Providing Compassionate Grief SupportOct 28, 2021 11:23AM ● By Sheila Julson
It can be difficult to know what to say or do to support a bereaved friend, relative, co-worker or peer. Local bereavement counselors share ways to provide nurturing support for those that have lost a loved one.
Dr. Patti Anewalt, director of Pathways Center for Grief & Loss, a bereavement program of Hospice & Community Care, emphasizes that listening is more important than talking. “The key is not about what you say to a grieving person, but rather a willingness to listen. While talking with someone who is grieving, people tend to share their own story. That takes the focus off the bereaved person, which isn’t the original intent.”
Lori Kuhn, an Advanced Grief Recovery Method Specialist, provides individual and group sessions for grief counseling at Ampersand Integrative Wellness. She reiterates the best way to offer support is to be a heart with ears and be a good listener. “Grievers want and need to tell their story. They want to talk about their losses and be heard, and not be judged or given advice. Grief is the normal and natural reaction to loss. It is the conflicting feelings caused by the end of or change in a familiar pattern of behavior. It is about a broken heart, not a broken brain. We have all been socialized to believe that these feelings are abnormal and unnatural.”
An honest, direct approach is best, even if we are unsure of what to say. “It’s perfectly okay to say, ‘I want to be supportive, but I don’t know what to say,’” Anewalt advises. “Convey that you care, and directly ask the person if they would like to talk about it or if they’d prefer to not bring it up.” Well-meaning people often ask the bereaved what they can do to can help, but she notes that puts the responsibility on the bereaved person. A better approach is to take the lead and offer to aid the bereaved person, such as dropping off a prepared meal or helping with yardwork or household tasks.
Giving the gift of time to the bereaved is crucial, adds Deborah Gonzalez, a bilingual bereavement counselor for Pathways. “Lots of people send cards, flowers and food, which is the most common. We may find it difficult to offer our time to listen, which is one thing we can all do and is very much appreciated.”
Sonya Hershey-Velasco, also a bereavement counselor with Pathways, feels that people need to follow their intuition and consider how well they know the bereaved person. In workplace or school settings, it can be harder to ask people how they’re doing because it can elicit an intense emotional response. “The bereaved person is working so hard to keep it together in the workplace or at school, so wait to ask how they are doing until end of the day when fewer people are around. You can also ask in an office with the door closed or another private place,” she advises.
With grieving children, Diane Kulas, children service coordinator with Pathways, says the best way to offer support is to be present with them. Depending on the child’s age, it can seem like emotions come from out of nowhere. “It’s often triggered by a memory,” she explains. “But what they’re really looking for is someone to be a listening presence. If they cry, be there for them as they cry. Let them talk about that person and share their memories.”
Kids love to tell stories, Kulas notes, so adults can ask questions about the person who died. “Saying to them something like, ‘Your loved one sounds so incredible. Tell me more about them,’ forms a continual bond which is part of the healing process.”
It’s important to acknowledge loss, especially for teens. “Connecting with peers helps kids feel important,” Kulas says. “When death occurs, they will feel different. When they go back to school and no one around them acknowledges that this person has died, it only reinforces isolation. They might want to talk about it or they might not, but often they will appreciate the effort to acknowledge the death.”
In a school setting, Kulas advises that the family stay in contact with the school and collaborate so everyone knows how the child wants the death handled. Some kids might want only certain people to know, or they might not want it acknowledged in the classroom.
It’s common to send sympathy cards, flowers or food immediately upon hearing about a death. Anewalt says bereaved persons often receive a flood of initial support, but later nothing. Calling, texting or sending “thinking of you” cards during the months and even years following a loss lets bereaved persons know they are cared for and supported. Inviting the person over or offering to meet them for a walk allows for more privacy than going out to lunch or another social setting.
Kuhn adds that it’s important to be there “after the casseroles stop coming." Weeks after a loss, people tend to shy away, but that’s the time when the griever often needs the most support. Sometimes there are legal issues that the bereaved needs to take care of and can feel overwhelmed. “It is a good idea for the griever to not have to take care of things alone, but be respectful of their needs; if they don't want help, don't force it, and remain respectful with your relationship with the person.”
Bereavement counselors concur that we must resist the urge to try to fix the pain. Avoid platitudes like, "God won’t give you more than you can handle," or, "At least they’re no longer suffering."
“Anything that begins with ‘at least’ should not be said,” Anewalt affirms.
Gonzalez says people should avoid asking for details of the death, especially if it was an accident, suicide, COVID-related or cancer, and avoid asking about insurance, home or other financial matters.
Kulas says it’s important to offer reassurance for children, but do not offer advice or try to squelch their emotions. “When kids are grieving, we as adults want to make them better and help lessen the pain. But that pain is coming from the significance of that relationship. You don’t want to diminish that love. Grief is very natural, so instead of stifling it, let them know that what they’re feeling is perfectly understandable.”
Grief is a very individual experience. Anewalt says it’s normal to vacillate back and forth between good and bad days. “Grief is an intense, exhausting experience, and we need to give ourselves permission to not dwell on it all the time,” she says. “There’s no closure; closure implies that you’re over it, but we don’t get over grief. We learn how to live with it.”
It’s also important to listen when the bereaved person cries or expresses intense emotions. Kulas notes that kids might develop intense grief reactions months or even years after a loss as they mature and reflect differently on the relationship and the loss.
When to Be Concerned
If grief impedes daily functioning for months after a death—not going to work or school, not eating, lack of focus or headaches—it might be time to suggest professional counseling.
Kulas says adults might want to directly ask the bereaved children if they could benefit by talking with someone other than a parent. Children often feel that talking with a grieving parent will only intensify the grief the surviving parent is experiencing.
Societal expectations like "You should be over this by now," do not provide safe spaces for the bereaved to talk. So-called "stages" of grieving often confuse people and can make recovery more difficult. Individual or group counseling encourages our inherent ability to heal and discern new paths on the journey through grief and facilitates opportunities to interact with others with similar experiences.
Creative outlets such as art therapy, journaling, meditative practices and yoga can help the bereaved release emotions. “Anxiety is a very prevalent grief response,” says Hershey-Velasco. “We have a mindfulness series here to help people develop strategies to stay in the moment and not get overwhelmed by forecasting bad things that might happen. Yoga also helps manage anxiety.”
Pathways Center for Grief & Loss offers a wide variety free counseling sessions for adults and children that have been impacted by a serious illness or loss. Their services are not limited just those that lost a loved one in hospice; anyone can use Pathways’ services. The “Coping with the Holidays” grief support series starts Nov. 16. For more information and a calendar of classes, visit HospiceandCommunityCare.org/grief-and-loss.
For more information about Ampersand Integrative Wellness, located at 7 Bristol Ct., Reading, call 484-516-2206 or visit AmpersandIntegrative.com.