How to deal with grief after losing a loved one

When a friend faces the loss of a loved one, it’s hard to find the right words to help them deal with their sense of grief and loss. The truth is that there is nothing that you can say to make it better but there are plenty of things that could make them feel worse.

The Texas A&M-Commerce community display grief as they come together to mourn the loss of two star players on the school’s women’s basketball team. (Credit: Steve Harvey)

The Texas A&M-Commerce community display grief as they come together to mourn the loss of two star players on the school’s women’s basketball team. (Credit: Steve Harvey)

You may have heard about the 5 stages of grief. Well, they are real and everyone goes through them; not in the same order or for a set period of time. Each person’s grief process is unique to them.

5 stages of grief

Psychologists will tell you that there are indeed 5 stages of grief that people will go through after experiencing a loss. That loss could be due to death, one’s own terminal illness or the end of a relationship. These five stages were first described by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her book, On Death and Dying, published in 1969.

In an article for PsychCentral.com, “The 5 Stages of Loss and Grief,” Julie Axelrod explained how this grief process exhibits itself.

Regarding the five stages, Axelrod pointed out that each person will spend a different amount of time in each stage. What’s more, one may visit a stage of grief more than once. The stages don’t appear in any particular order. What’s important is that by understanding these five stages, you can put the grieving process into perspective and understand where you are.

The five stages are:

  • denial and isolation: a temporary response that carries one through the first wave of pain.
  • anger: the anger may be directed at anyone or anything including the deceased loved one. It is an expression of grief that they would leave us.
  • bargaining: a weak attempt to protect us from reality. If only we had done this… If only we had done that…
  • depression:  two types of depression prevail: 1) practical grief and worry about dealing with costs of burial etc.. and 2) having to say goodbye to our loved one.
  • acceptance: marked by withdrawal and calm, this phase may not be reached by everyone.

“Some people will wear their emotions on their sleeve and be outwardly emotional. Others will experience their grief more internally, and may not cry. You should try and not judge how a person experiences their grief, as each person will experience it differently,” Axelrod advised.

What to say in the face of grief and loss

So when you see someone you care about going through these 5 stages of grief, what do you say to them? Because you feel so helpless, it’s easy to blurt out something that misses the mark.

For suggestions on how find the right words, check out Grief.com and their list of “The 10 Best and 10 Worst Things to Say to Someone in Grief.”

Best things to say include:

  • I am so sorry for your loss.
  • I am always just a phone call away.
  • I wish I had the right words; just know I care.

Worst things to say include:

  • He’s in a better place
  • I know how you feel
  • Be strong

According to the writers, “Some people often unintentionally trivialize grief by expressing to the person their own opinions as if that is what the person needs to hear. While some of these opinions have been helpful to some people, the way in which they are often said has the exact opposite effect than what was originally intended.”

You can’t fix your friend’s pain and you shouldn’t judge how they choose to mourn. Nor should you express any opinion about how long they are taking to mourn their loss.

Just acknowledge their loss and be supportive. Don’t minimize their loss or their feelings about it.

Shut up and listen

It can be unnerving to be around someone who is in grief. One minute they may be rational and the next they are in meltdown. Your first reaction may be to avoid them. If you want to be of help, consider what you can do instead.

Camille Wortman, Ph.D. offered several suggestions in her article for PBS.org, “Offering Support to the Bereaved: What to Say and Do.”

According to Wortman, “Another very difficult aspect of providing effective support is to listen to strong feelings without interrupting, changing the subject, or offering unhelpful support attempts such as minimizing the loss.”

In other words, just shut up and listen.

Have you helped a friend or family member deal with grief and loss? Have you experienced the 5 stages of grief for yourself? Tell us about your experiences in the comments.

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