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Grief and Communication

When a loved one dies, I think we often wonder what to say to them. As professionals I think we also wonder sometimes. Many thoughts may enter our minds: Will I say something that might be misunderstood by my friend or client? Will I accidentally shut down their feelings by something I did or didn’t say? Should I say something positive or will it be misunderstood? Should I mention faith or religious beliefs? I believe it is important to be sensitive to a griever’s feelings, culture, history, faith beliefs, and where they are emotionally in that moment. Common phrases such as “At least they are in a better place.” Or “Be strong, your loved one (fill in the blank) wouldn’t want you to cry”, or …… can inadvertently send the message that the griever’s feelings are inappropriate or selfish. This may cause the bereaved to feel guilty and/or not want to talk with you anymore.

I believe that the most important thing we can do for our friends or clients is be present…physically, emotionally, and spiritually if appropriate. More than anything I believe in the quote by Maya Angelou, “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Clients and friends may not remember the meal you provided or a card that was sent but they will never forget how you made them feel. Yes, it is important to have a good understanding of the grieving process, various grief theories, or other grief resources that you feel would be appropriate that may help your client cope. I ask that you please always keep in mind that the grieving process is a normal, common response to death or other types of losses.

It is also quite common for the grieving process to trigger other issues including latent, diagnosed or undiagnosed mental illness, past memories of abuse, abandonment, substance abuse, or other issues where therapy would be an appropriate avenue of support. In these cases, please either provide appropriate therapeutic support or refer them to a qualified therapist. Please keep in mind that while these events and situations may arise from the response to loss they are separate from the normal grieving process. These situations can potentially lead to complicated grief.

Many people feel that there is timeline of when “grief is supposed to be over”. Unfortunately, this is misinformation that has caused much sadness, anxiety, and/or confusion. Grief takes as long as it takes. Granted there are things to look for during the grieving or healing process. For example, is the griever able to manage their own activities of daily living (ADLs), go to work, interact with friends, family, or their faith community? If not, that could be a sign that the bereaved is struggling with the loss in detrimental ways. If you feel there is a potential issue for self-neglect or complicated grief please refer the bereaved to a qualified therapist or grief counselor. Please take into consideration what is happening in our world right now. Many people are grieving alone, in isolation, without their regularly available support system. This is another form of loss on top of the loss they are experiencing. Please encourage clients or friends to utilize zoom, face time, skype, or some other form of communication to meet their needs.

What I believe is the crux of the grieving process is answering the question “Who am I now?” What is my relationship with the deceased now, how do I move forward from here, or what do I believe about life, death, living now? Grief is a process not a one-time event. I do not believe we “get over” grief rather we learn how to integrate our world from before our loved one died with our new word. We “get over the flu” not grief. For example, I like to use the metaphor of a “griefprint”. Each of us has our own fingerprint and each of us has our own “griefprint” – how we grieve. It is will be as unique as we are. Yes there are similarities in the grieving process which is how we can relate to one another but there are also differences and I believe that is very appropriate. It’s what makes us unique individuals. To work with the bereaved or a friend I believe It takes compassion, sensitivity, a willingness to truly listen – listen to what is and is not being said. It sometimes is in the subtle comments, body language, words chosen.

Spiritually speaking, ask your friend or client what spirituality and grief means to them? Maybe they have specific feelings or ideas based on their faith beliefs? Maybe they identify more with spirituality than religion and are more open ended in their beliefs. Sometimes the grieving process ignites something within the griever and they either go on a spiritual journey in search of what they now believe or they decide to walk away from any faith or spiritual beliefs – and sometimes they do both almost like an old-fashioned tug of war. It’s all part of the healing journey. Please be encouraging rather than judgmental and allow the griever the space to decide for themselves what it is they now believe. It might feel a bit like the Goldilocks and the 3 Bears myth – we have to “try on” different beliefs, thought processes, etc to see what feels right. That is absolutely ok. Like I said, there is no timeline - this is not a race. It is a journey that unfolds as uniquely as we are individuals.

I wish you well in your work with the bereaved or in your personal friendships with loved ones experiencing the death of a loved one. Making a difference is a gift we give ourselves as well as one another. Allow the healing journey to unfold organically with love, compassion, and grace.


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