Help the Griever Begin
Processing grief is like walking through a long, dark tunnel with sharp turns, potholes, and a few forks leading to dead ends. This is the grief tunnel. The only compass is the griever’s emotions. Just as you trust a directional compass, the griever needs to trust their emotional compass. Successful navigation leads to renewal and peace. The only way to heal is through the grief tunnel. No detours or short cuts exist. The length of the journey is unique to each griever. No specific time frame exists. Because grieving demands extreme emotional energy, grieving is a full-time job. Help the griever move through their grief tunnel by the following:
Give the Griever Permission to Grieve
This sounds too obvious to state. However, sometimes our own issues surrounding death block our sensitive listening. We may unconsciously discourage the bereaved from expressing their grief. How? By presenting ‘mixed signals’, we verbally encourage the griever while simultaneously sending non-verbal signals of our own discomfort. Grief issues often feel overwhelming. Many of us are uncomfortable observing a griever’s strong and painful emotions.
Help the Griever Express not Repress
Repression is the emotional act of denying painful feelings. Repression provides temporary respite from feeling psychological pain. The psyche uses repression for self-preservation when painful feelings become overwhelming. Short-term repression may be beneficial. However, long-term repression becomes problematic when grievers consistently deny painful feelings. Repressors intellectualize grief rather than feel it. A typical repressor may sound like:
- “I’m just fine”
- “Life goes on”
- “We’re all going to die anyway”
- “Nothing I can do about it now”
- “No sense in crying”
You can help the griever move past their repression by inquiring what they “think” about something rather than how they “feel.” Sharing what they think will give you a glimpse to what they are feeling.
Cry, Cry, Cry
Crying helps. One of the most primitive behaviors we engage in is crying. When we are hurt emotionally, crying serves a biological purpose by literally cleansing our psyche. Neurologists now know crying actually changes brain chemistry. The substance, manganese, is 30 times more concentrated in our tears than in our blood. Crying helps purge manganese – restoring brain chemistry and promoting a feeling of well being.
Allow the “Broken Record”
For many grievers, dialogue aids in the process of moving from denial to acceptance. The griever may need to repetitiously verbalize their denial, disbelief, anger, or the events surrounding the death – like a broken record. Some grievers may conduct the broken record internally without verbalizing anything. Three things motivate our psyches’ need to engage in the mental gymnastics of the “broken record:”
- The need to make death “real”
- The need to “fill in the blank,” if details are missing
- The need to reach closure
According to grief therapist, Joan Brown, “When something really unexpected happens, the endorphins in our brain increase so the event is imbedded in our brain. There is a physiological reason for this imprinting.” They have suffered a horrific loss. Many grievers need to repeat, over and over again, details surrounding their loved one’s death or final moments. This is normal.
Know: Emotional Roulette is Normal
At some point, most grievers confide they feel like they are “going crazy”. Their emotions are all over the map. Sometimes grievers need some comic relief. So, they may laugh at inappropriate times. Not every griever engages in this behavior, but if your griever does – reassure them that the stress of grieving may elicit some seemingly strange responses. They may be hysterically laughing one moment and sobbing the next. They are not crazy; they are trying out different coping skills.
Allow and Respect All Feelings about God
Some grievers may feel angry with God. Others may believe whatever happens is part of a divine plan. Joan Brown says, “It is important to note that for some people the death of a [significant person] provides the opportunity to examine, re-examine, re-define beliefs that have in the past brought comfort. Although they [the griever] may never feel the same way again, in time one may experience a deeper spirituality.”