The bottom line!

words: Dr Bill Webster, Grief Journey
Dr Bill Webster

Let’s get to the bottom line. There is a lot of talk these days about aftercare, grief support and grief therapy, with various means and methods describing how to help people after bereavement: community support or counselling, face-to-face or via phone, Zoom or other media.

While I agree there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’, certain fundamentals are vital in reaching grieving people, whether their reaction is “normal”, “complicated”, “traumatic”, or even “prolonged or persistent complex bereavement disorder”.

Let me suggest four essential elements of grief support for effectively helping people through grief:

1. Empathy

Regardless of the method or agency, it is essential to understand the grieving person has only one question, namely: “Do you have any idea what I am going through here?” Whether you have a Ph.D. or counselling qualification, or are simply a caring heart, they only want to be assured that you understand. That is the difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy says: “I understand.” Empathy happens when you say: “I understand,” and the recipient says: “I know you understand.”

Empathy is always two-way communication.

Sometimes it is good to share your own experience of loss. But even to begin by saying: “Although I have had my own losses, I can’t imagine how this must feel; tell me how this has been for you.”

This can encourage people to communicate. Few respond to expressions of ‘I know how you feel’ because even similar experiences are always different.

The first goal of any therapeutic relationship is helping the person to understand I “get it”.

2. Education

Grief is often taboo in our culture because we have not established a vocabulary for it, or any structured way to talk about loss. The topic is often discouraged: too painful to think about; too uncomfortable to mention; too horrendous to contemplate, far less confront.

So, two things happen. First, people don’t know how to help, and don’t want to make a mistake and make it worse. Second, the grieving person has no clue how or with whom to communicate what they are experiencing, lest people think them ‘abnormal’, ‘weak’, or, worst of all, ‘crazy’.

When grief is hidden, it is not validated. So, this secret of how grief really feels and affects us adds to the burden, as they themselves think they should be doing better long before they actually are.

Any effective grief support programme must include education. As the Medical Director of the American Psychiatric Association, Dr Saul Levin, recently said: “Especially now, sharing information and increasing awareness about grief is essential.”

3. Expression

Grief needs expression. But people only feel able to explore and express grief when they have first validated the experience and know that what they are experiencing is ‘normal’, not ‘crazy’ or ‘pathological’.

As American pre-school TV host Mr Rogers said: “Anything that is mentionable is manageable.”

Here we run into our first roadblock. There are many traumatic events and situations that can only be called unspeakable. When confronted by overwhelming or shocking sensory information, the amygdala – known as the fuse box of the brain – shuts down and does not pass along information to other areas where it could be processed. This is a basic defence mechanism, and the intervention of a qualified therapist will be necessary to help with that traumatic grief.

Yet, while every loss is personally traumatic, many can talk about it and discover the power of the principle: “That which cannot be put into words, cannot be put to rest.” You can do that by joining a support group, talking to a counsellor, or sharing with a friend. Or you can write in a journal. Whatever the method, verbalising can help explore those emotions and offer a fresh way of thinking.

4. Empowerment

Empowerment involves becoming stronger and more confident, especially in controlling your life and claiming your rights. Grief support involves a reinterpretation of how life can be meaningful, even in the light of loss, empowering people to re-define life as it now is, and to find ways to make the most of what they have left.

You can help people by doing things for them, or with them. Consistently doing things for people only encourages learned helplessness. But doing things with people increases their strength to work towards the place where they will feel confident enough to do it themselves. Empowerment is a remedy for losing control, a major factor in bereavement, trauma and crisis.

But it all comes down to your choice. We all find many reasons we can’t do what we want to do, when all we need is one reason we can. As Henry Ford put it: “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right.”

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