Trigger warning: This article discusses depression and suicide. If you need support please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 46 36.
Grief is the way we respond to loss, particularly the death of a loved one. While expert analysis dating back to the 1950s pigeonholed the process into 5 stages, there is no conventional structure to the way people grieve. Everyone goes through the process differently. Some of the emotions which can come up throughout a period of mourning include shock, denial, depression, anger and acceptance.
There are many ways you can support someone who is mourning the loss of a loved one. Like grief, support can take many shapes and forms including organising face-to-face catch ups, offering help with funeral arrangements or household chores or simply sitting and listening
1. Try to understand the process
Grief can present in many different ways and it’s important not to judge someone for acting in a certain way or give them advice about how they should be responding. After all, there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way of coping with loss. Dan Auerbach, Director of Associated Counsellors and Psychologists Sydney told Safewill one of the best ways of supporting someone is by being a good listener.
“Open yourself up to the person’s experience, try to listen from their point of view, try to listen without judgement and try not to give advice,'' he said. “Bear in mind a lot of people are going to be in a state of shock, distress or potentially anger. There’s lots of different feelings that are going to come out.
2. Be present
For someone who is grieving the first few days can be some of the most difficult as they struggle to comprehend what has happened. During this time it can make a big difference to have someone checking in regularly so they feel loved and supported.
“It’s sometimes an uncomfortable and unusual experience to have to be near such strong emotions, but the ability to be with and bear witness to the grieving person is a real gift. Being able to stay near someone when they are distressed might feel like we are not offering much help, but it’s enormously helpful.” Mr Auerbach said.
“Stay present, stay close, and understand that while it might be uncomfortable for you, the grieving person is often enormously supported by a calm and caring presence.
3. Offer practical support
Someone who is mourning may be having a hard time keeping up to date with their chores and other responsibilities. Lending a helping hand to reduce someone’s workload can be a helpful way to support someone during grief.
It could be as simple as helping with household chores, picking up or dropping off kids to school, providing cooked meals, walking the dog etc. Helping with administrative tasks like burial or funeral arrangements can also take a huge weight off their shoulders.
4. Watch out for unhealthy behaviours
While it can be destructive to give someone advice during the grieving process, there may reach a point where support from family and friends is not enough. While there is no fixed time frame for how long someone should experience grief, if their symptoms aren’t getting better over time it may warrant calling in a professional.
Some of the warning signs which could signal the need for professional support include:
Failing to show up to work or school;
Neglecting personal hygiene;
The inability to enjoy life;
Drug or alcohol abuse;
Depression or self harm; and
Talking about dying or suicide
While there is no rulebook for how to communicate with someone who is grieving there are certain things you can say which could do more harm than good. This is part of the reason it can be more useful to focus your energy on listening, rather than feeling like you have to say something to try and make someone feel better.
Try to steer clear of statements starting with ‘you should’ or ‘you will’. This is effectively giving someone unsolicited advice and could cause them to lash out or cut off contact with yourself or their support network. It can also be unhelpful to tell people their grief “is not going to last forever” or “it will get better”. This can diminish the way they are feeling and cause someone to shut down and close down lines of communication.
Psychotherapist Dan Auerbach said people may instinctively shy away from talking about the deceased but that is not always the best strategy.
“Do not avoid mentioning the name of the person they have lost, do not avoid speaking about that person,” he said.
“Invite conversation and invite memories.
If the person does not want to talk about it then respect those wishes. On the other hand, you don't want to put them in a situation where the topic becomes taboo.”
There is no set time frame for how long someone will experience grief. It may last weeks, months or even years. For some people it might seem they have processed it quickly but it may show back up at any moment. Sights, sounds, or smells can trigger someone to think about their loved one and plunge them right back into mourning. Those triggers could be something simple as hearing a song on a radio, finding a possession belonging to the deceased or catching a waft of perfume or cologne they used to wear.
If you are at a point where you think you or your loved ones may benefit from professional support there is a wealth of free and paid resources available. The federal government operates a scheme where you can receive 20 fully, or partially subsidised sessions with a psychologist or counsellor each year. To access this support you will need to contact your GP and book an appointment to complete a Mental Health Treatment Plan. Before booking your appointment you should research psychologists to find someone who may be a good fit for you.
The GP will give you a questionnaire to determine if you are eligible and if you are experiencing a high level of anxiety or depression they can refer you to your psychologist of choice. The GP can also prescribe pharmaceutical options to help you manage your symptoms.
The following not-for-profit organisations also offer free support for people who are struggling.
Griefline on 1300 845 745
Lifeline on 13 11 14
Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800
MensLine Australia on 1300 789 978
Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467
Beyond Blue on 1300 22 46 36
Headspace on 1800 650 890
QLife on 1800 184 527
The Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement also offers counselling and support free of charge to all Victorians. The centre itself is not a crisis service like those listed above but operates as a support network to assist people to find the resources they need to support them through the grieving process.
This guide to grief support wouldn’t be possible without the advice of Psychotherapist Dan Auerbach. He is the Founder and Co-Director of Associated Counsellors & Psychologists which offers specialised grief and bereavement counselling. Dan has extensive experience working in mental health having worked as a psychotherapist for almost two decades.