Kate McLisky is a clinical psychologist with a background in mental health research. Kate works clinically with an integrative therapeutic approach to help clients of all ages to manage and reduce symptoms of mental health disorders.
Comfort in, dump out
Think about it like this. At the centre of the circle is the person who has been lost. Those closest to that person, and most impacted by their loss, are the closest to the centre: usually their partner and immediate family and very close friends. Others radiate out from the centre so that those in the largest circles are those who have been least impacted by the loss.
Image credit: LA Times
If you are supporting a loved one through grief, you are mapped into this circle. Even if you did not have a close relationship with the deceased, you are impacted by your loved one’s grief. The rule is: comfort in, dump out. Everyone aims to provide support and comfort for those closer to the centre, and dump their grievances, complaints, and upsets to those further out of the circle. The takeaway is this: it is your job, for now, to support your loved one because they have been more impacted. But you also need people to lean on, and to help you.
Our different griefs
Your loved one is grieving, but you are too. You might not be grieving the deceased to the same extent they are, but it's normal to grieve the dynamic of your relationship before this loss. A relationship with a bereaved can often feel lonely, as though they are absent or inaccessible to you. Or it may feel like things are normal and then BAM, they are hit with a wave of grief and suddenly they're gone again.
Grief looks different for each individual and takes different forms for the same person during different periods of time. They might be laughing one moment and crying the next, or reaching for comfort today and then pushing you away or appearing cold and hostile tomorrow. In the midst of this confusion and distress, remind yourself that the form their grief is taking is valid, but that you are suffering, and that this is valid too.
Self-regulate to co-regulate
Those close to a bereaved person almost always want to help them to cope and overcome their experience of grief. Before you do anything, however, you must be calm, regulated and emotionally available. You cannot be truly compassionate until you have settled your own threat system. So it’s time to call on all of your coping: breathe, exercise, seek social supports (dump out!), engage in soothing sensory experiences like listening to music, taking a bath or moving your body. Once you have used a little of what works for you, you’ll be ready to be there for your loved one in a more meaningful way.
Be with what is
It’s a normal human thing to want to help our loved ones, fix their problems and remove their pain. The thing is, until they are ready to accept help, nothing you do will truly help them to move on. You cannot control their feelings, although your behaviour might influence them. To save yourself a lot of energy, pain, anxiety and resentment, try being with them where they are. By accepting their current state, you are not endorsing it. You are simply saying that it’s ok for them to feel their feeling. Once they can do that, they will naturally be ready to move on from that feeling. You trying to pull them out of their feeling simply communicates to them that feeling is not ok. In actuality, any feeling is ok, they might just need someone to sit with them through that feeling.
Ask and listen
What does your loved one say that they want? If it’s to sit on the couch and binge TV, it might be time to put on some popcorn and get comfy. If they say they don’t want to talk, try not to push them. Rather than assuming what they want – ask! Bereaved individuals often feel lonely because people close to them try to protect them from sadness or memories by never mentioning the loss, or using euphemisms rather than direct language.
Here are some questions that might be helpful: “What language would you like to use (passed away, moved on, dead, gone, etc.)”; “Would you like me to talk about [the deceased] or not?”; “How will I know if you want me to help? Will you ask, or is there a sign I can look for?”.
Listen to their responses, and try your best to respect their wishes. You are not supposed to be perfect at this. Being there is enough.
Most importantly, remember that the presence of their sadness, anger or pain is appropriate in this situation, and does not mean you're not doing enough.
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Article written by: Kate McLisky
Image credit: Külli Kittus at Unsplash
All content is created and published for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. Always seek the guidance of a qualified health professional.