Anyone who has lived for any length of time has experienced loss and grief. It’s an inevitable part of life. Having friends and family comfort us and help us through those times is critical. But, what happens when it isn’t clear to us what the person needs, what is appropriate, or we’re uncomfortable with the situation?
Types of Grief
We often think of loss as the death of a loved one, but there are actually many types of loss in life, some of which may cause trauma. After a distressing event that is an expected part of life, people experience what mental health professionals call “conventional grief,” with which we’re all familiar. Yet there are many types of grief that come from other traumatic events.
For example, when a loved one is diagnosed with dementia, many people experience “anticipatory grief” from the trauma of anticipating either the physical death of their loved one or the mental and emotional disconnect. On the other hand, when a person goes missing, their friends and family may experience what professionals call “ambiguous grief” while they lack closure.
What about the loss of a desperately needed job? Divorce? The dissolution of a friendship? A miscarriage? Dealing with a son or daughter with substance abuse? The diagnosis of a loved one with a terminal illness?
Whenever trauma occurs, grief and loss are common experiences. In the event of certain types of loss that most people experience, for example, the death of a parent or beloved pet, our society has rituals that we all fall back on — such as helping to cook for the grieving family, sending written condolences or running carpool for a grieving mother. But what about the traumatic, unconventional losses that are not expected? For example, death by suicide, a work accident, accidental drug overdose or a drunk driver who dies. Not only do we not expect these losses, but there might be stigma associated with the cause of death.
Many of us know someone who has experienced a traumatic loss and have wished for a blueprint for how to support them, especially when we haven’t been through anything like it ourselves. Unfortunately, this sometimes leads to the loss not being acknowledged or addressed, which can be devastating to the person experiencing it.
Ways to Support a Grieving Friend or Family Member
So what can you do when someone you love is experiencing a loss you don’t understand? Fortunately, there are a few simple things you can consider:
- Let them grieve.
Often, when a person doesn’t fully understand his or her own grief, they can feel guilty for the effects of it, whether that’s failing to do routine tasks, not staying in touch with friends, or falling behind at work. They may not understand the unconventional loss and their expectations may be unreasonable and unfair. In that case, one of the most important things you can do to help that friend or loved one is to accept the grief without making them justify it and normalize the experience. Sometimes, the simple experience of being accompanied while in pain can make a difference. By not expecting them to recover in any specific time frame, not expecting them to reassure you that they will be alright, and by checking in regularly without demands, you will convey understanding and support.
- Show you care.
Simply acknowledging the pain of the loss your loved one is going through can help him or her feel more comfortable accepting this stage of their life — instead of trying to ignore the grief or avoid the pain. This is important because the rest of society may not recognize the unconventional loss. For example, they may not get time off from work and thus feel rushed to “get over it.” By acknowledging their pain and showing you care through “conventional comfort rituals,” you will encourage them to face and heal from the trauma.
- Do not attempt to “fix” the situation.
This could make your loved one feel alienated or misunderstood. Instead, the best approach is to lend a listening ear, allowing but not expecting him or her to talk about the way they feel. Continue to be helpful through providing meals, babysitting the kids, or completing any other mundane but necessary tasks to help with the ongoing responsibilities until the person begins to resume these activities on their own.
- Don’t expect your loved one to grieve just like everyone else.
Everyone grieves differently. It is a process that’s as unique and as unpredictable as people. That is perfectly fine. Some common symptoms include increased sensitivity; decreased tolerance; intense emotions, which sometimes seem to come from nowhere; changes in socialization or increased desires to isolate; cognitive changes, especially in regards to concentration, tracking information and short-term memory; changes in typical habits, including eating and sleeping, as well as numbness or feeling like he or she is in a fog. Your loved one could experience some, all, or none of these. Accept that and support them no matter what. Otherwise, they may feel even more distressed if they feel they aren’t meeting some kind of “standard” for grief processing at any given point; they may not feel accepted.
- Give them control.
Since everyone’s grief process will be different, make sure to take cues from your loved one. A common tactic people fall back on when someone close to them experiences an unconventional loss is to try distraction — accompanying them on outings or providing fun activities. While this may work for your loved one, it’s critical that you not push them into it, as this may lead to grief denial. Let your friend or family member set the pace and decide when to talk about the loss and when to avoid it.
Allowing a person to talk out or vent about their anger, sadness, and resentment is the healthiest way to provide emotional support in these instances. It should be the foundation of your response to a friend or family member who is experiencing a traumatic loss. However, if the grief doesn’t subside naturally, or leads to self-destructive behaviors, it is always best to encourage your loved one to seek out professional help.
- Give them time.
Not all instances of grief are created equally. Depending on the events at hand, some types of emotional distress may take more time and intervention than others. And with traumatic grief, it’s common that the trauma overshadows the grief at first, ultimately extending the grieving period and prolonging the recovery process. There is no “normal” time period. Don’t try to rush your loved one.
Where to Go for Help with Traumatic Grief
When in doubt, the best way to handle grief (whether it’s you or someone you love going through the process) is to reach out for help when it becomes too overwhelming or uncomfortable to navigate on one’s own. Trained professionals in the field are equipped with the knowledge and tools required to help a person manage the physical and psychological symptoms associated with traumatic life events and unconventional loss.
Here at St. Louis Center for Family Development, we offer trauma-informed, evidence-based tools to help those dealing with trauma, loss and grief. We can help people reduce problematic symptoms, develop a sense of control over the trauma memory, and progress on the way to recovery.
Contact the STLCFD office to schedule a consultation.