Supporting the Bereaved

By Kathleen Gordinier

When someone we care about is grieving, it’s a natural response to want to ease their pain. We want to say something to help them feel better, but the truth is, we don’t need to try to make them feel better. We only need to be present and listen. Understanding what a grief response looks like will help prepare you to support your friend or family member who is bereaved.

The process of grief is not linear and does not happen in stages. There is no timeline for how long someone will grieve; it may take up to three years or more, depending on the loss. It is an individual process; how someone grieves depends on many factors, including their perception of the loss.

Grief presents in many ways, including physical, cognitive, and emotional. Here are a few common grief reactions:

Physical

  • Changes in appetite or sleep
  • Fatigue or exhaustion
  • Feeling weak or faint
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Digestive problems
  • Tightness in the chest

Cognitive

  • Short-term memory loss
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Confusion
  • Preoccupation with loss/death
  • Disbelief
  • Suicidal thoughts

Emotional

  • Anger
  • Sadness
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Despair
  • Mood swings

Some grievers prefer to talk about their feelings and their person. These are known as intuitive grievers. Others prefer to do something more active or speak about the experience more cognitively. These are known as instrumental grievers. Many grievers display a blended grieving style expressing their grief in intuitive and instrumental ways. Friends and family members can benefit from knowing the differences in grief responses and understand that all grieving styles are valid. Here is a summary of grieving styles:

Intuitive Grievers:

  • Focus on feelings more than on thoughts or problem-solving
  • Describe grief in terms of painful and frightening feelings
  • Express feelings through tears that range from weeping to sobbing and wailing
  • Tend to express most feelings openly with other people
  • Experience and resolve feelings either directly or vicariously by sharing them or by listening to someone else’s feelings

Instrumental Grievers:

  • Focus on thoughts more than feelings
  • May appear brooding or apathetic instead of being overtly expressive about their emotions
  • Channel energy into activity
  • Prefer to discuss and resolve problems rather than feelings
  • Often view adaption to loss as a challenge instead of a threat

Having appropriate expectations about grieving will help you support the bereaved. Grief will take longer than most people think and will take more energy than one can imagine. It will involve many changes and will continually develop. Grief entails what was lost and what is lost for the future. Identity confusion is also part of grieving as the bereaved try to figure out who they are without their loved one.

You can help your bereaved friends or family members by assisting with practical matters such as providing meals, driving them to appointments, and ensuring their basic needs are met. You can provide a safe and healing presence and sit with them in their pain. A compassionate and gentle presence is more important than anything you say. Using the name of the person who died and sharing stories about the person can be helpful to the bereaved as they work to maintain a connection to their loved one.

The Elizabeth Hospice’s grief counselors and trained volunteers guide people of all ages through grief and loss. We provide a safe, supportive and confidential environment for adults and children to address their feelings and learn healthy coping skills. Our services are open to everyone in San Diego County and Southwest Riverside County, including families who do not have an affiliation with The Elizabeth Hospice. To learn more about our grief support services or to schedule a session with a grief counselor, call 833.349.2054.

 

Kathleen Gordinier is the Director of Bereavement and Counseling Services with The Elizabeth Hospice.

 

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