There are times in our lives when we have the opportunity to support a friend, relative, or co-worker who has experienced a loss. Understanding emotional, physical and behavioral reactions to loss is helpful when you find yourself in a supportive role for someone who is grieving.
Emotional Responses To Loss
Each person has their own way of expressing feeling. One individual will be open and talkative, another may be reticent or withdrawn. Having a supportive listener helps most people work through their feelings. Understanding how to be a good listener is important.
Overwhelming feelings of sadness or sorrow are not always expressed through tears. Those who want to appear strong in the face of calamity hold back signs of emotion. Crying in front of others makes many people feel overly vulnerable. For others it makes them feel embarrassed. If a grieving person is choking back the tears, it can be helpful to say, "let it out if you feel like it." That simple statement is encouraging and supportive without being insistent.
Also common to the experience of grieving is a lingering sense of regret. Regret is expressed through statements which begin "If only", or "Why didn't I?" or "If I could have." Feelings of regret may not be based on realistic perceptions of a person's responsibility for events. We search for the reasons things happen in life, and feel as if someone or something should take the blame. If we can't readily assign the blame, we often turn it against ourselves. We "should have done things differently." In truth, many situations have been beyond our control, and recognition of this fact comes in time, after we have dealt with our sadness.
Anger is another common emotional response to loss, but a difficult one for many people to acknowledge. It is most helpful if the support person listens to the emotional outflow associated with anger without making any value judgements.
A supportive person tries to be a good listener, accepts the grieving person's emotions without judging them, and is available if that person wants comforting. Recognize that there are times a person needs to be alone with their grief, as a degree of solitude is important in the healing process. It takes a certain amount of grace to pull back when helping gestures are not immediately accepted.
Finally, attempting to distract the bereaved from his/her grief through forced cheerfulness and humor is not helpful. Being overly jolly at the wrong moments will backfire; the last thing you want is to come across as insensitive. Also be careful of saying "I know just how you feel". This may sound as if you are trivializing the person's experience. We can sympathize, we can relate, but we can not feel what another person is feeling.
Giving practical help is another way to be supportive of a grieving person. It is necessary on occasion for someone to step in and manage the details at work - answering phones, taking messages, and delegating work, keeps the job moving and reduces the backlog. At home, helping with the everyday tasks of cleaning, cooking, and caring for children gives the grieving person time to tend to personal needs. If the person is so overcome with grief that he/she simply can't function, temporary full-time help can be hired. Avoid taking over a person's life in the process of being helpful. As soon as the person shows signs of recovery, step back. Encourage each new sign of recovery.
Physical Reactions To Loss
Headaches, gastrointestinal distress, loss of appetite, fatigue, and insomnia are common physical reactions accompanying the emotional stresses of grieving. For a person with a known health problem, close medical supervision is recommended. The stress of this period may worsen a medical condition. Someone with a chronic disease like diabetes, may alter eating habits or neglect routine medication.
Behavioral Changes Following Loss
Noticeable, temporary changes in behavior may be normal for a person coping with grief. Increased use of alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine seems to reduce anxiety in the short-term for some people. However, an excessive use of alcohol, sleeping medication, coffee, and cigarettes will hinder a person's ability to cope with their stress and sadness. Extreme isolation, lingering depression, and loss of weight are signs that a referral for counseling is advisable.
Some of us adjust well to very severe losses, while others recover poorly from far less trauma. Be there through the grieving process and gently encourage a grieving person's feelings to emerge. "Being there" through the hard times is the very best kind of support anyone can offer.
Necessary Losses, The Loves, Illusions, Dependencies and Impossible Expectations That All Of Us Have To Give Up In Order To Grow, by Judith Viorst. Fawcett Gold Medal. New York, 1986.
Section IV, Chapters 16 through 20 are particularly significant in regards to loss and grief.
Written by Helene W. King, Ph.D.
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