I miss you so much…
The pain of losing a family member or friend is so real it can be experienced at both a psychological and physiological level. When people tell you their heart is breaking it can actually feel as if it is; it comes from the level of stress hormones within their body. Mentally a fog descends, leading to confusion and forgetfulness; it is a feeling of being disconnected, which in reality is the mind trying to protect itself from the stress. Their focus is extremely short term, literally days not months or years; they are fixated on the last few days and are reliving the events that preceded the death and the aftermath. It begins with disbelief and confusion; moves through reorganising events in a bargaining style (what if this had happened, what if I’d done something different); sometimes ending in guilt and/ or anger but eventually it will turn to acceptance. Some people are able to regain functional normality within weeks; for others the journey may take much longer. The fact is it never really goes away, nor should it. A song, a photo even a smell can bring events hurtling back with some of the accompanying pain; times like Christmas, birthdays or anniversaries can be a catalyst for reawakened thoughts and feelings. However, it will diminish; the focus will move from the pain of the actual event and the days that followed to memories of a lifetime. Acceptance is the end goal, the ability to hold close the memories of a life well lived and the integration of those memories into everyday living. So what should you do if confronted by a person who has recently experienced a loss? It is not as hard as you would imagine to provide comfort and to help them reduce their stress. Firstly, here are some things you should know about yourself, and that you’ll need to confront if you are to be of any assistance:
You will find it difficult to talk to your family member/ friend to the point of avoiding contact with them. Solution, you don’t need to talk but they do; encourage them by asking open questions e.g. “How are you feeling today?”. Be comfortable with a short answer, a delayed answer or no answer at all. The key is to persist, to gently probe and to seek a response; eventually the expectation will be that during your visits it is normal for them to talk about their difficulties in adjusting to the loss.
You might be tempted to issue them with instructions and to take over their everyday activities, their life. Solution, don’t do it for them, work with them by assisting in normal day to day tasks, chatting as you go.
You might be uncomfortable with the emotions that accompany loss and try to shut them down. Solution, instead of telling them to “pull yourself together”, sanction the emotion “I have little understanding of what you are going through; but it must really hurt!”, then be quiet, wait for a response.
You are not there to “fix things” you are there to support; if you become concerned about any aspects of your relative/ friend’s coping behaviours then a referral to a grief counsellor is appropriate.
When the time comes each of us will need to deal with grief; and we’ll do it in our own way and in our own time. There is no “one size fits all” formula that can be applied because grief and its management is a personal response to a normal part of life. The best we can hope is that those around us at the time, take the idiosyncratic nature of the experience into account, and allow us the luxury of working through it, with their help.