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How can you support a loved one when they are grieving?

Updated: Jun 22, 2023

Everyone experiences grief, yet we rarely talk about our experiences.

Grief is the process by which we heal. Staying strong through grief isn’t about not crying or not feeling sad, it’s about allowing yourself or a loved one to work through uncomfortable emotions so you can heal. 

Additional Models

Although the five stages of grief developed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross are considered the most easily recognisable models of grief and bereavement, there are other models of grief to be noted as well.

Each model or theory works to explain patterns of how grief can be perceived and processed. Researchers on grief and bereavement hope to use these models to provide understanding to those who are hurting over the loss of a loved one, as well as offer information that can help those in the healing professions provide effective care for those in need of informed guidance.

Attachment Theory and Grief

British psychiatrist Colin Murray Parkes developed a model of grief based on Bowlby's theory of attachment, suggesting there are four phases of mourning when experiencing the loss of a loved one:

  • Shock and numbness:

Loss in this phase feels impossible to accept. Most closely related to Kübler-Ross's stage of denial, we are overwhelmed when trying to cope with our emotions. Parkes suggests that there is physical distress experienced in this phase as well, which can lead to somatic (physical) symptoms.

  • Yearning and searching:

hands  touching sunlight

As we process loss in this phase, we may begin to look for comfort to fill the void our loved one has left. We may try to do so by reliving memories through pictures and by looking for signs from the person to feel connected to them. In this phase, we become very preoccupied with the person we have lost.

  • Despair and disorganisation:

feeling emotional person

We may find ourselves questioning and feeling angry in this phase. The realisation that our loved one is not returning feels real, and we can have a difficult time understanding or finding hope in our future. We may feel a bit aimless in this phase and find that we retreat from others as we process our pain.

  • Reorganisation and recovery:

In this phase, we feel more hopeful that our hearts and minds can be restored. As with Kübler-Ross's acceptance stage, sadness or longing for our loved one doesn't disappear. However, we move towards healing and reconnecting with others for support, finding small ways to re-establish some normalcy in our daily lives. It can be so difficult to know what to say or do when someone who has experienced loss. We do our best to offer comfort, but sometimes our best efforts can feel inadequate and unhelpful.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind:

  • Avoid rescuing or fixing.

Remember, the person who is grieving does not need to be fixed. In an attempt to be helpful, we may offer uplifting, hopeful comments, or even humour, to try to ease their pain. Although the intention is good, this approach can leave people feeling as if their pain is not seen, heard, or valid.

  • Don't force it.

asking help from others in time of need

We may want so badly to help and for the person to feel better, so we believe that nudging them to talk and process their emotions before they're truly ready will help them faster. This is not necessarily true, and it can actually be an obstacle to their healing.

  • Make yourself accessible.

Offer space for people to grieve. This lets the person know we're available when they're ready. We can invite them to talk with us but remember to provide understanding and validation if they are not ready just yet. Remind them that you're there and not to hesitate to come to you. It is important to remember that everyone copes with loss differently. While a loved one is experiencing all five stages of grief, they may also find that it is difficult to classify any of their feelings into any one of the stages. Have patience with them and their feelings in dealing with loss.

Allow them time to process all of their emotions, and when they are ready to speak about their experiences with loved ones or a healthcare professional, they may do so. If you are supporting someone who has lost a loved one, remember that you don't need to do anything specific, but allow them room to talk about it when they are ready.

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