National Grief Awareness Day: How to Support Your Loved Ones After a Loss
Sadly, loss is a universal experience that every human being will go through at some point in their lives. Beloved people (and animals) die. Relationships end. You lose a job, you have to move to a different city, or you lose part of your identity.
It’s human to grieve when you experience a loss. Grief is defined by the American Psychiatric Association as “the anguish experienced after a significant loss, usually the death of a beloved person.” We all know what grief feels like, but it can still be tricky to know how, exactly, to support someone who is grieving. You might not know what to say or worry about saying the wrong thing.
Here is a quick guide on what grief may (and may not) look like, and how to support loved ones and employees through this difficult time.
What does grief look like?
It’s important to realize that grief can look many different ways for different people. Most of the time, grief is characterized by intense emotional pain. Someone who is grieving might experience waves of longing and extreme sadness.
You might expect someone to be sad or tearful after experiencing a loss, but this isn’t always what grief looks like. And just because someone isn’t grieving in the way that you expect them to doesn’t mean that their grief isn’t valid.
On top of sadness and frequent crying, grief can appear as:
Feeling angry or irritable; losing your temper often
Feeling numb or “nothing”
Distracting yourself with enjoyable activities
Immersing yourself in work
Taking time off to rest
Feeling regret for the past
Feeling relief that you no longer have to provide care
Experiencing in denial and moving through life as if nothing has happened
Looking into the future, and feeling excited about it
Obsessively dwelling on memories and the past
Experiencing physical symptoms including headaches, nausea, and fatigue
There is no “wrong” way to grieve, and any feelings that you may be having during this time are valid.
How to support a loved one through grief
When someone you love is grieving, it can be hard to know what to do or say to support them. After all, what could you possibly say that would make their immense pain go away?
It may be helpful to remember that your role is to support and be present with your loved one, not to “fix” their pain or make their grief go away. Grief is a natural emotion, and there is nothing you can do to speed up the process – grief moves at its own pace, and that’s okay.
Here are some do’s and don’ts when someone in your life is grieving.
Do make your support known. Say something like, “I just want you to know that I’m here for you and that you don’t have to go through this alone.”
Don’t assume that the person doesn’t want to be alone. Many people prefer grieving on their own time, and may like to have some time away from people to process their feelings. Instead of being physically around your loved one all the time, ask them what they need. You might say something like, “Would you like me to sit here with you? We don’t need to talk about anything.”
Do validate their feelings. Grief is a natural human emotion. Let them know that anything they’re feeling right now is okay.
Don’t “silver line” their pain. For example, don’t say things like, “At least you can focus on yourself now instead of always taking care of them.” Your grieving loved one may come to these sentiments on their own, but trying to put a positive spin on grief can feel invalidating.
Do take part in rituals and ceremonies. This could include attending public funerals for the deceased, but your loved one may also want you to be present at a more private ritual to honor the person they lost. Ask your loved one how they would like to honor and remember the deceased, both after the death as well as on anniversaries.
Don’t give your loved one platitudes, like “They’re in a better place.” These sayings are rarely truly helpful, and can sometimes be invalidating.
Do follow your loved one’s lead on how they want to spend their time while grieving. Remember that grief can look very different for different people. For example, if your grieving loved one wants to watch a funny movie and tells you that this will be helpful for them, then believe them. It isn’t your place to instruct them how they should grieve.
Don’t try to ignore the loss or pretend like nothing happened. It can be hard for grieving people to talk about the loss; some people may feel like these conversations will be a burden to those around them. Let your loved ones know that they are not a burden and that you’re there to listen.
Do hold space for silence. Sometimes, your friend may not want to talk. Your presence may be enough. It can be uncomfortable to sit in silence, but make sure you’re holding that space.
Don’t make it about you. Although grief is a universal experience, it’s usually unhelpful to start talking about your past experiences with losing someone. Unless your loved one asks, keep the focus on them and their experience.
How managers can support grieving employees
It’s important for managers, in particular, to know how to support people through grief. Although most workplaces have a bereavement policy, grief can’t be contained within those few days. That means that, as a manager, you’ll have employees on your team who are grieving while coming to work – and you’ll need to know how to support them.
Here are some tips for managers on how to support employees who are grieving.
Understand that personal life and work don’t exist in separate spheres – they all intersect. Expecting employees to “leave non-work problems at home” is unrealistic and can be damaging to morale. Grief will probably come up during business hours, and that’s okay.
Acknowledge the loss. When your employee returns from bereavement leave, don’t go back to business as usual. Ask them how they’re feeling, and verbalize your support and empathy.
Check-in with employees, especially when they’re noticeably upset. For example, if an employee’s been getting more frustrated than usual with their colleagues, touch base with them to ask how they’re feeling in a nonjudgmental manner.
If possible, grant employees more time than officially required to grieve and handle logistics after a death. If they absolutely cannot take time 100% away from the office, understand that they may not be able to work at their usual capacity after they’ve experienced a loss.
Refer your employee to grief counseling if needed. Even the best managers can’t take on the role of a professional mental health therapist. Counselors can help employees process the loss and learn how to live in a world in which their loved one is no longer present.
If you’re a MINES client, you can always refer employees to our Employee Assistance Program. We offer 24/7 confidential and free counseling for all of your employees, and our counselors can offer support for grief and other life issues.