I believe in the power of grievers helping grievers; this probably goes without saying, being that I am the co-founder of this here grief blog. Yes, I rely on my education in counseling psychology pretty heavily, but I find my personal experiences with grief to be almost as helpful.
I am not unique, in fact, many professional grief counselors have ‘griever’ on their resume. It is also not uncommon for non- mental health professionals to find themselves in positions where they are called to support others in their grief.
A few situations where you might find yourself supporting other grievers include: helping friends and family who are grieving, in-person support groups or workshops, online blogs and support groups, and volunteer scenarios.
You can’t help it…when you encounter someone who has experienced loss, you feel for them. You’ve been there and you know how hard it is. Sometimes you’re sought out by the griever because they know you’re card-carrying members of the grief club, and sometimes your empathy motivates us to help; either way, there are a few things grievers supporting grievers ought to keep in mind.
First and foremost, know your limitations:
Too often people throw themselves into helping others and they forget to take care of themselves, their own needs, and the needs of those closest to them (i.e. their family). Here are some important considerations…
Boundaries: Think about the boundaries appropriate for your particular situation. You may not be able to predict when or if inappropriate boundaries will become a problem, but here are a few questions you should ask yourself…
- Do I have a hard time saying no?
- Have I let others violate my boundaries in the past or have I had a hard time setting appropriate boundaries?
- In this particular situation, are there things I’m being called upon (or may be called upon) to do which make me uncomfortable?
- Is it appropriate for me to be as involved as I am?
If you answer to any of these questions is ‘yes’, you might want to work on building better boundaries. Here is a helpful article about building and preserving boundaries.
Reliving the experiences of grief: I could have titled this section many other things – vicarious trauma, projection, transference – so on and so forth. The basic gist is that by getting close to someone else’s grief, especially acute grief, you may find yourself re-experiencing, reflecting, and rehashing many of your own grief experiences.
Be prepared: new and old grief feelings may arise like anger, guilt, regret, sadness, frustration. I don’t mean to suggest you should avoid these experiences, but I do recommend you consider the possibility that emotions will bubble to the surface.
Recognize your limitations: After experiencing the death of a loved one, some people may experience things like anxiety, depression, PTSD, etc. When this is the case, only mental health professionals should diagnose and provide treatment.
Things to remember when supporting a griever:
No two losses are the same: The grief experience is as individual as the relationship between the griever and their deceased loved one. This being the case, we can never truly “know how they feel”. Here’s a post on the uselessness of comparing grief.
That being said, you might relate to certain elements of the other person’s grief. When this happens, be careful that you don’t drone on about yourself. You run the risk of reversing roles and forcing the ‘supported’ to become the ‘supporter’. Instead, draw on the wisdom you gained from your experience allow this to guide you.
The things that are comforting to you may not resonate with everyone: Just as every loss is different, so is every griever. We all have different strengths, weaknesses, coping mechanisms, and belief systems. I like to photograph my mother’s headstone and everyone else seems to think it’s totally weird. There are very few people I would suggest take photos of their loved ones headstone.
Take what you know about the person into account and decide whether your suggestion is appropriate for them. If you do offer suggestions, do it gently with the knowledge they may disagree.
You may offer our advice and support and they may choose not to take it: Understand and accept that your desire to help will not always be compatible with someone else’s desire to be helped.
Some people are not interested in talking.
Some people prefer to be alone.
Some people are unwilling to accept help.
Some people ask for advice with no intention of acting on it.
The best gifts you have to offer:
Your ear: Having someone who will simply listen is often exactly what a griever needs. You may feel like you need to have answers, but often just having the opportunity to talk things out can help someone organize their thoughts and feelings. Besides, the answers they find on their own are far more valuable than any given to them.
Your desire to understand: Believe it or not, we don’t always listen with the intent to understand. However, being understood may be exactly what a griever needs, especially when they are feeling misunderstood by others in their life.
In my opinion, seeking to understand someone is one of the best way to show them you care. Simply restating what you think they’re saying shows you are present and engaged, lets them know that you aren’t making assumptions, and can even help them to better understand themselves.
Your ever enduring presence: You’ve experienced grief so you know it’s a chronic ache, not a brief pain. You know grievers will still be hurting months, even years after a death. You also probably know that the casseroles and messages of concern stop rolling in after a few weeks.
For this reason, the check-in’s that happen after they have essentially been left alone will send the message that you understand their pain is enduring, and reminds them you will be there for them in the long-term. Make it casual, send a card or an e-mail, that way they can choose not to respond if they don’t feel like talking. Don’t take it to heart if you don’t get a response and follow their cues. If they don’t engage with you it’s probably wise to give them a little space.
Non-judgment: You may have experienced it yourself, after a certain period of time people start expressing opinions on how they think you’re coping – it’s taking too long, you’re trying to hard, you’re not doing enough, you don’t seem to care.
Remember, we all cope differently. Try to avoid passing judgement about whether someone is coping in a good or bad way, unless their coping mechanisms are potentially harmful to themselves or others (ie – excessive drinking, suicidal thoughts)
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