Everybody experiences grief differently so knowing how to respond to other people s grief can be difficult, especially if you re also dealing with your own. Practical issues around bereavement mean that you can t always give people as much space as you might like to. How can you figure out the best course of action? How can you provide support without exhausting your own resources?
As well as responding differently to grief, people feel it to different degrees, and not always in the ways you d expect. Sometimes people quite close to a deceased person are not severely affected – they may, for instance have had more time to adjust to a death that was expected. Others who are not that close may feel a deep loss. It can be damaging to expect grief off people and make them feel bad if they re coping, but it s equally important to look out for unexpected grief.
If you are the person closest to the deceased, accepting that other people may be grieving as much as you are can be hard. It can feel like an intrusion into your private space. These feelings are natural and nothing to be ashamed of, but try to remember that those people can t control their feelings either. It will be easier all round if you can support each other.
Some people who are grieving want to pour out their distress to anyone who will listen whereas others try to avoid the subject completely. At each extreme it can be difficult to make sure they re saying what they really need to say. Lots of talking can itself be a form of obfuscation.
Pushing people who are resistant to talking about grief can be risky, but so can leaving them alone. Generally the best course of action is to let them know you re there for them and then give them space, but gently remind them every now and again that you are concerned. Grief can lead to depression and low self esteem so there s a risk that such people will otherwise end up feeling they have no-one to turn to.
Most people find it easier to face their own grief when not overwhelmed by yours, so try not to get too emotional in conversations of this sort. If you can approach the subject in a matter of fact way it will usually make it easier for them and less exhausting for you.
In any situation where you have strong feelings it can be confusing to have to deal with people who express theirs in a different way. You may be tempted to think they re insincere, that they re showing off their grief or that they re being aloof. If you want to communicate effectively and avoid conflict, it s important not to project your own feelings and perspectives onto them.
As you are probably aware, there are several stages of grief. People pass through these at different rates. What s more, our experiences of grief can be complicated by losses we have experienced in the past, coincidental depression or anxiety, and other major events that may be happening in our lives.
Rather than being a barrier to understanding, these differences mean that we have different strengths, so we are more able to support each other through our particular difficulties.
When Grief is Hidden
Some people don t show their grief at all. Coping with other people s apparent lack of feelings when you re hurting intensely can be very difficult, even if they are trying to be helpful to you. It may also leave you worried that they are secretly hurting but unable to communicate it and therefore unable to get any support.
Some people hide their grief even from themselves, so suggesting that you know how they really feel can be counter-productive. It can be more useful to approach the situation hypothetically. If you say that if they were feeling bad you would always be ready to help them, you can give them what they need to cope or to seek help should they decide it s right for them to do so.
Coping with other people s grief – even if you re not supporting them directly – can be an exhausting and frustrating experience. It s especially tough when you too are missing somebody, so it s important that you create space and support structures for yourself. Remember that you ll be less help to people in the long term if you damage yourself by taking on too much in the short term.
When looking out for others it s important to remember that you matter too. Try to show yourself the same kindness. You deserve it.