How to help someone dealing with grief

Grief is experienced physically, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually - and unresolved grief can be felt in all these areas.

It's important to address each layer over time, says Auckland grief expert Suzi Wallis.

For more than 17 years, Wallis has been offering bereavement support, counselling and guiding people through their own journeys coming to terms with, and understanding, loss.

She told Newshub that grief isn't a linear process where each symptom and stage is ticked off before moving on.

"You revisit each element as many times as you need to, until the experience of remembering your loss is more like a scar, than an open wound," she says.

People process their grief both privately and through connecting with others.

Wallis says it is important for them to tell their stories about how they feel, and about the person they've lost.

Valid responses to grief


Each grief experience is different, so hearing "I know how you feel" can sound very invalidating to the person who has experienced a loss.

"Sorry for your loss" and "What can I do?" communicates care and interest. Grieving people often don't know what they need, so sensible suggestions can offer what they need to hear.  

It’s important to empathise, without being patronising.

Practical assistance with chores, cooking, childcare, contacting work or schools, and making difficult calls can take the load off a person grieving.

Wallis says it's important not to tell people to "get over it", "it's not as bad as ... ," "it could be worse", "you'll be fine".

"Just hang out with them, while they cry, howl, bargain with themselves, express all the natural stages of grief, which they will revisit again and again, as they process what's happened, and rebuild," she says.

"If you're uncomfortable with the intensity of the person's grief, help them find another person who can take over from you."

How to be helpful when someone you care about has lost a loved one


Being helpful is a good way to help someone, but only what you are comfortable providing - whether that's company, practical help, childcare, cooking, home repairs or accommodating visitors.

According to Wallis, it's vital a person gets to express how they feel, and not be shut down.

It can be good to have some time away from their grief - outings in nature and with animals can be soothing, as can sitting with them while they stare into space.

"Encourage them to get professional support, so that the load for caregivers can be shared."

If the grieving person is talking about making big, life-changing decisions, encourage them to wait until they are feeling more resilient.

"Decisions made in this emotional state may not be the same as the ones a grieving person will make later down the track," she says.

Alcohol and drugs can be dangerous during times of grief as they can intensify symptoms, and overwhelm the grieving person.

How to make it easier for grieving families


A good funeral director will be a very valuable resource in the result of a death. They have relationships with all the providers that are involved with a funeral, and will coordinate all the needs of the family.

Helping people pull together photos, design and print orders of service, find momentos for the funeral, choose what food to serve at any function being held afterwards - these decisions can be very difficult for a grieving person to make, so assistance can be much appreciated.

Initially, when you lose a loved one, people rally and all sorts of help is offered. Often, it’s in later months when people actually need the most help.

Six months after a loss is a common time for a low, Wallis says.

"That can be because the regular help has trickled away, and people are less prone to checking in. Anniversaries, birthdays and family events are also trigger points."

To be the best kind of support, diarise when these events come up, and contact the person you're supporting to see what they might need.

How do we explain death and grief to children?   

It's really important to use the right language. Never tell a child that someone who has died has gone to sleep. Children can then be terrified of going to sleep themselves.

If the family has religious or spiritual beliefs, this can be helpful.

Children are very creative when it comes to acknowledging someone who has died, and their playfulness can be a soothing touch at the sombre occasion of a funeral.

It can be helpful for children to see the person who has died, to talk to them. Let them sit and sing, cry, play around the casket, whatever feels natural for them.

Children can regress after trauma, so it's really natural for them to return to younger toys, rituals, wetting beds, want to sleep with parents, be more volatile - this will pass as they process their grief.

Children need to see their caregivers cry, and they also need to feel stable, so ensure that the adults also have separate places to process their grief, so that their children can have some "time off" too.

Moving forward


A large part of the grief process is about forming a different relationship with the person who has been lost.

It's really common for people to have conversations out loud or in their head with the person who has been a big part of their life.

They can write to them, visit places that are significant, plant a tree to represent them, have a photo of them in a prominent or private place, light candles, have a memorial service at a later date - as well as a funeral - or sculpt/paint/draw their grief story.

There is no fixed time for grief, and everyone's timetables are unique. You may have experienced a similar loss, and it's important to remember that your journey is individual to you.

Death: A podcast about love, grief and hope is available on Rova, Apple, Stitcher, Spotify, Google, Omny and all major podcast apps.

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