This week is National Grief Awareness Week in the UK and having worked with bereavement for several years, I know that we still don’t talk about grief and loss openly and this can leave some people to struggle alone.
We will all lose the people we love. It seems so strange that this devastating and agonising truth is considered a normal part of our lives, and yet the emotion of grief is part of what makes us human. It is understandable that, as a society, we tend to be scared of death. Even the word can make us recoil. We don’t want to talk about something so earth shattering, something so out of our control.
As we go into December I am mindful that, while for many this is a time of joy and celebration, for others this is an incredibly difficult and painful time of year, as they face a festive season without their loved one. Christmas and other special holidays tend to be a time when people come together with family and friends, and these can be incredibly hard when you’re missing someone. Whether this is the first Christmas without them or the twenty-first, this day can trigger overwhelming feelings of grief.
There is no right way to grieve and everyone experiences their grief differently. Maybe your emotions feel out of control, maybe you burst into tears when you least expect it, maybe you feel incredibly angry or maybe you feel anxious about what other people are thinking or how you will cope. You might find that when you are alone you want to be with others and when you are around people you want to be alone. All of these feelings are valid and normal when you are grieving.
How can I cope? Coping looks different for different people, the important thing is to explore what helps you. It can be helpful to plan your time in advance and the people you want to spend your time with. This can help you to feel in control and supported. Remember that if you are finding things difficult, it is your right to take a step back. This might be taking ten minutes alone during a social event, leaving early or cancelling plans if you feel you need to. Plan activities that you feel comfortable with and give yourself permission to do what you need to do for yourself. You don’t know how you will be feeling one day to the next, so try not to feel guilty if you need to change plans. Be kind to yourself, it’s ok not to be ok. It can be helpful to be open with those closest to you about how you are feeling and what you need from them. If you are struggling, speaking to someone outside of your circle can also be very helpful and it might be right for you to consider speaking to a professional.
How can I help a friend in grief? Tolerating someone else’s pain is one of the hardest things we can do, and the prospect of it can be terrifying. It is easy to tell ourselves that our grieving friends need space, that we don’t know what to say or that if we tried to support them we would say the wrong thing. I often hear from my bereaved clients that some of their friends have disappeared and that they feel hurt and let down.
The important thing to remember is that the worst thing that could happen to your friend has already happened; they have lost someone they love. You are very unlikely to make this worse with anything you could say to them. Rather than worrying about saying the wrong thing, just try to be there for them. Remember that withdrawing or ‘giving them space’ can make them feel abandoned. Keep in touch, suggest meeting up and ask them what they need; remember that what they need might not be the same as what you might need in the same situation. Think about what your contact with them would normally look like and try to replicate this; it can be powerful to remind them that your relationship hasn’t changed. Try not to feel offended if they don’t respond to a message or if they cancel plans, remember that they are trying to cope with their grief as best they can. Just keep showing up for them. There is no timeline for grieving and their loss will be with them forever, so try to be compassionate about this and remember to check in with them around significant dates and times of year. Maybe you know someone who might be finding this time of year difficult, that you could reach out to?