Grief Support Guide
How to truly support yourself and others at a time of grief.
Grief & Healing
The death of a loved one is life’s most painful event. People’s reactions to death remain one of society’s least understood and most off-limits topics for discussion. Oftentimes, grievers are left totally alone in dealing with their pain, loneliness, and isolation. Grief is a natural emotion that follows death. It hurts. Sadness, denial, guilt, physical discomfort, and sleeplessness are some of the symptoms of grief. It is like an open wound which must become healed.
At times, it seems as if this healing will never happen. While some of life’s spontaneity begins to return, it never seems to get back to the way it was. It is still incomplete. We know, however, that these feelings of being incomplete can disappear. Healing is a process of allowing ourselves to feel, experience, and accept the pain. In other words, we give ourselves permission to heal. Allowing ourselves to accept these feelings is the beginning of that process.
The healing process can take much less time than we have been led to believe. There are two missing parts. One is a safe, loving, professionally guided atmosphere in which to express our feelings; the other is knowing how and what to communicate.
The Grieving Process
When we experience a major loss, grief is the normal and natural way our mind and body react. Everyone
grieves differently, and at the same time there are common patterns people tend to share.
For example, someone experiencing grief usually moves through a series of emotional stages, such as shock, numbness, guilt, anger, and denial. And physical responses are typical also. They can include: sleeplessness, inability to eat or concentrate, lack of energy, and lack of interest in activities previously enjoyed.
Time always plays an important role in the grieving process. As the days, weeks and months go by, the person who is experiencing loss moves through emotional and physical reactions that normally lead toward acceptance, healing and getting on with life as fully as possible.
Sometimes a person can become overwhelmed or bogged down in the grieving process. Serious losses are never easy to deal with, but someone who is having trouble beginning to actively re-engage in life after a few months should consider getting professional help.
For example, if continual depression or physical symptoms such as loss of appetite, inability to sleep, or chronic lack of energy persists, it is probably time to see a doctor.
Allow yourself to mourn
Someone you love has died. You are now faced with the difficult, but important need to mourn. Mourning is the open expression of your thoughts and feelings regarding the death and the person who has died. It is an essential part of healing. You are beginning a journey that is often frightening, painful, overwhelming and sometimes lonely. This guide provides practical suggestions to help you move toward healing in your personal grief experience.
Allow for numbness Feeling dazed or numb when someone loved dies is often part of your early grief experience. This numbness serves a valuable
purpose: it gives your emotions time to catch up with what your mind has told you. This feeling helps create insulation from the reality of the death until you are more able to tolerate what you don’t want to believe.
Realize your grief is unique
Your grief is unique. No one will grieve in exactly the same way. Your experience will be influenced by a variety of factors: the relationship you had with the person who died, the circumstances surrounding the death, your emotional support system and your cultural and religious background.
As a result of these factors, you will grieve in your own special way. Don’t try to compare your experience with that of other people or to adopt assumptions about just how long your grief should last. Consider taking a “one day at a time” approach that allows you to grieve at your own pace.
Make use of ritual
The funeral ritual does more than acknowledge the death of someone loved, it helps provide you with the support of caring people. Most importantly, the funeral is a way for you to express your grief outside yourself. If you eliminate this ritual, you often set yourself up to repress your feelings and you cheat everyone who cares for a chance to pay tribute to someone who was, and always will be, loved.
Talk about your grief
Express your grief openly. By sharing your grief outside yourself, healing occurs. Ignoring your grief won’t make it go away; talking about it often makes you feel better. Allow yourself to speak from your heart, not just your head. Doing so doesn’t mean you are losing control, or going “crazy”. It is a normal part of your grief journey. Find caring friends and relatives who will listen without judging. Seek out those persons who will “walk with, not in front of ”or “behind” you in your journey
through grief. Avoid people who are critical or who try to steal your grief from you. They may tell you, “keep your chin up” or “carry on” or “be
happy.” While these comments may be well-intended, you do not have to accept them. You have a right to express your grief; no one has the right to take it away.
Develop a support system
Reaching out to others and accepting support is often difficult, particularly when you hurt so much. But the most compassionate self-action you can take during this difficult time is to find a support system of caring friends and relatives who will provide the understanding you need. Find those people who encourage you to be yourself and acknowledge your feelings - both happy and sad.
Expect to feel a multitude of emotions
Experiencing a loss affects your head, heart and spirit. So you may experience a variety of emotions as part of your grief work. Confusion, disorganization, fear, guilt, relief or explosive emotions are just a few of the emotions you may feel.
Sometimes these emotions will follow each other within a short period of time. Or they may occur simultaneously. As strange as some of these emotions may seem, they are normal and healthy. Allow yourself to learn from these feelings. And don’t be surprised if out of nowhere you suddenly experience surges of grief, even at the most unexpected times. These grief attacks can be frightening and leave you feeling overwhelmed. They are, however, a natural response to the death of someone loved. Find someone who understands your feelings and will allow you to talk about them.
Be tolerant of your physical and emotional limits
Your feelings of loss and sadness will probably leave you fatigued. Your ability to think clearly and
make decisions may be impaired.
And your low energy level may naturally slow you down. Respect what your body and mind are telling you. Nurture yourself. Get daily
rest. Eat balanced meals. Lighten your schedule as much as possible. Caring for yourself doesn’t mean
feeling sorry for yourself; it means you are using survival skills.
Allow a search for meaning
You may find yourself asking, “Why did they die?” “Why this way?” “Why now?” This search for meaning is
another normal part of the healing process. Some questions have answers. Some do not. Actually, the healing occurs in the opportunity to pose the questions, not necessarily in answering them. Find a supportive friend who will listen responsively as
you search for meaning.
Embrace your spirituality
If faith is part of your life, express it in ways that seem appropriate to you. Allow yourself to be around people who understand and support your religious beliefs. If you are angry with God because of the death of someone you loved, recognize this feeling as a normal part of your grief work. Find someone to talk with
who won’t be critical of whatever thoughts and feelings you need to
You may hear someone say, “With faith, you don’t need to grieve.” Don’t believe it. Having your personal faith does not insulate you from needing to talk out and explore your thoughts and feelings. To deny your grief is to invite problems that build up inside you. Express your faith, but express your grief as well.
Treasure your memories
Memories are one of the best legacies that exist after someone loved dies. Treasure them. Share them with your family and friends.
Recognize that your memories may make you laugh or cry. In either case, they are a lasting part of the relationship that you had with a very
special person in your life.
Move toward your grief and heal
The capacity to love requires the necessity to grieve when someone you love dies. You can’t heal unless you openly express your grief. Denying your grief will only make it become more confusing and overwhelming. Embrace your grief
Reconciling your grief will not happen quickly. Remember, grief is a process, not an event. Be patient
and tolerant with yourself. Never forget that the death of someone loved changes your life forever. It’s
not that you won’t be happy again.
It’s simply that you will never be exactly the same as you were before the death. “The experience of grief is powerful.
So, too, is your ability to help yourself heal. In doing the work of grieving, you are moving toward a renewed
sense of meaning and purpose in your life.”
- Dr. Alan D. Wolfelt, Center for Loss and Life Transition
Accepting a loss
For each of us - rich or poor, young or old - there are times in our lives when we must face and deal with personal losses and the pain and
sorrow they cause.
Examples that come easily to mind are the death of a parent, spouse, child, or other close family member or friend. Many other events and transitions also bring with them sadness and a need to grieve:
• Being told you have a serious, possibly terminal illness.
• Having to give up interests and activities that have been a major part of your life.
• Seeing serious decline in mental or physical health of someone you love.
• Retiring from a work career or voluntary activity that has helped shape who you are and what you stand for.
• Losing a significant part of your independence and mobility; even giving up driving a car can be a significant loss for many people.
• Moving out of your home.
• Saying goodbye to a favorite pet. Losses such as these are simply part of living. Like their counterparts among the joyful occasions in our lifetime - the birth of a child or grandchild, a celebration of marriage, an enduring friendship - they are part of what it means to share in the human experience.
Grief. It can take so many forms and you often don’t know how you’ll react until you’re living through it. That’s OK. There are no wrong or right ways to approach grief. All you can do is try to deal with your feelings in a way that feels right to you.
If you’re trying to support a family member or friend, figuring out the right things to say or do can seem daunting .Luckily, you’ve already taken the first step towards helping them, simply through the act of caring. But sometimes, you might wish to do a little more to show support.
Some people feel a sense of support through a thoughtful gift like a card or flowers. Others respond better to you just taking the time to sit, reflect and share stories with them.
Get support from the comfort of your own home.
Grief is hard to take on alone and you don’t need to (and often shouldn’t) go at it alone. You might be hesitant to ask others for help, and that’s why many find these interactive videos helpful to exploring their own emotions and feelings. Dr. Virginia Simpson is an Executive Counseling Director who created a set of online grief resources, which can help you cope in the way that feels right to you. She takes you through the dimensions and dynamics of grief, helping you to discover coping techniques that heal and encourage you to move forward.
Loss from A Childs Perspective By Dr. Bill Webster
“My mother died when I was 5 years old. I felt like I was insignificant, as if I was getting smaller and smaller...so unimportant that I might disappear. It’s very hard to explain, but I believed I was wrong, somehow. For years I felt like I was on the outside of things, even though others would not have thought I was.” Sally, 35, who lost her mother.
Sally’s words teach us that a child’s feelings resulting from the death of a parent or sibling may not be obvious to others. Because the child thinks the universe revolves around them, a death can produce an anxiety that translates into a “fear of losing myself”. Sally, at 5, felt like she was getting “smaller and smaller” and that she might “disappear”. This fear of being lost, and the related anxieties about being on the outside of things is common among children of all ages.
It should be obvious that any child old enough to love is old enough to grieve. Children of all ages are affected by any significant loss, and often very deeply, because their coping mechanisms are just developing. To understand the complexity of how each situation affects a child, we should ask ourselves: By Dr Bill Webster “What goes THIS loss mean to THIS child, at THIS time in his/her life?”
However it is important to recognize that a child’s comprehension and their response to a death varies, depending on their age and developmental levels. Death means different things to children of different ages.
For Infants, awareness of their world is limited, so the death of a mother is perceived as “unavailability” or “absence”. An infant’s needs are for physical contact, warmth and consistency, which creates security. The absence of a nurturer poses a threat to survival, resulting in fears.
Between about 2 – 4 years, a child still has no concept of the permanence of death, but their fears are more numerous. Cartoons suggest that characters can be blown up, run over, hurt, but then simply get up and go about their business. Likewise the young child may believe that “Mom will come back” and may continue to
act as if the dead person is still alive. Death is just a “sleep” from which they didn’t wake up.
Between ages 5-9, a child’s understanding of death undergoes another change. This is often the age of “magical thinking”. They see death as coming from an external source … a bogeyman, or angel who comes to take people away. They regard it as some kind of enemy or assailant. Thus children may regard death as something to outwit, rationalizing “if I am good or do the right things I will be able to reverse this.” If we do not make children a part of what is happening,
or keep it “a secret”, they assume that somehow they are responsible, which mistaken perception merely adds complications to their mourning.
Again remembering that we are talking developmental levels as well as actual ages, between 9 – 12 the child begins to understand that death is the end of life,
irreversible, and is a natural part of life rather than an enemy who steals people away. They become more concerned with the consequences of death … “who will take care of me? will we have to move? will Dad marry again? (and if so what will happen to us?)” Because they are no longer thinking of themselves as “little children”, they may present a façade of independence and coping. They want to comfort a surviving parent or family member, and may try to assume the roles of
the person who has died. They want to be helpful, which can be OK, but caution is required. All too often younger children have a terrible burden placed on them by some well intentioned person who says, “You need to act grown up. You’re the father/mother of the family now.” The child will assume the role to attempt to master their pain and deny their helplessness, but it is unrealistic to expect a child to be anything other than a child.
Older children often need help to express their grief, especially over the loss of a parent. Research clearly shows that teenagers have more intense grief, but struggle desperately not to show it. Adolescents are suspended between the dependency of childhood and the adult responsibility they hope
to earn. The young person may fear that expressing deep sadness or grief displays a return to childhood vulnerability, which they resist stoically. But also, it is part of the teenage role to be in conflict with parents, and so when a parent dies during this transition between reliance and self-determination, there can be a struggle. Besides, it is not regarded as “cool” to be talking about missing your parents. Teenagers are exceedingly concerned about the acceptability of their responses to others, particularly their peers. Thus the teen may find it difficult to express the feelings the death of a parent can raise.
Any death confronts teenagers with their own mortality. They could die.
Angry at the death, they may adopt a “Why should I care” attitude. Perhaps as a defence, or maybe in defiance, young people sometimes engage in reckless or dangerous behaviors to show they don’t care or to try to prove they are immortal.
As we have mentioned, a child who has been personally affected by death will have multiple fears, among which might be:
• Fear of losing the other parent (then what will happen to me)
• Fear that he or she too will die
• Fear of going to sleep (lest I never wake up, like Mum)
• Fear of being separated from a parent or sibling
• Fear of being unprotected
• Fear of sharing feelings or emotions with others
One teenager says: “I was afraid to talk about how I felt to my mother because I knew she would start crying. Then my older brother would get mad at
me for upsetting mom. So I kept my feelings to myself, and pretty soon I was afraid to say anything to anyone.”
Guilt often comes from four common beliefs expressed by surviving children:
• The death is a punishment for my bad behaviour.
• I wished the other person dead. (The child is thinking that their wish that the person would “drop dead” or similar sentiment has caused it to happen.)
• I didn’t love them enough. (…so that is why they left.)
• I should have died. (Often with the death of a sibling, the child may hear the parents talk of the deceased in glowing terms, and feel like they preferred the sibling to the surviving one; or maybe would wish that they had died and the deceased had survived.
Special care is necessary when talking to children about death: Children tend to mourn little by little, bit by bit, and should be allowed to process their grief in child-sized segments. Do not expect the child to respond in an “adult way”.
Use language that is appropriate to the age of the child. Try to use concrete rather than abstract language. Initiate the conversation. Children may not ask questions because they are unsure if they will upset us adults. Ask, “You’ve probably been wondering about ….”and then try to pose the question
the child may be asking. Answer the child’s questions openly and honestly, and even if there is no answer, to be up front about that.
Observe how the child may be feeling. Dispel any fears, including the anxiety that someone else in their family, or they themselves will die also.
Reassure the child about HIS/HER place in the family; that the family still exists and their place in it is just like always. Ceremonies such as lighting a candle;
placing a letter or special memento in a casket; or releasing a helium balloon with a message attached for the person who died, can be effective rituals of
farewell for children.
A few practical guidelines:
• When describing the death of a loved one, use simple direct language.
• Be honest. Never teach a child something they will later have to unlearn.
• Allow children to express all their emotions
• Listen to children, don’t just talk to them
• Don’t expect the child to react immediately. Be patient and available
• Understand your own adult feelings about death and grief, for until we have come to terms with it for ourselves, it will be difficult to convey
a positive attitude to children.
Children do not stop grieving until they have gone through ALL their developmental levels. At each stage, there is new learning about the old experience. The child may grieve until they become young adults, because it is not until we are sure that we can survive the experience that we are able to integrate the fact of our loss
into our changing lives.
Helping Children Cope With Grief By Dr Bill Webster
It is important to note that children have many questions about death, and these are usually different than the ones that occur to adults. Children’s questions deserve simple, straight forward answers. The first task of a grieving child is to make sense of the factual information about how the loss occurred. A caregiver’s direct, concrete explanation of the facts surrounding the death will help the children begin to come to terms with what has happened.
They may ask to hear the facts a number of times. They may also want to share the story with many others … friends, teachers, strangers … to try to comprehend the unimaginable that has happened.
Children’s perception of loss and their grief has to be understood according to their developmental levels. Death, or indeed any loss, means different things
to children of different ages. Enquire and try to figure out what this loss mean to this child at this particular time in life. What they feel they have lost will be a determinate of what they are missing, and what needs to be.
Dispel any fears the child may have. Children are often afraid that someone else in the family, or they themselves will die also. They need to have reassurance
that these fears are unfounded. Every child is afraid of being abandoned, so if one parent has died, the remaining parent can assure the child that he/she
expects to live a long time, and will take care of all the child’s needs.
Children need to teach adults about their grief. Every child and every response is unique. Rather than assuming that we know what the child is feeling, we must
allow the children to be our teachers. As children share their grief with others they trust, they tell us what they are feeling and experiencing. As adults communicate
respect, acceptance, warmth and understanding, the child will sense that they are being taken seriously and be more open to the stabilizing presence of that individual as they reach out with meaningful support.
Children express themselves in a variety of ways after a loss. Some of the most widely recognized include: an apparent lack of feelings; acting out behavior,
due to feelings of insecurity and abandonment and often expressed by behaviors which provoke punishment, for children would rather be punished
than feel ignored; regressive behavior; fear; guilt and self-blame; “Big Man” or “Big Woman” syndrome, (often encouraged by those who with good yet
unwise intentions tell a 10 year old that he has to be the “man of the family”); disorganization and panic; loss and loneliness; explosive emotions.
Simple ceremonies such as lighting a candle next to a photograph; placing a letter, picture or special memento in a casket; or releasing a helium balloon
with a message attached for the person who died, can be effective rituals of farewell. Children can be wonderfully creative with these kinds of meaningful, symbolic ideas.
Speak in simple language: Ask the child what he/she thinks, knows and feels, and respond specifically to these concerns. Do not give excessive detail,
and make sure you check how the child is putting the information all together.
Be honest. Avoid half truths. Never tell a a child something he/she will later have to unlearn. Don’t avoid the word death, because sometimes the alternatives
(asleep, gone away, in a better place, etc.) create worse difficulty in a child’s mind.
Be open about the situation: When my wife died, my boys were 9 and 7 years of age. As much as I might have wanted to, there was no avoiding the questions that arose. “Why did Mommy die?” “Where is she now?” “What will we do if you die too?” I tried to answer the questions they asked simply and honestly, without
giving too complicated responses. They discerned that I was making them a part of it all, and was being open about everything and accepted that.
Initiate the conversation: Children may not ask questions because they are not sure if they will upset we adults. They may not know what to ask, or be able to put their uncertainties into words. They know that something unusual is happening, and are scared by it. Instead of asking questions, theymay turn to whining or other negative behaviors, which add to your emotional stress. In response, rather than helping them cope, adults may get upset or angry and this adds to the reluctance to talk. Try to be sensitive to opportunities to ask children how they feel. We might ask, “You’ve probably been wondering about...”, and pose the question that the
children may be asking.
Sometimes our concern for the children can mask a deep need to resolve our own adult grief issues. Sometimes it is easier and more socially acceptable
to say, “I am concerned about the children,” than it is to say, “I’m having a hard time dealing with this myself.” So be careful not to transfer your own fears
and anxieties on to the children.
Often a child may benefit from a support program. Talk to your doctor, spiritual leader or other community resource people to see what programs are available for your children. Above all, let the child know that these feelings of grief are natural and a necessary part of the grieving process and that their grief will pass. Assure them they are not alone, and that others, including you yourself, feel sad as well. Assure the child, however, that these feelings will pass with time, and that life will return to normal.
Children may not understand the details and specifics, but they can often surprise you with their sensitivity and instinctual way of detecting grief. As the adult, you want to find ways to help them celebrate the life of your loved one and enjoy happy memories and stories.
The most important way to support your family is to simply listen to them and pay close attention to the feelings and needs of younger ones. If you sense any serious change in behavior, talk to them to try to get to the root of their feelings.
For additional help, refer to this great resource from Sesame Street, which will help your family move forward in a healthy and educated manner.
Learn about each and every way you can support others.
Supporting your friends and family does not have to be complicated. Here are just a few powerful ways you can show support to your loved ones during this difficult time:
- Share memories. Stories and memories can be incredibly cathartic during difficult times.
- Be there for them whenever possible, whether it’s as a shoulder to cry on or to help them prepare for a service.
- Listen. All too often, we forget how important just listening can be.
- Give a small gift to show your love and support. It could be flowers, a favorite food, or a book that brings them joy. Small gifts show that you’re there, thinking of them.
Get additional resources about support.
No one should have to experience grief alone. If you’re having a hard time, reach out to friends and family and let them know that you need them there. There’s no shame in asking for help.
If you want to help support a loved one in need, just let them know that you’re there for them, at any hour, for anything. If you need additional help, check out our grief support resources.
Get daily support to help you through each day.
Could you benefit from a daily dose of encouragement and inspiration? We’ve been there too. There are simply some days when you need a little extra light in your life. Sign up for daily emails to get hope and motivation in your inbox, each and every morning. Visit our sign up page for 365 days of support.
Everything you need to know about funeral and cemeteries.
How to truly support yourself and others at a time of grief.
Let us guide you through the ins and outs of your cemetery experience.
Local resources for all your support and planning needs.