said, grief is a different process for each individual person, but hopefully these are some comments which can at least give you a vague idea of how to help someone experiencing it.