Veronica Tonay, Ph.D.

What Should I Do For Someone Who's Experiencing a Loss?

WHAT LOSS FEELS LIKE: Along with the obvious feelings of pain and sadness, there are other reactions to loss, such as feeling helpless, fearful, empty, despairing, pessimistic, irritable, angry, guilty, restless; experiencing a loss of concentration, hope, motivation, energy; changes in appetite, sleep patterns, or sexual drive; a tendency to be more fatigued, error-prone, and slower in speech and movement. Any or all of these are to be expected during and after loss. It is part of the body's natural healing process. Encourage your friend to accept them, not fight them. 'Loss' here means death or separation of any kind that feels permanent and unwanted, including loss of the sense of security and safety, as after a trauma, and loss of identity, as after a major life transition. Information here was compiled from many sources.

* Recognize that a grieving person's judgment and concentration will be off for at least the first year. Don't take over for her or him, but encourage your friend to make no major decisions during that time.

* Allow the grieving person to cry. Don't be afraid to offer comfort for fear you will make your friend cry. Tears are healing. Sometimes the best thing you can do is to silently and gracefully be there. The one who is lost, is not.

* Remember that the grieving process is not the smooth progression many people assume. It's more like a lightning bolt, full of ups and downs, progressions and regressions, dramatic leaps and discouraging backslides.

* Grieving people often want to 'flee the scene' of the loss. A healing, restorative vacation with friends or family members can be very helpful. Sometimes, when grieving, we want to be alone. That wish, too, should be honored.

* Realize there are several stages of grieving: shock/denial/numbness; fear/anger/sadness; guilt/questioning; understanding/acceptance/moving on. They do not necessarily occur in any order, and they can come and go.

* Understand that your friend will be absent-minded, forgetful, and clumsy. If your friend was a great organizer and arranged everything, he may not be up to that now. Take over for awhile.

* Encourage your friend to talk about the person who died. You can do this by saying something like "I remember when (you told me) (name) did or said..." Not talking about the absent person does not keep your friend from thinking about that person. If the relationship was conflictual, now is not the time to be pointing out those conflicts to your friend. Let your friend work this through with a professional.

* Be there for your friend: a week later, 6 months later, a year later. Be the friend you profess to be...all the time.

* Offer to help. Don't ask how you can help, just DO something. If you bake, take some cookies over whenever you happen to feel like it. Encourage your friend to get out of the house, but don't press. Call and ask her to go out for lunch or dessert and coffee. If he is having trouble concentrating on work or on studying, offer your help.

* Say "I'm so sorry for your loss." Do not say: "They were ready to go"; "She is no longer suffering - it's better this way"; "I know just how you feel" (no one knows how anyone else feels); "God wanted her to be with him" (so does your friend); "God only takes the good ones" (where does that leave your friend?); "You're strong--you'll make it" (your friend has no choice); "You're young; you'll find someone else" (Your friend can't replace the person lost--yes, they can love again but they don't feel like that in the beginning and don't want to hear it).

* Do understand that this is not something your friend should get over in a certain period of time. Don't put a time-table on grief--everyone heals at their own pace. Full healing following the loss of a close loved one or family member generally doesn't come for at least 2-1/2 to 6 years. It can take much longer if the lost person died violently or suddenly, or in the case of suicide or loss of a child.

* Ask how your friend is feeling, and if the response is "fine," say, "Are you REALLY fine?" Your friend will say "fine" because she knows that's what you want to hear, but please make the effort to really find out how she's doing (ask how she is sleeping, eating, and how she is dealing with each day-- she needs to tell you).

* Expect to see irritability. It's normal to feel anger towards the person who left us, God, fate, doctors, the stopped up sink, and so on. This is part of healing. Please don't tell your friend he's being unreasonable. Just allow him his anger and listen with love to his ranting and raving.

* Drop a card in the mail if you know your friend is dealing with an anniversary of a birthday, death, or commitment. They are feeling alone and vulnerable; they need to know you are out there and thinking of them.

*You are a good friend. You are in this for the long haul. Resist the temptation to hurry your friend along and recognize that when you say, 'you need to get out more,' that might be more about your need to escape your friend's pain than what your friend needs. Take breaks from your friend's grief. Return refreshed and grateful to have a friend who feels things deeply.

* Give your friend many hugs. Touch is always healing.

* Be sensitive to the fact that people grieve differently. Some cry openly, whereas others cry behind closed doors. Some may not speak of the lost person, but you'll notice them wearing the deceased's shirt, watch, and so on. This allows your friend to feel close to the lost person.

* Suggest going for a walk, or playing some sport. Depression can be lightened a little by the biochemical changes brought on by exercise, which can also encourage better sleep. Do understand your friend's whole life was changed by this loss. Your friend is not only grieving the loss of a loved one, but also the loss of the role that person or situation filled in his or her life (mother, father, wife, etc.).

* Allow your friend to talk about their guilt. Even though you may feel they have nothing to feel guilty about, most of us feel guilt about some aspect of loss. We need to talk about it with someone who will listen, care, and not judge. Talking about our guilt will help us to let it go.

* Understand that not everyone feels comforted by religion. We all have our own spiritual beliefs and now is not the time to push your religion's beliefs. If your friend has lost someone to death, listen to your friend's thoughts about where the lost one might be, or the meaning of the loss.

* Be prepared to be rejected. Be prepared for illogical behavior. Be forgiving. Do not feel the person who is grieving is treating you badly despite your best efforts. Your friend will remember you were there when things settle down. Don't hold a grudge. Try to always keep in mind that what your friend wants the most, you nor anyone else can give: to have the loved one back. Everything else, from sleep, to food, to manners, is superfluous.

* Most importantly: DO follow through if you say you're going to do something for your friend or invite your friend over. At this point in your friend's life, your friend feels there is very little, if anything, to be counted on. Let your friend at least be able to count on you.

* "This, too, shall pass..."

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