This is the last in a series of blogs I’ve posted about how to support someone who is grieving. It feels fitting that this final part comes on Memorial Day weekend. Sending you all peace as you celebrate and continue to make sense of the meaning of the lives of those who were once with you on this plane, and have made the journey back home.
When is grief no longer “normal?” Before we go further into this part of the series on supporting a loved one or friend who is grieving, remember the number one rule: There are no rules. No one grieves in the same way as anyone else. If your friend says they feel like they’re going crazy, reassure them that (as strange as it sounds), that’s normal.
However, occasionally, grief becomes more than “normal crazy”. In this case, the grief takes on a life of it’s own, and requires more support than friends and family can provide. This is what we call “complicated grief”. (Again, all grief is complicated, so there’s no black and white here).
Although their lives are changed forever with the loss of their loved one, the majority of grieving people have good days and bad days after a period of time, and the grief becomes their “new normal”. Their lives are different, but they can begin to integrate it into their days. They start to live in the moment and begin to look to the future without such overwhelming dread.
But for some, even after months or years have passed, all their days are still bad days, and their life feels impossibly overwhelming all the time. Their emotions and attitudes appear to be irrational – crying daily, angry all the time – sometimes their personality seems totally different than the person they were prior to the death. But even as a professional, it’s sometimes difficult to determine if this is still “normal” grief or if it’s become complicated.
If it’s been more than a few months and their symptoms appear to be the same, or worse than they were immediately following the loss, talking to a professional is probably a good bet. If nothing else, it’s an opportunity to talk to someone with an unbiased, fresh perspective. And it gets them out of the house.
From a study conducted at the Columbia University School of Social Work, here are some signs of complicated grief.
Strong feelings of longing for the person who died
Feeling intensely lonely, even when others are around
Strong feelings of anger or bitterness related to the death
Feeling like life is empty or meaningless without the person who died
Thinking so much about the person who died that it interferes with daily tasks or relationships
Strong feelings of disbelief about the death – still finding it difficult to accept the death
Feeling shocked, stunned, dazed or emotionally numb
Finding it hard to care about or to trust other people
Feeling very emotionally or physically activated when confronted with reminders of the loss
Avoiding people, places, or things that are reminders of the loss
Strong urges to see, touch, hear, or smell things to feel close to the person who died
The researchers suggest that 3 or more of these symptoms persisting beyond 6 months may be an indicator of complicated grief. This next piece is important: Certain factors put a person at greater risk for complicated grief. The death was unexpected and/or violent, a suicide, a younger person or child, the griever has had previous traumatic losses, or doesn’t have a support system. Having one of these risk factors does not automatically mean the grief will be complicated, but just that the risk is higher.
HELPING A GRIEVER GET HELP:
First, a pushy friend is not a helpful friend. You cannot and should not try to force the person to get help. If you do, you risk them backing away from you, and the trust and sense of safety may be lost.
There are options. They can see a counselor in an individual setting, participate in a group, attend a conference or workshop on grief (or on the Afterlife) to answer questions they may have. There are grief retreats, and even online support groups and therapists. Depending on the person and his/her belief system, they may also want to seek out a medium or a therapist trained in Repair and Reattachment Grief Therapy who can help them connect with the loved one’s spirit.
Depending on insurance or inability to pay, check into local hospices. Find out if they have EAP services (Employee Assistance Program) through their work. These organizations offer a set number of sessions at no cost to the client or can refer to professionals who do so.
If your friend says they are willing to seek help, but never make the appointment, offer to call to schedule it and/or drive them to the appointment. Again, don’t be pushy about it, just offer. If they don’t take you up on it, that’s all you can do.
After the memorial service and family members have gone home, is when they need you the most. Once all the chaos is over, they can experience a profound sense of isolation. This is when support really counts.
This is a good time to share your stories, pictures and memories of the deceased, or if you didn’t know them ask your friend to share their memories and pictures. Again, take your cues from them, but typically, remembering the loved one’s life and their connection is a huge part of their healing process.
Remember anniversary dates (birthday, death day, holidays and other important dates in their lives you may know). These days are even harder than “regular” days in the life of a griever.
Prepare to see your friend in crisis. Anger, forgetfulness, wearing the same sweatpants every day, dirty hair, not eating, using substances to escape – are among the symptoms you might see. Understand that you may not be the person they want to talk to or spend time with. They may not say thank you. This is a good time to practice giving from the heart without expectation of acknowledgement or return. Grief makes us selfish, and they may not notice things you are experiencing. Be cognizant that you can support them, but you can’t fix anything.
Finally, I commend you for caring enough to read these suggestions, and be there for your friend(s). Whether that person acknowledges any of your efforts or not, you will be a valuable part of their healing process.
(I want to give credit to What’s Your Grief? for many of the suggestions in these blog posts. They helped me pull my thoughts together in a much more coherent way than I could have on my own!)