What Anyone Can Do to Help a Mourner

What can you do to help someone you care about who is mourning a major loss in life? What do mourners need from those in their support network in order to cope with the stress of grief, and find the courage and strength to deal with all of the changes imposed by loss?

Here are three actions you can take to be of immediate assistance and help on the long journey of adapting to the new environment that has to be faced.

1. Be there. It seems at first blush that the obvious thing anyone should do is go to the side of the mourner. However, many people hesitate, sometimes out of fear or thinking that others will be there. What is important to consider is that, in the final analysis, only the mourner answers the question of who should be there. If you are a friend, your presence alone will never be forgotten. You do not have to say much. Being around and accepting the pain fills one of the most important needs of the mourner–recognition and validation of the loss and what the person is going through.

Allow the mourner to be in charge and take your cues from what he/ she have to say. Loss is always a part of a story that has to be told, especially when mourning. Let the mourner do this at his/her pace. Your greatest challenge as a caregiver to the bereaved is to deal with the silence and let silence play its role. In this vein, all too often caregivers try to say something in an attempt to break the silence and ease the pain, when their presence and not anything they say, speaks volumes. Nothing you can say will fix it. Share the mourner’s pain.

2. Do the chores. Be proactive and look ahead at what the mourner would have normally been doing if the loss had not occurred. Think about the responsibilities that one may have despite a loss. Who is most dependent on the person who is mourning? Are there others at a work place that should be informed? If there are children involved, consider what you can do to lighten the burden on the mourner in terms of caring for their needs.

Doing the chores is not an easy as it sounds. It frequently takes much time and effort for several days. You may also need to enlist the help of members of your own family or friends of the mourner. Sometimes the chores may include doing something with the mourner. Or you may sense you should play a supportive role in funeral planning or going to the funeral home with the mourner.

3. Don’t quit early. It is not uncommon for caregivers to feel that their assistance is no longer needed. Some caregivers grow tired of the ordeal. After a couple of weeks have gone by, many mourners report that those who have been most helpful tend to reduce contact. At first, this seems quite normal. However, it is just at this time when the mourner is often in most need of human contact.

If the loss was the death of a loved one, having to face the ordeal of living without the deceased, begins to be more stressful. Bills, new responsibilities, financial evaluations, new roles or demands often deluge mourners who at the very least need someone that will listen to their continued difficulties. Also, the false belief by many in the general population that grief is a short two or three week stint and the mourner should be getting back to normal, encourages pulling away and reduced contact.

In reality, the need for human contact never ends–for all of us. For months, a very special interest has to be taken in those who are mourning, sometimes up to two years. It is especially important to inquire how the person is doing in relation to the new surroundings that he/she is trying to adapt to. This should include being willing to talk about the deceased, especially when the mourner brings up the subject.

In summary, make every effort to push yourself to be around the person in pain, especially if you realize he/she wants you there. This is difficult. It is not easy to watch one that you care about suffer. Yet, the reassurance that the mourner receives by your presence is of immense value. This is especially true many months after the loss, as most people think the person is “doing so well,” when in fact every day is filled with hardships. Let the person know you are still there and aware.

Moving Through Grief – What’s Normal?

Do you feel as though there is something wrong with you because of the way the death of your loved one is affecting you? Are those around you hinting that you have to “get hold of yourself” or you should be getting over “it”?

Don’t let them add to your feelings of isolation because of their lack of understanding. Most everyone has a preconceived notion about what is and isn’t a normal human response to the death of a loved one. But the problem is (and its their problem) only you know the degree of emotional investment you had in the loved one who died–not your friends or family.

Grieve according to your timetable, not theirs. So what’s normal that seems and feel so abnormal at times and that can scare our support persons? The following have all been associated with the grief process through the years.

1. Let’s begin by understanding that grief is a long, complex journey with many ups and downs, and unpredictable twists and turns. No two people grieve in the same way, even in the same family. The process is so much longer than our culture teaches. Most mourners are initially filled with shock and disbelief, even when they have known that their loved one was going to die. One cannot fathom that the person is no longer physically present. You may feel numb, devoid of feeling. Normal.

2. You may (or may not) be filled with anger and/or resentment. Anger is often directed at medical personnel, sometimes at other family members, God, friends who don’t show up, clergy, funeral directors, or the deceased–or for feeling abandoned. Do not expect your support network, as hard as they may try, to understand your grief or your anger. You may even be angry at yourself for what you did or did not do, whether real or imagined. Normal.

3. It is not uncommon to have a variety of physical responses, other than crying or screaming. Digestive disturbances, loss of appetite, headaches, fatigue, or the resurfacing of old aches and pains can be experienced. Nervousness or shaking, weight gain or weight loss have been reported. What we feel emotionally is normally transferred to every cell in the body. Usually, it all culminates in the inability to sleep.

4. You could feel a gnawing emptiness, or irritability, a sense of being overwhelmed, disoriented, or with no defenses. Disorganized thinking, forgetfulness, inability to concentrate, or confusion could occur. Fear of the future, being alone or panicking is sometimes reported. Guilt, regret, or depression may set in as time goes on and one replays a variety of scenarios leading up to the death. Surges or waves of emotion are frequent.

5. Over time, when the reality of the loss sinks in and early support begins to wane, the real work of grief begins. Here is where you may feel extreme loneliness, isolation, yearning, or difficulty in establishing new routines necessitated by the absence of your loved one. Feelings of rejection, despair, or hopelessness may appear. This is also the time when well meaning people want you to get better in a hurry and you need to follow your own agenda for grieving.

Often life is questioned. What meaning can it possibly have now? You may see no purpose for you in a world without your beloved, and the very thought of ever feeling happy again is lunacy at best. You continue to procrastinate, find it hard to make decisions, lack focus, and could be impatient with everyone. At this time, it is essential to begin to work on establishing a new relationship with the deceased by learning to love in separation, beginning the search for meaning and attempting to reinvest in life.

To summarize, you undoubtedly will experience a number of the above responses to the death of a loved one. They have been, in various forms, experienced by millions of others before you. The overall necessity is to allow the grief process to unfold. Make every effort not to resist it. Let it naturally play out. No one can tell you how long it will take.

And, you are not weak because you still cry and miss the deceased. It is common to tear up at various times through the years when a poignant memory is triggered. That is healthy. Don’t hold back the normal expression of emotion throughout your grief. Death changes us. We have to establish a new personal identity, and as we gradually heal, reclaim joy and enter the next chapter of life.

Each of us decides if and when we will be loss oriented or restoration oriented for the rest of our lives. Above all, remember that there is nothing wrong with you for having the feelings you have.

Creative Tools and Techniques Foster Resilience in Teens

An adolescent’s inner life often feels a bit like being in a command performance of an improvised play. Intense. Urgent. A work in progress out there for all to see. Teens are living expressions of the change process, with all its upheaval and uncertainty and sense of possibility. Because their development involves so much of the tension inherent to all life transitions, teens have a heightened need for a dynamic balance between stability and flexibility from the people and world around them, which makes them uniquely vulnerable when faced with loss. This article describes tools and techniques that help teens face and work through difficult emotions, develop healthy relationship skills, and enhance their resilience to negative effects of stress, using examples of two programs that serve the psychological, social and emotional needs of adolescents.

“Because they are already experiencing a shaky sense of self, grief and loss creates different challenges for teens than for any other age group,” states Laraine Gordon, LCSW, an actress and social worker who founded and directs Time For Teens, a not-for-profit organization based in Southampton, NY that offers a bereavement camp in the summer and creative workshops throughout the year, specifically designed for adolescents. The therapy groups that take up 2 1/2 hours each morning of the camp focus on connection through creativity. Improvisation exercises that are fun and engaging allow the teens to share aspects of themselves in a safe and structured way, which very quickly forges bonds as they discover the commonalities they share beyond the fact that all are dealing with significant losses.

The use of imagination and creative experiences to communicate the complexities of grief are especially effective with teens because the emotional immediacy matches their developmental needs, and these tools for self-awareness and self-expression are useful throughout the rest of their lives. Creativity is key, and the process is structured to sustain a flow of attention and energy, e.g. A morning warm-up began with an improvisation game that emphasized recognition of things the teens had learned about one another the day before, followed by a breathing and meditation exercise.

The group members had been instructed to have their journals handy and begin to write when they felt ready. The directive was to write a letter to the person they had lost, or write about their feelings that day if the letter was too difficult. From this the group went into role-plays in which each teen who chose to participate read their letter aloud, either to an empty chair facing them, to someone they chose to play the role of their lost loved one, or to the group. Sharing the letters lead to spontaneous role-plays, imagined conversations about regrets, fears, anger, confusion, and love.

Teens who gain the tools for managing grief and access to appropriate peer and adult relationships in which they can be themselves can learn to trust in the possibilities of life, a trust that is violated by loss too early in life. “Grief that is pushed down will surface eventually,” Ms. Gordon explains, “and there is a direct correlation between acting out behaviors such as drinking and drug use and the loss of a loved one. Utilizing creative techniques to help a teen express what they feel and to help explain the normal grief response helps promote emotional health. Psychodrama is an extremely helpful tool, because teens love to be dramatic and creative at the same time, and it does not feel so much like therapy to them.” And current research bears this out. A study published in the British Journal of Social Work found that engaging adolescents in an active, dynamic process of remembering and creatively constructing a relationship to the person they lost significantly contributed to identity development.

Social worker and singer/actress Staci Block uses improvisation with teens as an effective technique for creative communication about important issues as well as for development of a range of life skills with teens. She created and directs Reflections, a group of adolescent performers who present interactive shows on a range of social and educational issues, through the Division of Family Guidance in Bergen County, New Jersey. “The purpose of Reflections is two-fold,” Staci states, “to raise issues with audiences on topics which are significant to adolescents, and to have the teens in the cast learn more about themselves and the issues about which they present. Although this is not a treatment program, and all the cast members are volunteers, the teens experience a process that is therapeutic and unique.” Role-playing helps teens develop empathy and the ability to see situations from others’ perspectives, which are relationship skills not always accessible through family.

These programs allow teens to be themselves, with all their complex and contradictory emotional needs, probing looks at the world they are getting ready to take on as adults, and struggle for independence mixed with desire for guidance. Both emphasize creative experiences and group connections to maximize the healing and learning potential for adolescents. Ms. Gordon believes that resiliency is enhanced when we “give teens outlets where they can show individuality. Give them the ability to feel really good about themselves and to know that it is okay to laugh and have fun after a loss.

Creativity gives them the outlet that is not typically provided them in their daily lives. They can begin to recognize what they are passionate about, find another perspective about concepts or perceptions they held about themselves. Through the improvised scenes, the teens get a crash course in role-training. Through the range of issues explored in Reflections’ presentations, the teens “experience situations that they may not have encountered yet in their lives. By having the chance to work through the situation in a drama, it often helps them to prepare for what they would actually do if the situation were to occur. If the situation is something the teens has already experienced, the drama can help them perhaps see it in a different way.”

Resiliency is a core psychological strength for coping with change, loss, and destabilizing events. Creative techniques that foster self-expression, self-awareness and supportive social networks enhance resiliency in ways that teens can continue apply to challenges over the course of their lives.