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When faced with someone else’s grief, it is common to feel awkward and unsure about what to say. You may even internally question, “What could I possibly say? What if I say the wrong thing? What if they break down in front of me?”

The reality is we live in a Western world that lacks openness and discourages vulnerability. Particularly in Australia, our culture of bravado encourages us to ‘get on with it’ and have a ‘stiff upper lip’. The ‘Aussie Battler’ label does not give emotional or spiritual support to those grieving.

This leaves many of us unprepared for how to give support to those going through the grieving process. Whether it’s a friend, family member or colleague, everyone, at some stage, will grieve.

Grief is not restricted to the death of a person, but extends to the physical upheaval of leaving a home or school, leaving or losing a job, facing health issues, or retirement.

The five stages of grief

There are five recognised stages to the grieving process: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. However, it is imperative that the stages be recognised individually, as stages aren’t necessarily experienced in any particular order, or in only one way or one time.

By understanding these stages we can better learn how to support other’s grief and avoid those feelings of uncertainty about what to do or what to say to someone who is grieving.

  1. Denial

Denying loss is nature’s method of allowing in only as much as you can cope with at the time. Numb and in shock from what could be an unexpected loss, denial allows for the feelings of grief to be put on hold. As each new day dawns, denial can help pace your feelings.

  1. Anger

Truly feeling the anger that comes after a loss enables the healing process to begin, even as the anger is often directed towards those around you and potentially those similarly affected by the loss. The anger is an indication of the love you feel, and this anger may become a structure, a connection which once again links you to that which you have lost.

  1. Bargaining

Bargaining after a loss often starts a stream of statements beginning with ‘what if’ and ‘if only’, as you try to negotiate away from the reality of the situation. The guilt of the action or inaction of the past drives the need to negotiate for the pain to numb, to remain caught in the past away from the pain and the reality of the present.

  1. Depression

Back in the present, depression makes grief more deeply felt – it is an appropriate reaction to an immense loss, and the depression felt in grief is not a sign of mental illness. Depression, as an expression of grief, is a step within the process of healing.

  1. Acceptance

Acceptance is about acknowledging the reality of a physical or emotional loss, and accepting a new reality in the face of what has been lost and grieved for. Trying to maintain a way of life as it was before the loss will inevitably allow bits and pieces of acceptance through, to reveal that life post loss will forever be changed.

Simple tips to better support those experiencing grief

  • Acknowledge their loss. Be present and there for them. It is common for people to not know what to say, but do not avoid your loved one at this time, and don’t worry so much about words, because words are not the tonic. What they really want at this time is your presence and acknowledgement.
  • Helping them maintain everyday routines, such as meals and cleaning the house, can be a humble and practical way help to ease their difficulty in a time of grief. It’s these everyday tasks that are the first to go out the window, particularly when shock sets in during the first stage of grief.
  • Fewer words is often best. Words of ‘intended consolation’ can often be destructive in the face of how grief is felt individually. Phrases such as “I understand how you are feeling” or “Time will heal” can be more detrimental than beneficial. Say less and just be there with warmth and spirit.

There is no best way to grieve, but there is healthy and unhealthy grieving. Healthy grieving can be supported by loved ones who openly show acknowledgment, practical support and few words. Be aware of anyone in your life experiencing grief and understand that even though the pain may diminish over time, the grief may never go away.

SHARE your thoughts with us in the comments below.

Main image courtesy of Shutterstock.com

  • Yes, there is a time to speak and a time to be silent,
    a time to mourn and a time to be happy
    there is no right or wrong emotion, all emotions are true and ok.

    Reply

  • totally agree – they are the ones that need to speak, our role is to support cry, bring tissues and love

    Reply

  • Thankyou for this article, i believe i am going through this process right now. Around this time last yr, i found i had a spinal tumor (Benign spinal meningioma), and this resulted in me hardly able to walk. I’m now dealing with all the emotions, the ending up in a wheelchair, the needing of relearning to walk again, the pain, the success that it’s gone, ect. But the thing that is affecting me right now, is my passion for my job i used to do…….i was an aged care nurse for over 25yrs!! Now it”s been taken away from me. So yes, can be in many different ways. As a nurse, i never knew what to say, to the loved ones. But always found a hug, and a sincere “I’m sorry” always were the right words. Take care <3


    • Thanks for sharing your story. You sound like a really strong person.
      Very best wishes to you.

    Reply

  • I went through this after our son was born disabled, he was still with us but we grieved for the child we thought we would have- a healthy child. :(

    Reply

  • And don’t say “everything happens for a reason”. It doesn’t.

    Reply

  • Lke hd

    Reply

  • People grieve differently and sometimes it can be really hard to know what to say. Great advice thank you

    Reply

  • it is so hard to say what is the right thing to do in that situation.

    Reply

  • We are in the acceptance stage of knowing we don’t have too much time left together – when the time actually comes, I hope I will be able to cope and be there for the rest of the family who I feel will need my help – I will get my own help later in the cycle of things. This is such a hard area to deal with, but someone also has to be strong to help and then finally let go later.

    Reply

  • Grief is such a difficult thing to deal with and every person/ situation can be different. There are some useful tips in this article but it’s good to also remember that there is no one size fits all solution.

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  • Great tips. I think everyone is different and desks with grief in their own way and we as third parties need to be mindful of that.

    Reply

  • I agree completely. One friend lost her husband two years ago. On Christmas Eve. :-( I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know how to help her and her daughter. So I just went over, helped with practical things.. For her it was enough I was there. And I was listening when she wanted to talk.
    It’s terrible to lose someone. :-(


    • Doing practical things does help people with their grief as these jobs can seem so overwhelming and hard. No thanks is ever needed as it just feels good to help out in any way that is needed.

    Reply

  • Thank you for sharing this article as it is important for people to know how to handle grief and also for people to know how to support those in grief. Ask people what they want – “how can I support you – what do you need from me?” I have made telephone calls that were too difficult for them to do, sorted clothes and possessions, cleaned and cooked and just been there with a cuppa and tissues.

    Reply

  • When I was grieving the loss of my parents, some people unintentionally said the wrong thing, some did not react at all, some disappeared, and some did everything right, but it didn’t matter to me. I knew that some people didn’t know what to do or what to say, and I knew some didn’t care. My grieving was my journey alone. Fortunately I did reach a stage of acceptance and peace.

    Reply

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