“Empathy is a strange and powerful thing. There is no script. There is no right way or wrong way to do it. It’s simply listening, holding space, withholding judgement, emotionally connecting and communicating that incredibly healing message of ‘You’re not alone.’” Brene Brown
Bereavement and grief can be challenging in ‘normal’ times. However, the current pandemic has exacerbated this with an increased loss of life together with restrictions around how we are able to grieve due to the social distancing and lockdown measures in place.
Supporting someone who is grieving can feel uncomfortable and difficult for a number of reasons:
Emotions are contagious
When someone is feeling an emotion we experience a similar feeling in ourselves. Whilst this is largely unconscious, being a function of our mirror neurons, when we feel an emotion that is unpleasant such as anger, pain, sadness or depression, we tend to try to ‘get rid’ of the emotion by either suppressing it or fixing it. So when someone else is experiencing an unpleasant emotion we try to suppress or fix it by:
- Saying sentences that start with ‘at least’ for example ‘at least they had a good life’ or ‘at least you had a good relationship with them’
- Offering advice or suggestions such as ‘what would you like to do to make you happy?’ or ‘keep yourself busy to distract yourself’
- Offering a different perspective such as ‘keep smiling, it could be worse’ or ‘it’s good that they aren’t suffering any more’
Whilst these are well-intentioned with the aim of helping the other person, what this actually does is invalidate the emotion the person is feeling as well as not allowing them to interpret their feelings and come up with effective ways to process them. Furthermore, this can lead to a variety of unintended responses from the bereaved person such as disconnection, withdrawal or even anger as they may not feel listened to, understood or acknowledged.
Emotions can trigger memories from the past
This can be a challenge for the bereaved person but also for the person supporting that individual. Any past experiences of loss or bereavement can re-surface increasing the emotional response to the present bereavement.
Emotions can trigger a range of behaviours
Most people expect grief to show up in some form of low mood such as sadness or depression. However, there are several stages to grief with differing emotions and behaviours associated with each of the stages. Depending on the circumstances each person will respond in a different way and for a different length of time. For information the 7 stages of grief adapted from the work of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross is included in Appendix 1
Support those that are bereaved and grieving by developing empathy
Follow these key steps:
Step 1 Connect
- Connect with the person at an emotional level
- Allow yourself to experience what they are feeling if you can
Step 2 Accept without judgement
- Become an observer of the emotion and be curious
- Ask them to describe what has happened and what they are experiencing
- Listen without judgement and avoid the urge to describe your own story (allow them full attention to talk about themselves)
Step 3 Validate their emotions
- Acknowledge what they are feeling, this could be sadness, numbness, anger or any emotion – anything is possible
- Explore how they would like to be supported, for example, would they like to share their feelings with others
Step 4 Offer support
- Agree a means for ongoing connection, such as how you can be contacted and when or a regular check in time
- Provide any resources, information or contact details that you feel appropriate
Step 5 Take care of yourself
- Check in with your own emotions
- Share how you feel with others
- Ask for support if necessary
As the quote from Brene Brown indicates there is no defined process or script to follow. It’s more about being there, being kind and offering support through this difficult period.
APPENDIX 1 7 Stages Of Grief – Going Through the Process and Back to Life
(excerpt from Recover from Grief https://www.recover-from-grief.com)
It is important to interpret the stages loosely and expect much individual variation. There is no neat progression from one stage to the next. In reality, there is much looping back, or stages can hit at the same time, or occur out of order. So why bother with stage models at all? Because they are a good general guide of what to expect. Here are the 7 stages expressed for the person grieving:
- SHOCK & DENIAL – You will probably react to learning of the loss with numbed disbelief. You may deny the reality of the loss at some level, in order to avoid the pain. The shock provides emotional protection from being overwhelmed all at once. This may last for weeks.
- PAIN & GUILT – As the shock wears off, it is replaced with the suffering of unbelievable pain. Although excruciating and almost unbearable, it is important that you experience the pain fully, and not hide it, avoid it or escape from it. You may have guilty feelings or remorse over things you did or didn’t do with your loved one. Life feels chaotic and scary during this phase.
- ANGER & BARGAINING – Frustration gives way to anger, and you may lash out and lay unwarranted blame for the death on someone else. This is not a time for the release of bottled-up emotion. You may rail against fate, questioning “Why me?” You may also try to bargain in vain with the powers that be for a way out of your despair: “I will …if you just bring him back”
- “DEPRESSION”, REFLECTION, LONELINESS – Just when your friends may think you should be getting on with your life, a long period of sad reflection will likely overtake you. This is a normal stage of grief, so do not be “talked out of it” by well-meaning outsiders. Encouragement from others is not helpful to you during this stage of grieving. During this time, you finally realize the true magnitude of your loss, and it depresses you. You may isolate yourself on purpose, reflect on things you did with your lost one, and focus on memories of the past. You may sense feelings of emptiness or despair.
- THE UPWARD TURN – As you start to adjust to life without your dear one, your life becomes a little calmer and more organized. Your physical symptoms lessen, and your “depression” begins to lift slightly.
- RECONSTRUCTION & WORKING THROUGH – As you become more functional, your mind starts working again, and you will find yourself seeking realistic solutions to problems posed by life without your loved one. You will start to work on practical and financial problems and reconstructing yourself and your life without him or her.
- ACCEPTANCE & HOPE – During this, the last of the seven stages in this grief model, you learn to accept and deal with the reality of your situation. Acceptance does not necessarily mean instant happiness. Given the pain and turmoil you have experienced, you can never return to the carefree, untroubled YOU that existed before this tragedy. But you will find a way forward. You will start to look forward and actually plan things for the future. Eventually, you will be able to think about your lost loved one without pain. Sadness, yes! But the wrenching pain will be gone. You will once again anticipate good times to come & find joy again in the experience of living.