Being Present with the Bereaved

private-griefTo be present to those grieving often brings up feelings of helplessness similar to those experienced when around the dying.  Often this helplessness is experienced as not knowing what to say or do.

People often assign a timetable to grieving and make assumptions as to how long each phase should last.  In fact, everyone has their own experience; the time taken to grieve varies between individuals. Unfortunately, many of the grieving find themselves judged if their grieving doesn’t match some particular schedule.  Grief is not linear and doesn’t follow any predictable trajectory.

Grieving is always a subjective experience. To aid the grieving, there is no necessity for articulation, platitudes or suggestions. It is, rather, simply being there and being present to the grieving individual that is truly therapeutic.  There’s great value in listening to the person and following their lead. In this way, we can demonstrate genuine empathy.

The grieving often find that the hardest part comes after an initial period in which they seem to run on automatic, experience life as surreal, and are surrounded by people. However, once the shock recedes and others go back to their routines, the bereaved are thrust back into their lives — but nothing is the same.  They are left grieving in a world which functions as it always has and are left alone to mourn, a solitary process that often ends in deep feelings of isolation from what has irrevocably changed.

Sometimes grief develops into what is called “complicated grief”.  Complicated grief is associated with self-destructive tendencies and an inability to process grief.  It can be very difficult to identify complicated grief because the process of grieving is different for all of us.  How do we etablish when grief limits our sense of well-being and our ability to function? When can unhealthy grief be distinguished from a healthy grieving process? Even health care professionals who may have experience working with bereavement have trouble answering these questions.

Typically the first year of bereavement is the most difficult.  As one adjust to the loss of the loved one, an incessant array of holidays, seasons and anniversaries present themselves and can trigger anew the magnitude of the loss.  One never goes back to life with the loved one, but, instead, must establish a new “normal”. This adjustment often brings up intense emotions of resistance, anger, isolation, depression, and denial.  These emotions are appropriate as one moves through the pain of loss and must never be judged.  It is only when the grieving becomes “complicated” and self-destructive that we need to address it.  However, complicated grief is difficult to assess and must be approached with great care.

As I have worked with those who mourn, I’ve become aware that it can be very helpful for them to be around those who have similar experiences.  Bereavement and support groups can provide such support.  At times, however, there is great resistance to this support since the grieving often feel that their experience is worse than that of others and is singular in a way that others are incapable of understanding.  Often this resistance is so profound that it leaves the bereaved even more isolated.  I have seen, though, that while those grieving may exhibit resistance to those with similar experiences, they end up finding this support helpful, meaningful, and therapeutic.

While the first year of mourning is the most difficult, later in life certain triggers may remind one of the pain with almost overwhelming intensity.  Grief never really ends — one merely adapts to life anew.  The pain of grief recedes until it presents itself, at times out of nowhere, for a short period of time.  It is important to respect the adaptability and the periodic pain that memory triggers.

Death and bereavement are part of life. We need to experience them with all our feelings and let those in pain know that we support them without judgement.