I’ve always considered myself a compassionate person. The type of friend, wife, daughter, and mother who leads with a sympathetic and empathetic foot forward when my loved ones need an ear, shoulder, hug, or hand held. This innate emotional urge sustains me and makes me feel like I’m doing my best to maintain an open heart policy, particularly when life hands us hard times.
But recently I’ve been put to a test that stretches much deeper than any Hallmark card sentiment can suit. My husband’s mother recently passed away after a long debilitating disease. (You may remember her bright spirit from when I gushed about her brilliant soul in a recent Summer Solstice feature.) During his grief, there have been times that my arms suddenly don’t feel long enough to hold him as tightly as I should, or strong enough to provide the amount of comfort I so desperately want to give him.
It’s been a couple of months since we said our final goodbyes to her, our vibrant family light, and with her passing remains a cavernous feeling of grief amongst those she left behind. I’ve watched my husband feel the loss so deeply. It’s been heartbreaking on every level. And while I’ve tried to ensure I do all the “right” things to show him support, I’ve often wondered through this grieving process, Am I really doing this correctly? Is there a better way to help him through this?
While there are books and podcasts a-plenty about processing grief yourself, there isn’t much in the way of a readily available roadmap on how to support someone else as they grieve. So I turned to Holly Lawson from Austin-based The Relationship Clinic, who I knew would have some wise words on the subject. Keep reading to see how she sheds light on the stages of loss, her suggestions for navigating the various types of grief, and what not to say when someone is in mourning.
We’re often told there are stages of grief, is this true? And if so, what are they?
True. First noted by physician and author Elizabeth Kubler Ross in the 1960s as the five stages of grief. She proposed that people transition through sequential stages of emotions when experiencing loss.
The five stages are:
Denial — “This can’t be happening to me.”
Anger — “Why is this happening?”
Bargaining — “If things could have been done differently or if I could do something now.”
Depression — “I’m sad this is happening/happened.”
Acceptance — “I understand and accept this is happening/happened.”
Grief is the body’s naturally occurring mechanism to process and reconcile pain, discomfort, and distressing emotions at the loss of something important, loved, desired, or attached to. Stages of grief are one way to observe and understand the range of experiences and emotions in this process across the human continuum and cultures.
Important to note is that not all experience grief in the same way. For many, the stages of grief are not linear or sequential but far messier and circular. Some experience some of the stages but not all. Some repeat the cycle many times, while others dance in and out and out of order throughout time.
Grief is as unique as the one experiencing the loss and is the body’s way of processing the pain. Once I was told, “Grief means we loved.”
Are there different types of grief?
Yes. Many types of grief, depending on the situation, the timing of the loss, the circumstances surrounding the loss, and one’s response to the loss. While there are nearly a dozens types mentioned in scholarly writings, here are some of the main types of grief experienced in one’s lifetime:
Normal Grief — This includes periods of intense emotions as one moves through the stages of grief and gradually starts to accept the loss, with alleviating symptoms over time. Symptoms can range from crying, despair, insomnia, fatigue, withdrawal, avoidance, weight gain or loss, numbness, yearning, fear, loneliness, and a myriad of other emotions.
Anticipated Grief — This type is experienced usually when one has had some leeway and time to prepare for their loved one’s death, usually in the case of a long-term illness. This type of grief can raise confusing and conflicting feelings as you “pre-grieve” someone who is still alive and arouse feelings of guilt for feeling relief upon their death.
And other types of grief include:
Chronic Grief — Feelings that do not subside and create debilitating effects in functioning.
Delayed Grief — When symptoms of grief are not experienced until long after the one’s loss, where the pain of the loss is suppressed until symptoms present.
Cumulative Grief — When a second or multiple experiences of loss are compounded and experienced in the same or near to the same time period.
Secondary Loss — When the experience of the primary loss impacts other elements surrounding the loss… (i.e. the loss of a parent also may trigger feelings of loss at their future wedding or life event experience, or the role a parent plays in their “script.”)
What are the best things someone can do when a friend or loved one is in grief?
I like to use grief as a verb and say when one is “grieving” as it describes an active experience. There is no universal language for death or loss. Therefore, many of us flounder and avoid or become uncomfortable in the “comforting role” when a loved one or friend experiences loss. While “I am sorry for your loss” is most often what comes to mind for many followed by uncomfortable silence, here are some samples of phrases that I personally feel are more emotionally supportive and allow the recipient to feel your true presence and support, exerted and crafted from whatsyourgrief.com:
“I loved how your (mom, husband, etc.) did this one thing… (share a positive memory.)
“You don’t have to talk… just sit… I am right beside you.”
“There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Your life has been changed forever.”
“I can’t imagine how you feel, but I am here.”
“Tell me another about your (mother, friend, etc.)…”
“You can talk about your (husband, mom, etc) whenever you want – in 5, 10, 15 – 30 years from now.”
And a personal favorite: “I have no words, this just sucks.”
What are the things not to say to something experiencing grief?
One of the suggestions I have is to not make it about your own experience. An example of what not to say might be, “I know how you feel, I lost my mom a few years ago.”
Another suggestion would be not to explain, minimize, or speed up one’s grief recovery. This might look like, “Look at all the other things you have to live for and be grateful for…”… or “Hey, let’s go do something fun and get your mind off of this for a while.”
Also, probably not a great idea to give a reason to the griever for the loss. Example: “Well, they lived a long life and it was their time…”
What are the best resources for when one is experiencing grief?
Podcast: The Widowed Parent Podcast
Book: Tear Soup: A Recipe for Healing After Loss and On Death and Dying
+ Support If You’re in Austin: The Austin Center for Grief & Loss
How does seeking third party help (therapy) help with the grieving process?
Third party help—counseling, acupuncture, massage, and other healing arts and practices—can aid in moving the energy of grief and sadness piled up overtime or at the onset, as these intense emotions can block, and weigh, and feel very burdensome. If we rely only on our loved ones for the support (who also may be experiencing their own level of grief both at the loss of the deceased but also the loss of their loved one who is grieving and less available), the support may not be adequate and may also be more charged and/or diluted. We want concentrated holistic professional services for life’s deepest and most intimate of experiences (grief being one of them) in order to be fully supported and heard and seen and guided—without the expectations that family and friends might have on our wellbeing strategies and timeline.
When is the right time to suggest therapy for a loved one experiencing grief?
I always encourage loved ones to be careful in how they “suggest” a “should” or “ought to” in reference to seeking therapy, as it is such a personal endeavor and one needs to seek rather than be told to. So, for a loved one who is concerned for their family member based on what they’re observing, noticing, hearing and experiencing, that seems beyond the normal expression of grief, or that persists, I would recommend they include sources for support “in general” as a resource, rather than a suggestion or prompt.
Something like, “I heard about this place that someone mentioned that helped through something similar to what you are going through. It’s called Austin Grief Counselors” or whatever the local place is.
“I read recently that walking and talking, or walk therapy really helped people through grief experiences. Could you imagine that being something that may support you?”
For a child or teen experiencing grief, do the same tips apply here as for an adult?
This depends on the developmental age of the child. By high school, teens can express their grief often in the form of anger while younger children may suppress the experience altogether and carry on with normal activities. Meet them where they are and be present with them and answer their questions gently. If they skip off with jubilation after a deep conversation, do not be alarmed. Be honest with them. Answer questions and talk openly with them without fear.