I speak through my own experience from the loss of my husband, but it is good to note that no one’s experience is ever the same with grief. There is no right or wrong way to deal with the loss of a loved one, the process is unique and personal for each individual. Globalfunerals.net.au take the concept seriously to honor your love ones, so far I have recommended them as the best funeral parlours Sydney.
How it feels to lose a loved one and the stages of grief –
The loss of a child, partner, sibling, parent or close friend is unimaginable and indescribable. It leaves a hole so deep and painful that it is unmatched by any other. Your world stops. The exact moment is marked for memory, the details etched into your mind forever. Life goes on around you but you don’t feel part of it, it’s like watching a movie that can’t be happening. Everything has changed, it’s a different world, one in which your loved one is no longer here. There is nothing anyone can do or say to make things easier. You don’t know how you will survive, and you are not sure you even want to.
Things seem meaningless and you feel overwhelmed. Nothing makes sense. You are in a state of disbelief. You may want to talk about it, going over and over things to try and sort them out in your mind. You may not feel like talking and withdraw, searching for answers. No matter how many friends are around you, you feel alone and isolated, like there is a wall between you and everyone else. You feel like you will never be whole again. It is a strange new world, and the only person you want to be with is gone forever.
You go through various stages of grief which may include, anger, blame, guilt, hopelessness, depression, sadness, disbelief, regret, panic, loneliness and pain. These can last for different periods of time, or you can also go through all of them in one day. Life feels incomplete and unfinished.
Finally the reality will sink in, they are not coming back. In time, you will learn to live with your loss, but it will never really leave you. Grief is a part of the healing, and it’s a slow process. The hole that is left will never quite be filled, but you will find that one day, things will get easier.
What to do and what NOT to do when a friend is going through grief –
You cannot make them feel better; there are no words to fix this pain.
DO NOT fail to mention the loss for fear of hurting your friend even more. Pretending that nothing’s happened because you don’t know what to say, is the worst thing you can do. TALK about their loss, tell them how sorry you are, offer your deepest sympathies and any assistance they may need. Failing to acknowledge their loved one is like denying their loved one’s existence and lessening the importance of their loss.
DO NOT try to tell them you know how they feel if you have experienced a loss of your own, each loss is unique, you do not know how they feel. Do not compare notes, “I remember when John died….” John means nothing to your friend right now.
LISTEN! Sometimes they will need to talk about it for hours, days or weeks. They will go through the same details over and over, trying to make sense of them, or accept the finality. They may not get tired of talking about the same thing and although you may be tired of listening to it, keep listening! Telling the story is part of the healing, it helps to dissolve the pain and understand the loss. They must get it out. Don’t try and move them on. Let them talk. Grief must be witnessed to be healed. When it is shared, it is lessened in some small way. It reinforces that their loss mattered.
DO NOT interrupt or add in any of your own experiences. I had a friend who kept interrupting and trying to tell me about someone else they knew who had experienced similar things. I didn’t want to hear anything; I needed to talk about MY loss. So I stopped talking to her.
DO NOT force them to talk about it. There are times when they don’t want to talk at all. This is no need for alarm. Showing ‘concern’ about their silence will only make them retreat even further. This does not mean that they are not dealing with their loss; it is merely another stage of the long and difficult journey of grief. They are most definitely dealing with it; they just sometimes need to do it on their own.
DO NOT complain or be offended if they don’t return your phone calls. I ignored my phone for months! The best thing is to send them a phone message or email just to let them know you are thinking of them. DO NOT expect any response. You probably won’t get one. And please don’t get that hurt tone in your voice if they do return your call a little later than you expected. Have no expectations of your friendship. Try and offer unconditional support and understanding.
DO talk about death. Death is a normal part of life. It is something that many people shy away from. Talk about their loved one when he was alive. Share memories together, this confirms that they still exist as part of us.
DO phone them or send a message to say your thoughts are with them on days that you know are especially painful, like anniversaries or holidays. You will not be reminding them of anything they don’t already remember. For me, the first Father’s day came and went and no one mentioned my loss or said that they were sorry that my children did not have a father on that day. People are afraid to remind you of your losses but you know them all too clearly anyway. As time goes by, it seems that everyone carries on their lives as normal but there will never be anything normal about your life again. It’s good to know that people still acknowledge your grief, even after years.
Be sensitive, there is no end to how far the pain can go.
DO NOT be offended when your friend cancels appointments. They can go from feeling OK to feeling devastated in a matter of minutes. This is how grief works. Cancelling a plan at the last minute is completely normal. Be sure that they know that it’s OK with you to confirm on the day IF they feel up to it. There are good days and bad days and you never know what’s coming. It is their prerogative to change their mind.
DO NOT force them into anything they are not comfortable with. Sometimes they will feel like company, and much of the time, they may prefer to be alone. I had friends nag me saying, you NEED to get out. All I felt like at the time, for months, was staying at home and being introspective with my children. No one can know what is best for you. Even if you think you are doing something that is in that person’s best interest, don’t do it or have any expectations before checking with them first. Trust that they know best.
BE sensitive! The last thing I felt like after losing my husband was going to a couple’s dinner where I was the only one without a partner. My children also struggled at outings or parties where they were the only ones without a dad! When you invite your friend somewhere, let them know exactly what the situation will be and tell them that it’s OK if they are not ready for it. Be understanding.
DO NOT judge friends about their behaviour. If you think they are drinking too much, eating too much, going out too much or dating too soon, keep it to yourself! Each person has to find their own way to get themselves through. I had people tell me that they were worried about my weight loss. I could barely manage to get through the day let alone think about cooking dinners! What you think is concern can easily come across as not being sensitive or understanding. Rather say something like; I know it must be inconceivable to cook meals right now, so I’m bringing you dinner ever Friday night. If you feel there’s a real problem, perhaps you could mention the name of a good grief counsellor you have heard of without mentioning that you think they have a problem. There is no right or wrong time to pack up a loved one’s belongings. Some people want to be alone, others can’t manage. Some do it immediately, some wait months or years. Do not judge or say things like, you really should get around to that, let me help you. Belongings carry memories and feeling far deeper than you can ever imagine, this needs to happen gently when the person feels ready.
Emotions seem to have no end.
DO NOT try to fix things or help them snap out of it. It is a natural reaction to try and cheer people up and get them to look at the bright side. In grief, there is no bright side. They feel more alone than they ever thought possible, and wonder if they will ever feel anything again.
DO NOT get taken aback or offended by any emotions, from anger to blame. They are all normal. They may snap at you, and say things like – what do you know about what I’m going through, you still have your partner. DO NOT lash back. Let them be angry, let them scream if they want to. Love and accept them through it all.
DO NOT worry about depression. Depression that is directly related to an exceptionally stressful situation is normal and understandable. Depression at length for no apparent reason is the only depression to worry about. Society sees any depression as needing treatment. The depression that comes with loss does not necessarily need treatment, it needs understanding and acceptance. Depression will come. A friend of mine wisely told me that it was fine if I didn’t feel like bathing or brushing my teeth for days, I must just be depressed and flow with my feelings. She set me free to feel depressed without worrying about myself. As time passes, it comes and goes less often. The sadness is an understandable result of loss. It is only if the depression becomes ongoing and life debilitating that they need to seek help.
DO NOT tell them they need to be brave! I had people tell my children this. Let them CRY! Tears are healing. In our society, it’s the done thing to hand over a tissue as soon as someone starts crying. This is a subtle message saying ‘stop your tears’. I heard of a psychologist who refused to hand out tissues just so that the person would not feel as if they had to stop crying. Your friend is already thinking they must stop crying. It feels like they will never stop crying but of course they will. Allow them to let it all out. Sometimes they will cry for what looks like no reason. This is a reminder that the loss is always there, living alongside them. And that is normal. Do not tell them to be strong!
Practical ways to help –
There are some practical ways you can help. Often your friend who is grieving will not even know how to ask for help or what to ask for. Use your initiative and try some of the following, making sure not to invade their space or overstay your welcome.
Cook dinners, wash dishes, offer to lift children to school, have children over to play, do the grocery shopping. If you are going shopping, just pop them a message asking them what they need from the store, then drop it off and do not go in, unless invited. Offer to collect post, go to the bank or do any chore that needs doing.
Handyman services. If your friend has lost a partner who used to do certain things around the house, e.g. mow the lawn, change lightbulbs etc. think about how they feel now that there’s no one to do those jobs. Send your husband along to help. Or if you don’t have one, send an electrician, gardener or handyman to them for the day to do any thing that needs doing.
Gifts to buy – instead of buying flowers so that your friend’s home looks like a funeral parlour, rather get them something they can cherish. Like photograph albums, journals, book vouchers to buy any book they may need to read, pamper vouchers for a massage or healing session.
Leila Summers lives in Durban, South Africa with her two daughters, three dogs and four cats. Leila enjoys reading and writing and has a passion for research. Her particular interests include the topics of parenting, homeschooling, children, spirituality, death, grief and loss. Leila has just finished her first book. http://www.leilasummers.com
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