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Coping with grief: strategies to support yourself & others

6 minute read

Loss affects everyone differently but there are tried-and-tested ways to make the grieving process more manageable. Vhi Health Coach, Martina Breen draws on her experience as a psychotherapist and spiritual director dealing with bereavement to offer you guidance, whether coping with grief yourself or offering support to someone else.

Emotionally-loaded words like ‘grief’ and ‘loss’ can be frightening. They seem to have such big meanings, you think, ‘let’s not touch them’. It’s understandable that we avoid them; it takes vulnerability and surrender to go through the grieving process. However, the truth is that it’s a big part of the human experience. It’s like going across a river: when you choose to swim, rather than sink, you’ll get to the other side and find something new. Embrace it and you’ll find yourself coming through it feeling more alive.

Getting to that place is easier said than done, of course. Personally, I remember when my mother died 20 years ago. It was after a long illness, but nothing quite prepares you when somebody dies. When grief hits, you’re faced with a lot of conflicting emotions and it’s totally individual and personal. You might feel hijacked by unexpected sadness. Suffer from fatigue and body aches. To the extent that, if a client was telling me about their back pain, I might say: “if your back could speak, what would it say?” That can give them permission to feel the grief.

Knowing these common manifestations can help you get to grips with your own grief or support someone else. From there, we’ll take a look at practical advice on the journey.

Are there really 5 stages of grief?

Well, the 5 stages of grief were a real breakthrough by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in the mid-1960s. By looking at the emotional journey after death and loss, there was a common thread that people went through. But over the years, people started to focus on what stage you were in. That’s limiting because it’s not a linear process.

Denial is the easiest way for us to cope at first: it didn’t really happen. You’re nearly expecting the person to walk in the door. It’s not a conscious activity, it’s a survival strategy.

Then there will be anger that the person has left and a bargaining mindset: if I had done a certain thing differently, it mightn’t have happened. We keep thinking of the what-ifs. Bargaining acts as a barrier to acceptance. The emptiness when you feel the absence can then send you into the depths of despair. There is no set order or timeline to acceptance.

Indeed, David Kessler, a student of Kübler-Ross, added an extra stage called ‘meaning’. He found that we never truly accept anything in life unless we can make meaning out of it. So, the psyche has to go and explore these corners and, only then, is there the hope of coming out of it. It isn’t about spending a week in each stage. Acceptance can take years. Grief needs time. You can’t rush your grieving.

Techniques to ease the process

Journaling: All you have to do is put pen to paper for 10 minutes and “brain drain” onto the page. It’s a discipline so get into the habit of doing it first thing in the morning. If you go in planning to write about somebody or specific feelings, you can get stuck. Instead, literally write stream-of-consciousness: I had a horrible night’s sleep, this is stupid, I’ve nothing to say, I’ve to do the shopping today…

In the middle of all that, you might find yourself reliving a dream or talking about the ache in your heart; real effortless insights.

Mindfulness: Meditation and other guided practices also free up your mind, allowing it to work through things in a similarly subconscious way. Breathing exercises are key, too, because we stop breathing when we’re upset or stressed.

Self-care: The ground has started to move beneath us. So what you’re looking for is for something to make you feel safe. If that’s your favourite music, a cup of hot chocolate, a walk in the woods… do something where you feel the ground.

Exercising is shown to be really useful for processing emotions that we’re unaware we’re holding. Biodynamic psychotherapy says pain can be trapped emotion, travelling through the fluids in the body. So, if you go for a run, it gets the ‘peristalsis’ working to literally help you digest the emotion!

Talk to someone: Reaching out is a different dynamic to journaling. With a conversation, there’s something mirrored back. If I’m sharing, my vulnerability or pain is met when somebody listens to it. That’s healing: just for someone to meet us where we’re at without wanting to change it or tell us what to do.

Emotions demand to be expressed and witnessed. However, it can be difficult to unburden yourself. Luckily, there are experts on hand that are ready and willing to chat. In terms of people around you, let them know that just showing up is enough. You’ll likely be thinking that you don’t want to be “fixed”, you just want someone to hear you.

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How do you support others?

Don’t make demands of the person or tell them what they should be doing. Meet that person where they’re at and tell them that all they’re feeling is normal. Allow them to go through it because, again, having the permission to grieve is huge. For that first year, just support and hold them. There’s nothing to get “proactive” about because it’s too raw.

For people you don’t have an intimate connection with, like colleagues or neighbours, it can be tough knowing how to broach the subject. Regardless, it’s really important to acknowledge the loss. A lot of people won’t want to say anything in case it upsets the bereaved, but the grieving person might be wondering why it wasn’t acknowledged.

Simply say: “I am really sorry for your loss.” If it’s appropriate, ask them how they are feeling. You can also tell them you’re there if they’d ever like to talk. It’s opening the door. You’re letting them know: I see you, I hear you. I’m acknowledging that you’ve gone through something big. I’m not pushing or asking anything of you. Then you can take your cues from them.

There are some things to avoid saying, of course, you should never tell them that they will “get over it eventually.”

Approaching the topic with children

People say you don’t talk to children about death, but children are more open to talking about their feelings than us armoured adults. They can also understand what’s going on, so don’t just say that the person has simply “gone away”. That’s very confusing for a child. Instead, ask them what they think has happened. If they’re asking the question, it’s not coming from an “I don’t know” place, it’s coming from a thought they have in their head already. Hear from them and enter a dialogue. From there, you can answer age appropriately.

The importance of coming together

There is a power in ritual; it’s as age-old as human beings are. Be it a blessing, a family meal… Sharing stories about the person can be really supportive in the grieving process. And it’s never too late.

Grief is like an ocean, it comes in waves, ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, sometimes it’s overwhelming. All we can do is learn how to swim.

This content is for information purposes only and is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek advice from your GP or an appropriate medical professional if you have concerns about your health, or before commencing a new healthcare regime. If you believe that you are experiencing a medical emergency call 999 / 112 or seek emergency assistance immediately. For immediate support from trained volunteers, you can speak to Samaritans Ireland at any time, free-of-charge. Call their 24-hour helpline on 116 123 or click here for more information.

Meet our Vhi Verified Expert

Martina Breen

Vhi Health Coach

M.A. MIAHIP SIAHIP MICP MNSHC

Psychotherapist, Supervisor & Spiritual Director