My experience with counseling people in a state of grief comes predominantly from the time I have spent supporting the Hope Group in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa.
The Hope Group consists mostly of bereaved parents who have lost children to accidents, illness, and suicide. Being a parent myself, I cannot begin to imagine the sorrow one must feel when losing a child. However, I felt called to join this group and to listen, learn, and share my thoughts when I’m invited to do so.
The grief that I have witnessed is intense and life-changing.
Bereaved parents are forced to dig extremely deep to face other people, and even more so when they speak about how they feel. I have learned some truly valuable lessons when it comes to supporting those in grief.
Here are 6 guidelines to use on how to give support to a grieving friend:
Allow them to grieve.
It is often hard for us to see a friend grieving, particularly if you are a healer by nature. Our natural instinct is to want to heal the person or take away their pain. The process of grief must run its course. It is better for us to walk beside those that grieve and support them where possible, rather than interfering in or judging their grieving process.
Drop your expectation about how they should grieve.
While there are theoretical stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance), the way each person grieves is as unique as their fingerprint. Even a couple who have lived under the same roof for 30 years handle the loss of their child differently. For example, some people become numb, some become self-destructive, and some bury themselves in work or other activities, to keep their mind off the painful thoughts of grief. Grief can be so intense for some people, that they lose their desire to do just about anything, even carry on living.
It is far more important to listen than it is to speak.
Often, the last thing someone in a state of grief wants to hear is how someone else knows how they feel, or how someone else coped with a similar situation, or what you think they should do to ‘get over it.’ As it is, grief-stricken people often struggle to be around other people because they’re in a state where normal social interaction is very difficult. I would encourage you to gently let them know that you are there for them, not only with your words but also with your actions. Your unconditional love and support are likely to be of greater value to a grieving friend than your advice.
The grieving friend must make the choice to heal.
In my experience, the people who undergo the most healing, and who are able to get back on their feet, are those who make the conscious choice to do so. For the parents in the Hope Group, life will never go back to what it was before the loss of their child, but some of them speak of a “new normal” way of life. I can imagine that someone who’s life changes significantly after an accident resulting in a spinal injury or the loss of a limb, may also have to make the choice to embrace a “new normal” way of life. Those who become trapped in ‘victim mode’ tend to spiral downwards or remain stuck in the grieving process. You could support your grieving friend by gently holding them accountable to allow themselves to grieve, and also to make the choice to heal.
Make use of the Heliotropic Effect.
The Heliotropic Effect describes the tendency of all living organisms to be drawn toward anything which is life-giving (such as light and warmth). Keep your energy, your actions and your words positive when interacting with your grieving friend. They may be in a very dark place, often not knowing how to navigate their way out of it. Shine your light so bright that it will illuminate their path.
A grieving process may take several years to complete itself, and many of the parents I’ve worked with in the Hope Group talk about how friends and family have pulled away from them, not knowing how to handle their grief. If you persevere and keep following the guidelines above, you will have a significantly positive impact on your friend’s life.
In fact, you may even save their life.