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How Do I Help a Hurting Friend? (Baker Books)

 
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Specific Ways to Work Through Your Grief

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GRIEF

"How Do I Help a Hurting Friend?"

By Rod J.K. Wilson

CBN.com – When we comprehend the power of loss and the grief that goes with it, we will be able to help others frame the experience they are going through. The individual in your small group who has just lost a job, the woman who just went through a divorce, the couple struggling with infertility, the family who just went bankrupt, are all in situations that may raise grief responses. In some cases they will be aware that they are more tired, more removed from people, unmotivated or forgetful, but they will not be labeling it as grief in response to loss. In these kinds of situations, I have found that the question, “This seems like a death, doesn’t it?” often brings tears to the surface as the person gets in touch with the depth of their loss. This kind of understanding will help the person move through the stages of grief.

Recognize that different stages bring different opportunities.

When our responses are based on the foundation of care and understanding, we can reach out to people and be of help.

When people are in shock:

• Be there. There is nothing more valuable than someone by your side when you are struggling with the shock of loss. You cannot minimize the significance of your physical presence when someone is going through bereavement.

• Avoid giving advice. Shock, by definition, implies disorientation and lack of direction. Even if your advice is good, it will not be ap- propriate at this stage. Recognize that our tendency to advise comes not from our desire to reach out to the person going through grief, but from our own need to do something in the midst of a situation that seems so much out of our control.

• Offer practical help. There are many practical things (e.g., meals prepared, errands run, driving people to appointments, insurance and business arrangements, phone calls, etc.) that need to be done when a loss occurs. This is especially true within the first week after a death. There are a vast number of areas that need attention and concentration, and the person going through grief will benefit from practical help.

When people are coping with reality:

• Be a good listener. One of the things that happens when people are experiencing grief is that they will tell you the same story over and over again. Not only will there be details about the death itself, but also stories about their life with the person. Listen each time as if it was the first time.

• Be patient. Grief is emotionally disruptive and it makes most of us say and do irrational things. It is easy to tire of people who are irrational, but remember that your character is best revealed in wearying circumstances.

• Avoid moralizing. When people are coping with the details of their story, they do not want to hear the moral of the story. This is not to discount the accuracy or validity of the moral or the spiritual lesson you may see in the situation, but rather to recognize the importance of timing.

When people are in reaction:

• Recognize that they are filled with varied feelings. People will work through their grief more effectively if they do not just experience emotions but also express them.

• Avoid judging their feelings. One of the best ways to shut down the expression of feeling is to assess it. This is particularly true with anger, one of the emotions that seems to be negated most often. Allow people the freedom to simply experience the vast range of feelings that are a natural part of grief.

• Help the grieving person examine what they are feeling. Good interactionwill allow the grieving person to understand what they are experiencing. Because their feelings are all over the map, careful listening and processing will bring clarity. Allow people the opportunity to name the emotions they are feeling, to talk about them and unpack them without any sense that they are wrong and inappropriate.

When people are moving toward recovery:

• Encourage them. This stage, done well, will allow them to move into the rest of their lives in a healthier manner. Encouragement in this stage does not deny what has happened or ignore the significance of the loss, but it helps the person to see the present in light of the future.

• Aid them with decision-making. People need help when they are reorienting their lives. They will be making important decisions about where to live, what relationships to be involved in, what lifestyle they wish to choose, etc.

• Address their guilt. Many individuals feel they are doing something wrong when they start moving on with their lives. Somehow it feels disrespectful to “leave the deceased behind” and embrace the future. Appropriate reassurance can be helpful in this stage.

Be there at various points in the process.

When people experience a loss, the natural tendency is to be there when the loss actually occurs. When someone is fired, it is easy to have them over for supper the next week. When someone dies, it is obvious that going to the funeral home is the appropriate thing to do. When your teenage daughter loses a volleyball tournament, it can help to talk to her that night. While these are appropriate responses, it ignores the reality that losses do not stop after they have happened. It has been over twenty years since my wife, Bev, and I received our infertility diagnosis. At that stage the sense of loss was profound and we moved back and forth between shock and reality. Over those twenty years we have experienced the loss in different ways. Now that we are in our fifties and biology is going to close the door completely, the sense of loss is more final and complete. People who are sensitive to issues of grief around infertility would be very valuable to us in our own processing of the loss. Our loss did not end twenty years ago. In many ways it only began then.

The same is true for death. Funerals are so poorly timed in terms of loss. Very few grieving friends and family are out of the shock stage by the time the funeral arrives. And yet our words of comfort at the funeral home and in funeral homilies often indicate that the survivors are in the recovery stage, ready to get on with their lives. Well-meaning visitors will look at the faces and demeanor of the family and conclude, “She is doing well.” Nothing could be further from the truth. She has had so many people around her since her husband died that she has no idea how she feels.

These realities emphasize the importance of being there during the whole process of loss. Weeks, months, and years after losses, speak to the person about it, drop them a note, or make a call. The fear that raising the loss with the person will upset them is a misplaced fear. In the first place, “upset” is not bad; and in most cases, people will be glad to know that you are remembering them. This is particularly true at special events. If my friend John’s two children get married, there will be happiness at the wedding but also a sense of loss. Most children and wives assume that Dad will be there when the children are married. Undoubtedly, John will be missed.

I have found that this basic practice is often ignored because “I didn’t want to bother you” or “I knew others would be calling you” or “I’m sure you have had a lot of people connecting with you.” It is better to connect and demonstrate care at various points after the initial loss than speculate about what others are doing.


Rod J. K. Wilson is the author of How Do I Help a Hurting Friend? (Baker Books, 2006) from which this article is excerpted. Dr. Wilson is the president and professor of counseling and psychology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. Along with his professional counseling and consulting work, he has spent his career in academia in both teaching and administrative posts and in pastoral ministry. He and his wife, Bev, live in Burnaby, British Columbia.

Used with permission of Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group.

 

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