By Linda S. Smith, MS, DSN, RN, CLNC
Professor and Director of the Associate Degree Registered Nurse Program
Idaho State University
Grief, loss, anger, despair, and guilt are human responses to any tragedy. They are normal, yet entirely unique, because each of us resolves grief and loss in our own way.
Accepting loss and even death is probably the hardest part about being human. When a friend or loved one is grieving, we may be afraid to get involved; to talk about the loss or death; to feel it for and with someone. We may say, "I hate going over there to visit, it's so depressing;" or "Why should I call or stop over; I can't do anything to make it better."
Yet, moods and reactions people have as they grieve a significant loss are often responses to how others react toward them and what others expect. With this in mind, it is easy to see how people "pick up" on the obvious and hidden "expected behaviors" from the persons who are closest to them. Therefore, if someone you know and love is experiencing grief, your reactions and responses to them can improve or worsen the situation.
First, friends and loved ones need to understand the fears of those who grieve. These fears include loneliness, meaninglessness, and continued loss. Families of persons who are dying experience profound grief and loss, anger, despair, depression, and even guilt but these emotions may occur very differently among members.
What to do if someone you know is grieving:
- Reach out to the person who is grieving; don't wait for him or her to come to you. Your presence as a good listener is almost more important than anything else you can do.
- Accept the person as a living, valuable human being
- Anticipate that grief work is extremely physical as well as psychological
- Express the simple yet profound, "I'm sorry."
- Allow the grieving person quiet time
- Listen, support, encourage, and share your own feelings. Be available as someone the person can trust.
- Through your responses, give the person permission to think and feel anything
- Allow loose ends to be tied; spiritual peace, financial matters, and funeral arrangements attended to, etc.
- Help persons review their lives for meaning and purpose. This could be done with a diary, a tape recorder, drawings, scrap books, or a photo album. Remind grieving persons of their accomplishments.
- Use culturally sensitive, appropriate touch as an expression of caring. After asking permission, you may chose to hold their hand, pat their arm, give a hug
- Help persons attend to personal grooming and exercise. Take a walk with the person, listen to music together, play a game, reminisce
- Call in a spiritual consultant if the person wishes
- Use open ended communication lead-ins like: "how…, what…, where…,
- “It sounds like you're feeling…;
- share with me…,
- help me understand…"
- Recognize that persons experiencing extreme grief and loss may have sleeping, resting, and eating difficulties. Therefore, call in healthcare resources and professionals as needed.
- Tell the person that you are interested in what they think and feel. Be receptive and nonjudgmental, acknowledging the actual, potential, or perceived loss
- Recommend support groups and provide this information when appropriate
- Give the grieving person the right to cry
- Allow the person at least a full year before major life-changing decisions are made
What NOT to do when communicating with someone in grief or crisis:
- Don't assume that all questions asked demand answers. A simple, "I don't know, but tell me your feelings” is one response to the unanswerable
- Don't meet anger with anger. Allow the angry, grieving person to express the anger without becoming defensive. Acknowledge and accept the anger by saying, "You sound angry…." "It must be so difficult (frustrating) for you …"
- Don't interrupt, expound, criticize, show impatience, judge, minimize, confront, abandon, or be dishonest.
- Don't ignore the person's mental and physical pain
- Don't try to replace grief with faith
- Don't reject the person's feelings with phrases like, "cheer up…" Everything will be fine…"
- Don’t wait to be asked for help. Often the “If you need anything, call me…” is never acknowledged. Better to say, “I’m picking up some groceries, what can I get for you?” and “Today is wash day, let me do a few loads for you.” Or “I brought over the lawn mower – how do you like the grass done?”
Caring for and about someone who grieves is a great privilege.
As you face someone who is experiencing grief and loss, please believe that your efforts are valued and needed. Your presence has a profound effect on those for whom you care.
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