Five ways to offer support to someone who has lost a loved one in a traumatic event
The well known five stages of bereavement are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. This is not a straightforward one-through-five processes. It’s one step at a time, five forward and three back. All you can do is help your person get through one moment at a time.
But people are often afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing or just feel helpless and so don’t offer help or comfort where it is needed. Look, losing anyone is hard, but losing someone close to you in tragic circumstances adds a layer of shock and the feelings of utter helplessness and it all being surreal can be difficult to wade through.
Those who have suffered a traumatic loss often feel completely overwhelmed by the suddenness of the event. There is no time to prepare, to say goodbye, to resolve conflicts. This makes the emotional impact of a traumatic loss that much harder to work through.
So how can you, as a friend or family member step up and help your loved one? Here are five simple ways you could offer your support:
1. Get stuck into the practical stuff
It’s not earth shattering. And it’s possibly not the most important point. But helping your person take care of the details helps. A lot. Initially it might be assisting with notifying other friends and family or assisting with the funeral arrangements. The most crucial time, however, in my opinion, is after the funeral.
After the funeral, after the flowers have faded; the meals kind people dropped off are finished and people have stopped popping in and checking in, is when your person is likely to feel most alone and the grief really kicks into high gear. The reality is probably really starting to sink in about now. And it’s hard. It’s hard that everyone else has gone back to their lives and can carry on, but for the people closest to the loss, life will never be the same.
Their life can’t just carry on – it’s got to be rearranged and change is hard for anyone, especially at such an emotional time. They are more than likely still deeply mired in the grief and trauma, but yet they have to find their own way; work out a new way of doing things.
This is where friends and family can really step up. So how can you help them in their daily lives you ask? There are a number of ways, and you know your person best. Take a minute to think about their life. What do you imagine they need to do on a daily basis where you could help? It doesn’t have to be big, little things count for a lot too. You could arrange to pick up the kids from school, do a grocery run or cook them dinner and then stay and give them a shoulder to cry on over the meal, for example.
If you don’t know what they need, ask. It’s as simple as that. But taking the initiative is often better.
2. Ditch the cheesy sayings
So you don’t know what to say to your person who has suffered a traumatic loss? Then say that, and tell them a small simple something – you are thinking of them, you are there for them to lean on, you are sorry for their loss. Give them sincere, heartfelt words of comfort.
Please avoid the cheesy clichés like time will heal and other such rubbish at all costs. Yes, there is the theory that clichés became clichés for a reason, but while they might hold some truth, it’s really not what your person wants to hear. It also often comes off as uncaring and like you are nudging them to get over it or brushing it off. Each person will work through their grief differently, and there really is no set or right/wrong time frame.
I would also like to take this opportunity to point out that you never ‘get over it’. You learn to live with it, make peace with the fact that you can’t bring the person back and try and shift your life to heal the hole they leave in it. Getting over it is an unrealistic expectation, so don’t have it of your person.
Be sincere. Be real. You don’t have to have the answers for them; you just need to be there to support them through their grief.
3. When you don’t know what to say, keep quiet
I met a man who had lost his son in a car accident. In telling his story to me, he spoke about how he and his wife had lost touch with so many friends because they didn’t know how to be around their grief, offer support or talk about the boy that had died – whether they were even supposed to speak about him or not. Don't do that to your person. It’s like a double loss when they lose a loved one and then part of their all important support system too.
Follow the lead of your person – let them bring up the topic of the lost loved one. They might want to talk about it a lot, they might not want to talk about it at all. And this can change from hour to hour, never mind day to day. Follow their lead.
People also often feel they have to fill the space with words. But you don’t. Being there for your person can also be just being there, with no words. Especially if you don’t know what to say. Offer a hug, a hand squeeze, a look that says ‘I’ve got your back through this’ but don’t say something meaningless to fill the space. Being there is what is important.
4. Be prepared to listen. Listen and listen some more
Grief is a strange thing. One day you actually feel like you are coping, and then bam, quicksand, you get sucked back under and have to fight your way out again. Some days your person may want to talk about it all the time, other days not at all, as I said before.
But whenever they do want to talk about it, listen. You don't need to offer advice unless they ask for it. All they need is someone to listen to how they feel. They know they sound like a broken record but, sometimes, when grieving, we get stuck. Talking about it can help us become unstuck or work through a particular point or emotion.
That said, some people don’t want to talk and that's OK too. Be there if they want to talk, don’t push the point if they don’t. Leave it up to them to bring it up.
5. Help them get the professional help they need to heal
Most people don’t manage to wade through the trauma and grief of a traumatic loss on their own, even with the most well-meaning and good-intentioned support structure of family and friends. Make no mistake, the importance of having a strong support structure cannot be over-emphasised – they can honestly make a world of difference. No one gets you like your people.
But, more often than not, professional intervention is needed to help guide a person through the traumatic grief process and help them explore their feelings and reactions, to try to make some sense of it all and find a way forward towards some kind of acceptance. Help your person get the right kind of help for them if they need it. They may need a nudge in that direction if they can't see it for themselves.
© Michelle Funke Coaching 2016