Supporting Someone who is Grieving

Supporting someone who is grieving or who is struggling with their mental health can feel difficult because it’s hard to watch someone who matters to you experience so much pain. It can also be is tough to know what to do or say, especially if you haven’t experienced the same kind of grief or anguish that they’re going through. One of the most important things you can do is to simply be there for your loved one, without judgement. Sit beside them when they are crying, resisting the urge to help them to stop crying. Allow them to talk about their feelings or share stories of their loved one, marriage, or whatever it is they’ve lost. It may sound simple but just letting them know that you are there for them when they need it will go a long way. Don’t wait for them to reach out to you – keep checking in on them. The support of family and friends is key during the grieving process.

Here are some tips from the Canadian Mental Health Association when supporting a loved one that is grieving:

  • Understand that a loved one needs to follow their own journey in their own way and express their feelings in their own way.
  • Ask your loved one what they need, and regularly remind them that you’re there for support if they aren’t ready to talk with others yet. Remember to offer practical help too.
  • Talk about the loss. It’s common to avoid the topic and focus on a loved one’s feelings instead, but many people find sharing thoughts, memories, and stories helpful or comforting.
  • Remember that grief may be bigger than the loss. For example, someone who loses a partner may also experience a lot of fear or stress around financial security and other important matters.
  • Include your loved one in social activities. Even if they often decline, it’s important to show that they are still an important member of your community.
  • Help your loved one connect with support services if they experience a lot of difficulties.
  • Take care of your own well-being and seek extra help for yourself if you need it.

Know the symptoms & signs of someone who may be struggling with their mental health.

No two people who are dealing with extreme grief and loss (as well as other mental health issues) will exhibit the same symptoms, but there are some that tend to be more common, such as:

  • Appearing to be in denial or confused
  • Exhibiting a lack of self-worth
  • Becoming irritated more easily
  • Having difficulty concentrating
  • Inability to complete normal daily functions
  • Withdrawing from others
  • Sleeping issues (insomnia or sleeping too much)
  • Lacking energy – fatigue
  • Experiencing mood swings
  • Losing interest in activities they normally love doing

Basically any noticeable sudden or gradual change in behaviour is a sign of concern and warrants action.

Some things you can do to help:

Ask them how they’re doing

This is one of the toughest things to do but it’s one of the most important. It’s okay to feel nervous, and it’s okay to tell them that you’re feeling anxious about the conversation, but the first step is asking them how they are doing. Let them know you‘ve noticed that they don’t seem like themselves lately and that you’re worried about them. It’s important not to judge them by pointing out the actions you have noticed. You’re simply stating that they seem a little different and that you’re concerned and want to make sure that they’re okay.

It can be difficult but it’s important that you get comfortable with silence. Give them time to answer you. Don’t feel the need to fill the empty space with your words. Ask them, then be patient and listen.

Just listen

Sometimes all the person needs is to express their feelings and have someone hear them. Sometimes even just sitting together in silence can be helpful to the person who is struggling. Just knowing they are not alone, and that if they’re ready to talk, you’re there for them, can be helpful in improving their state of mind.

It’s natural for us to want to interject with stories of our own loss or relate stories of other people you know who’ve gone through similar experiences. This can certainly be helpful to your friend, to know they’re not the only ones who have experienced what they’re feeling – but let them do the talking first.

Also, don’t try to solve their problems. Sometimes they may just want to vent or talk about what they’re going through without having you try to fix things for them. In doing so, they may feel like you really haven’t heard them or that their concerns are not that big of a deal.

Of course, if they ask if you’ve gone through something similar or if you have any suggestions for getting through loss or other challenges, feel free to share them, but know that your role is first to just listen.

Enlist help

At times, it doesn’t matter how much support or understanding you provide, the person you’re concerned about may need support from a professionally trained therapist. There is no shame in seeing a counsellor. We don’t hesitate to see a doctor when we have a physical concern, and seeing a professional about our mental health is just as important and should have no stigma surrounding it whatsoever. That said, be sure to honour their request for confidentiality until they’ve told you otherwise. If your friend is dealing with severe symptoms at a time when you can’t access counselling (after hours, stat holidays, for example) you can suggest they call:

  • Edmonton: The Crisis Centre call 780 482 HELP (4357)
  • Greater Edmonton region: Rural Distress Line at 1-800-232-7288.
  • Calgary: 403 266 HELP (4357)

Call 911 if needed

If you believe your loved one or friend may cause harm to themselves or to others, call 911 or proceed to your nearest emergency room. Mental health emergencies are legitimate emergencies and will be responded to.

Look after yourself too

Just like the airplane oxygen mask metaphor (always put your own mask on before assisting others), this situation is no different. Caring for and about someone who is struggling with loss can take its toll on you as well. You may worry about your loved one or friend or be concerned that you will do or say something to make the situation worse. Be sure to keep a check on how you’re feeling and coping with this extra stress in your own life and be sure to make your health a top priority as well. A trained therapist may also be able to provide guidance, information, and support to you as you go through this challenging time with your loved one or friend and help you to compartmentalize their grief so you don’t take it on as your own. Excessive empathy can sometimes take its toll.

We wouldn’t hesitate to ask someone if they’ve seen a doctor if they had a swollen and bruised elbow – yet we are ill at ease to ask the same thing about a person’s mental health if they’re exhibiting signs that they’re not doing that well. We are afraid to offend them or to be accused of thinking they are “crazy”. It takes courage to be vulnerable and by having these conversations we fear that we will be offensive and rejected. Being courageous though can make a world of difference to someone who is struggling and sees that your concerns are coming from a place of caring, and that like your loved one or friend, you are human too and doing the best you can, and just want to make sure they are okay.

If you or someone you know would like to learn more about counselling support, please contact us.