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How do you help someone grieve?

Below is a handy list of what to do when grief next visits. Remember grief comes in many forms (not just the loss of a loved one) and each event will bring its own level of grief. People experiencing the same event will also have different levels of grief.

  1. Think of grief as a bowl of water. Each time you experience loss you add to the level of water in the bowl.

  2. Sometimes the loss will be minimal (e.g. the end of a good holiday) but sometimes the loss will fill your bowl to overflow (loss of loved one). This is when you need to express your sadness. Sometimes it will be a lot of ‘little losses’ that pushes you to this point.

  3. What may be a minimal loss to you may be major to someone else.

  4. Grief is a normal and natural process. The healthy response requires you to empty the bowel (i.e. express your sadness) over time.

  5. There are two kinds of expressing sadness which I call the 50-50 rule. 50% by yourself (e.g. when no one is around, in the shower, in the car, watching a sad movie by yourself) and 50% with others.

  6. Sharing your grief. Australians suck at the second 50%. We think it’s ‘weak’, shows a ‘lack of character’ and is a ‘burden to others’.

  7. If you don’t share your grief (seek the support of others) then you are likely to get ‘stuck’ in grief. That is you ‘bottle up’ your sadness up and surprise surprise, everywhere you go, no matter what you do, you feel sad (and wonder why!). Carrying a lot of sadness is exhausting. Pretending to be ‘fine’ is tiring.

  8. Failing to express you grief with others is the road to depression.

  9. Failing to express your grief with others can be the road to addiction if you resort to alcohol, drugs, sex or any other distraction to numb your sadness.

  10. Often it’s our loved ones who tell us ‘there, there’ chin up’ sort of advice. They don’t want to see us hurt which makes perfect sense but they are effectively asking us to put the lid back on the bottle. This is not healthy.

  11. Politely remind friends and loved ones that grief is normal and healthy process. Grief requires expressing this sadness (yes men even you!). Don’t pay attention to those who tell you ‘build a bridge’, ‘get over it’ or ‘harden up’.

  12. Your grief will run to its own schedule and will stop when you have done the 50-50 rule enough.

With grief, how long is normal?

How long is a piece of string? There are no definitive answers but I have learnt from clients over the years a rough guide as to what to expect.

With a significant grief (e.g. loss of a loved one, loss of career, loss of identity)

  1. Expect daily tears for the first three months (this is often difficult with work commitments etc but remind yourself this is healthy if somewhat awkward).

  2. Less crying in the 3 - 6 month period. You will notice a gradual slowing down of the tears and a return to focusing on the important aspects of your daily life.

  3. Then intermittent crying up till the first anniversary. You will find you haven’t thought of the person for awhile, and then all of a sudden, you see or hear something in the middle of the grocery store and ‘wham!’ you feel the full force of your grief return.

  4. Expect more tears approaching first anniversary and on the anniversary itself. It’s only natural that the approach and day of the first anniversary will reignite the tears. Remember grief is a normal and healthy process. At this first anniversary, you might notice however that the loss now is also a reminder of the good times, fun times. Try and use the first anniversary as a celebration of life.

Express your sadness

As unpleasant as grief can be it also brings a great gift. In sharing our grief with others we not only receive support but we learn to find a safe haven for ourselves. So many of my clients have believed that to show their grief is a burden. They’ve put on the ‘brave face’ but this is really pretence and pretending is isolating and exhausting.

Remember Australians suck at grief. You may have inherited this belief that crying is weak, silly or a sign of mental illness. Research tells us that those who cope better (are more resilient) are those who do the 50-50 rule and take their time to express their sadness. We have learnt this from people in war zones through to people experiencing loss due to fire and floods.

Spend time with your grief. Take care of yourself and please let others help you take care of you.

Clive Williams PhD

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