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Grief: How Should an Optimist Comfort and Support the Grieving?

By Trish Vejby, Christy Roberts and Victor Perton

How does an optimist comfort the grieving?

In this article, we look at how the realistic optimist can best comfort and support someone grieving. In our lives, grief is inevitable and comforting the grieving is one of those very human skills that's important to learn and hone.

Grief in its purest form is an expression of love. Grief is the natural emotional response to the loss of someone or something we love. The loss of something we care about and love.

Grief in response to death has many faces: The death of a parent, the death of a lifelong partner or the loss of a child. Death hits most people hard because there is a finality in that we will never physically see that person again. For most people, the death of a pet will elicit feelings of grief too.

Grief can be caused by separation, divorce, the break-up of a long term relationship, severe illness, the loss of a job, the destruction of a home or cherished possessions in a fire or other disasters.


Read More: Grief and Optimism by Christy Roberts


In life, the realistic optimist knows tragic things can and do happen.

As Psychiatrist Steven Moffic (Member of the Centre) wrote, “grieving for what is lost is normal and necessary. Indeed, it can be the first vital step in recovery. Mourning can open our hearts and minds once again to realistic optimism for the future. Without mourning, we run the risk of getting disillusioned and stuck in the past.”

The key here is recognising that how we respond to events is often the difference between a positive or a negative outcome. We can’t change the fact that someone has died, but we have choices about how we respond, of how we can support someone we care for in moving forward after tragedy. 

Importantly, the only person we can change is ourselves, so this article is aimed to provide some guidance to the optimistic and caring person who would like to support someone they care about in their time of grief.

This isn’t about finding the silver linings, being positive and avoiding grief. This is embracing the pain of loss and learning healthy and resourceful ways to express grief. 

What’s Really Important?

Your key role is simply to provide comfort, to be there for them. 

You can’t solve someone’s grief, it can’t be ‘fixed’ because they are not ‘broken’. They are grieving. And indeed, it’s hard to predict how your friend’s grief will evolve because we are all unique, as are the circumstances causing the grief. 

It’s essential to recognise that whilst pain is inevitable; suffering is optional. This is an important distinction. In grief there will be pain, however notice and be aware of the additional stories our mind makes up, adding in layers of guilt, shame and suffering. Why? Because we like to make sense of things and create more certainty and control in our life.

If the grieving person is emotional and crying, try not to allow your personal discomfort to show.  Be ready to sit in silence. Allow time for them to gain composure, then continue with appropriate conversation, being sensitive to the person’s emotions. Don’t attempt to stop them demonstrating their grief.

While we worry about what to say to a grieving person, often it’s more important to listen and just be there.  

Keep your comments positive but not patronising.

In thinking about what to say, use empathy, rather than sympathy.  (For the difference, watch Brene Brown's short video "The Power of Empathy")

Do's

Pick up the phone and visit thee grieving, don’t rely on just texting and social media.  

Be curious about how they might be feeling.  A great place to start is to ask - ‘how are you feeling today’? The emotions of grief are like a roller coaster, up and down, and each day can be different.   Ask - "How are you really doing?"

Always remember that you can't take away their pain, but you can share it and help them feel less alone.

Let your genuine concern and care show.

Use the deceased’s name. Allow them to talk about the person that has died as much and as often as they want.

Talk about the special, endearing qualities of their deceased loved one.

Share stories, fond memories, things you loved about them – encourage laughter and tears.

Be available...to listen, to run errands, to drive, to cook meals, to help with the arrangements, or whatever else seems needed at the time.Say you are sorry for their loss and they are experiencing this pain.

Accept their emotions whatever they may be, you are not there to judge. Be sensitive to shifting emotions.

Encourage them to find healthy and resourceful ways to feel and express their emotions.

Reassure the main carer that they did everything they could, to the best of their ability and that the deceased received the best care that was possible.

Extend invitations to them. But understand if they decline or change their minds at the last minute. .

Notice limiting statements like: "I’ll never be happy again." "My life is destroyed." "I can’t live without him/her." "I’m heartbroken." Begin to notice and challenge these statements if they come up. Are they true? Are they kind? Serving them? Helping them grow? Nurturing them? If not, what can they be replaced with?

Read and learn more about the relevant disease (if applicable) and about the grief processes to help you understand what they’re going through.

Give special attention to the deceased's immediate family and children at the funeral and in the months to come (they too are hurt and confused and in need of attention which their parents may not be able to give).  At the time of the funeral, send a personal note or letter or make a contribution to a charity that is meaningful to the family.

Extended grief is normal.   If after several months, the person is not making any progress moving forward or they seem to be avoiding their grief or they are not managing their day-to-day tasks, perhaps it's time to suggest seeking professional help.   Ask them questions, check in and support them to seek professional guidance.  It’s important that whoever they work with understands and has expertise working with grief.

Look after yourself, so you can show up fully for them.

Above all continue to keep in touch, call and visit.

    Don’ts

    Don't be afraid to ask about the deceased and to share memories.

    Don't change the subject when they mention their deceased.

    Don't think that the age of the deceased determines its value and impact.

    Don't be afraid to touch, it can often be more comforting than words. However do ask for permission first.

    Don't avoid them because you feel helpless or uncomfortable, or don't know what to say. They need you now more than ever.

    Don’t change the subject if they are talking about how they feel or about their grief.

    Don't push them through the grieving process, it takes a long time to process grief and they never forget.

    Don't encourage the use of drugs or alcohol.

    Don't ask them how they feel if you aren't willing to listen.

    Don't say you know how they feel.

    Don't tell them what they should feel or do.

    Don't think that death puts a ban on laughter. There is much enjoyment in remembering the funny times and the laughter they had together.

    Don't try to find something positive in the deceased's death.  On the other hand, don't argue with the grieving if they make mention of an end to suffering.

    In most cases, avoid cliches:

    • "Be brave, don’t cry."
    • "It was God's will", “It’s part of God’s plan” or "it was a blessing."
    • "Get on with your life. This isn't the end of the world."
    • "God needed another flower in his garden."
    • “Heaven needed another angel”
    •  "At least he/she wasn't older (or younger)."
    • "You must be strong"
    • "You're doing so well."
    • "You're young, you'll get over it."
    • "Time will heal."

    Understand that everyone’s grief is different because everyone’s experience is different. The grief being experienced is not just the fact someone they love dearly is no longer here. There can also be the added elements of grieving for the life they were expecting to live. Of taking on roles and responsibilities that now need to be filled.

    Be realistically optimistic when your grieving friend or family member asks, “how can I live my life without….?”

    Acknowledge it’s hard, but it’s also worth it, they are worth it. Encourage them to consider ways that they could honor their loved one. A good reference is David Kessler’s book ‘Finding Meaning’. 

    Perhaps ask them to reflect on examples of people they know who are living well with their grief. This demonstrates it is totally possible, which an optimist outlook.

    When it comes to being optimistic in grief, a good compass point can be to consider what their loved one would want for them. Would they want them to be happy again, love again, enjoy their life? Use this as your compass – because I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t want them to be stuck in grief.

    Longer Term Support

    Over time, it's important to remain supportive.  Help the grieving when it comes to celebrating special events and occasions without their loved one.

    Be aware of the ongoing reminders - the anniversary of the death is an especially challenging time for many grievers.

    New Year can be challenging too.  There’s often a sense of leaving them behind.  Can the griever to consider ways that they can bring them with them into the New Year?

    Add significant dates on yearly repeat into your calendar: anniversary of death, birthdays, anniversaries, Mothers/Fathers Day, etc. Set reminders 2 weeks before and check in to see if they’d like to plan something.

    Ask how best they can fill their day with love. How they can set themselves up for success? What new rituals can they create? Like setting an extra place at the table, lighting a candle, telling stories, having a photo of them close by, planting a plant? Ask what will help you, what do you need, how can I best support you, and how can you include them?   Including and remembering the deceased is a beautiful act of kindness and support.

    Conclusion

    An empowering and optimistic way to honour a loved one’s memory is to recreate a wonderful life as tribute to the fact that the loved one is honoured, cherished and always remembered. That through their pain, they will once again reconnect with love.

    How can you best help the grieving to do that?


    References

    The Australian Government's Health Direct on Grief and loss https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/grief-loss

    Victorian Government's Better Health ChannelDealing with grief and loss https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/servicesandsupport/grief

    Beyond Blue on Grief and Loss - https://www.beyondblue.org.au/the-facts/grief-and-loss

    David Kessler's Grief.com

    Paul Denniston on Grief Yoga https://griefyoga.com/


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