People can be very supportive in the initial days after a death. There are lots of things for them to do: help to make funeral arrangements, notify other friends and family of the death, and take care of day-to-day chores. It's a matter of being friends: taking on the necessary tasks so survivors have the time and energy to actively mourn their loss.
Unfortunately, once the funeral is over, things can change dramatically. This support system can dissolve quickly as people return to their normal routines. The phone stops ringing and the bereaved may find their days and nights to be long and lonely.
How to Really Help Someone in Mourning
It's about not walking away. Granted, you may part company after the funeral but a true ally doesn't stay away long; a better-than-good ally keeps checking in with the bereaved. Being a friend in need during this time can feel very difficult.
Rachael Naomi Remen, M.D, wrote what she considers to be the focus of this grief work: "Grieving allows us to heal, to remember with love rather than pain. It is a sorting process. One by one you let go of things that are gone and you mourn for them. One by one you take hold of the things that have become a part of who you are and build again." You do that with a model of task-oriented bereavement.
The Four Tasks of Mourning
James Worden writes that the four things that must be completed in order to adjust to the death of a significant other are:
To accept the reality of the loss
To process the pain of grief
To adjust to a world without the deceased
To find an enduring connection with the deceased in the midst of embarking on a new life
Those four tasks define the work of grieving. When you choose to become an ally to someone in mourning, it becomes your responsibility to support them in achieving those things within their time frame—not yours.
In no way should you impose a limit on the amount of time their bereavement takes; the only limitations you can set have to do withany negative behaviors you witness. Is your friend using alcohol or drugs to manage their emotions? Are their eating habits becoming destructive? Are they choosing to isolate themselves from the wider world? All those things should raise red flags. If you think their grief has overwhelmed them and set them upon a self-destructive course, it may be time to suggest they see a certified grief counselor or therapist.
Other meaningful things you can do to help them successfully adapt to their loss—again using Worden's four tasks as our guide—include:
Attending their loved one's funeral is just the first step in accepting the reality of the loss. Taking them to visit their loved one's grave or other place of interment to leave flowers or simply to spend time in conversation and contemplation continues this process. Never force them to go; only suggest and then support them when they agree to your suggestion.
Empathetic listening—listening not just with your ears but with your heart. This goes a very long way in helping them to process the pain of grief. Be willing.
They will have to learn to be functional in this new world without their loved one. That can involve practical assistance from you: help to pay the bills, assist with grocery shopping, or offer your support while they learn or relearn how to do something.
The bereaved must reintegrate their sense of self while at the same time process any changes in their beliefs, values, and assumptions about the world. Again, empathetic listening without judgment gives them a safe space to work out these significant changes in their world view.
Help them to find a suitable place in their emotional life for the deceased: "a place that is important but that leaves room for others" and "a place that will enable them to go on living effectively in the world". It is suggested that they envision what they would want for themselves if their grief were magically removed.
Popular writer Barbara Kingsolver penned these wise words about friendship: “The friend who holds your hand and says the wrong thing is made of dearer stuff than the one who stays away.” She's so right—never stay away because you're frightened of saying something inappropriate. In "Coping with the Loss of a Loved One", the American Cancer Society said it best: "Be there. Even if you don't know what to say, just having someone near can be very comforting."
Other simple tips include these:
Ask how the bereaved person feels and listen to the answer. Don’t assume you know how they will feel on any given day.
Listen and give support but don’t try to force someone if they’re not ready to talk.
Accept whatever feelings the person expresses. Even if you can’t imagine feeling like they do, never tell them how they should or shouldn’t feel.
Give reassurance without minimizing the loss. Try to have empathy with the person without assuming you know how they feel.
Author Sarah Dessen captured the nature of good listening in this passage from her book, Just Listen: “This is the problem with dealing with someone who is actually a good listener. They don’t jump in on your sentences, saving you from actually finishing them, or talk over you; allowing what you do manage to get out to be lost or altered in transit. Instead, they wait, so you have to keep going.”
So, as an ally to your bereaved friend or family member, you need to cultivate patience and the willingness to wait. You need to be watchful for signs of depression, which may include continuing thoughts of worthlessness or hopelessness, being unable to perform day-to-day activities, feelings of intense guilt, extreme weight loss, and thoughts of death or suicide. The American Cancer Society cautions that "if symptoms like these last more than 2 months after the loss, the bereaved person is likely to benefit from professional help. If the person tries to hurt him- or herself, or has a plan to do so, they need help right away."
Worden, James, Grief Counseling & Grief Therapy: A Handbook for the Mental Health Practitioner, 4th Edition, 2009.
Bailey, J.D. "How to Help a Friend Who is Grieving", Huffington Post, 2013
American Cancer Society, "Coping with the Loss of a Loved One", 2012