So this huge loss has taught me a lot of lessons about grief and how people respond to it (or how they should respond to it). I’m writing this from the perspective of someone who recently lost a close loved one suddenly to illness, but this can also apply to people who have recently experienced other traumatic losses and life changes as well.
Have realistic expectations.
The people most affected by the loss are going to be stressed and grieving even if you don’t personally see it outwardly. It may go on for a very long time, depending on the cause and extent of the grief. A few of the many potential symptoms of stress and grief are:
* Loss of appetite
* Sleep disruption
* Fatigue even after a full night’s sleep
* Mood swings that may be extreme at times
* Symptoms similar to depression
* Feeling overwhelmed by large groups of people or specific social situations
* Sensory overload, such as bright lights and loud noises causing distress
* Memory triggers that can result in waves of emotion at the drop of a hat
* Denial or avoidance of reality
* Shutting down emotions to protect themselves (this may come in waves)
* Virtually any emotion you can think of accelerated far above normal levels for that person
* Memory and focus problems that may affect work, school, conversations, social situations, and so on.
* Wanting to be alone (or the exact opposite)
* Orgasms may be difficult or impossible for some people
* Interest in sex may diminish, increase, or change drastically
* Risky or harmful behavior may occur
You may be able to recognize some of these symptoms outwardly, but others often hide very well. You may never see the full effects of their grief; they may look like they’re back to normal. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that someone who just suffered a traumatic loss is now fine just because they start doing many of the things they used to do. For many people their old routines and favorite activities feel safe even whether they’re actually enjoying them or not. Or those moments of enjoyment may be merely spacers between periods of depression and emotional chaos.
Other things to remember:
They’re probably very behind on responding to all the various types of messages they’ve received and they likely have many unusual demands on their attention, time, and energy. Don’t take it personally if it takes them a while to reply to your message or if they miss it in the chaos.
There are always some people who have no respect for their loss and the trauma it involves. They might be pushy, demanding, belittle or invalidate their suffering, blame the person for not handling things their way or in their time frame, or use the situation to push their opinions or religion onto the grieving person. And there are always people who are trying to tell them how they should grieve and who may even chide them for it. This causes even more stress.
There are often unexpected costs involved after someone’s death so they might be having financial difficulties. They might also be doing just fine so giving them money may not be necessary or desired. It’s often best to ask them what they actually need.
Their grief and stress symptoms may be causing difficulties at school, work, in social situations, etc.
Don’t tell people how to grieve.
We’re all different. Some of us need space, others need people there to comfort them. Some won’t show many signs of grief outwardly and it can be easy to erroneously assume that they’re back to their normal selves. Or maybe they haven’t been able to process the loss yet. It can take time for it to really sink in. Others may cry at the drop of a hat anywhere, anytime, with anyone. Others might not be able to eat or sleep, whether they cry outwardly or not. Some rely on prayer and religion for comfort, others don’t. There’s no right or wrong way to grieve. Offer advice and help if they’re open to it, but don’t imply that your way is the only way to effectively manage grief. It isn’t.
The Five Stages of Grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) are great information tools, but as the original author later clarified, it’s not a series of linear steps for people to try to follow. They’re simply common experiences that might occur for us at any time or in any order, or even several at once. While acceptance is the goal for many, acceptance doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re ok with the loss. It might mean that we’ve simply accepted that it happened and we have to live with it now. Pushing people through these stages because you think they ought to be in a different one is not helpful.
Let people grieve.
It’s normal. And it’s actually very important to go through the grieving process. It may sound weird to some, but experiencing all these awful things is better than holding it in or pretending it doesn’t exist. It’ll just cause more problems in the long run.
If their more extreme symptoms of grief and stress continue for long periods of time and start to cause health problems or other damaging results such as potential job loss, or if you have concerns about suicidal thoughts or self harm, then it’s ok to get worried and to step in. But until then, let them grieve and don’t make them feel like they’re abnormal for it.
Accept people are they are.
This is not the time to try to change people. Accept them as they are, not as you’d like them to be.
For others who have experienced a traumatic loss or have seen people they know go through it, are there things you’d add to this? And for those who have little or no experience with this, do you have questions about how to support people dealing with grief? Since everyone grieves so differently, it can sometimes be hard to know what to say or what to do. I’ve been on the other end too so I know that feeling.