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5 ways to support a loved one through bereavement

Psychological Therapist Michelle Bassam shares her advice on helping a friend or family member with loss

Friends holding hands in support
Sophie Hamilton
Sophie HamiltonParenting Editor
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It’s National Grief Awareness Week from 2 - 8 December 2023 and most of us have either lost someone close to us or know a person who has.

Grief manifests in various forms, be it the death of a loved one, the end of a special relationship or even a major life change. It can be hard to know what to say and do when a family member, friend or colleague is going through such a heartbreaking event.

In collaboration with Attic Self Storage, Psychological Therapist Michelle Bassam from London’s Harley Therapy, has shared her invaluable insights and guidance with HELLO! on how to support a loved one during bereavement.

© rbkomar

 MORE:  What therapists want you to know about grief 

1) Understanding the five stages of grief

At some point in our lives, we have to face grief and the emotional feelings of loss. It is important to understand how everyone faces this time of life at their own pace, with different priorities and personal needs.

Elizabeth Kubler Ross is a psychiatrist and author who talks about the five stages of grief, and in therapy, I work with the five stages. It is important to recognise this is nonlinear and in no set order.

Denial

This is a common stage and usually happens almost immediately after the death of a loved one. Individuals describe themselves as feeling numb and non-descript. Although they are aware of the death, it’s hard for them to accept that their loved one isn’t coming back. The denial can sometimes be so strong that it’s not uncommon for them to feel the presence of somebody who has just passed, hear their voice or even see them.

Anger

Death can feel cruel and unfair and therefore anger is a completely natural feeling to experience during the early stages of the grieving process. The anger helps us mask our true feelings, it hides the disbelief, sadness and frustration. The anger can also be directed towards the person who has died or family members, who are trying to be helpful. This emotion can be expressed early in the grieving process; for some it can subside, and rational thinking takes its place.

Bargaining

Feeling vulnerable can bring out certain types of behaviour. You can feel out of control because of the intense emotion. ‘What if’ is the phrase I constantly hear from my clients during this stage. This is related to not wanting to face the situation or allow oneself to feel the true pain and sadness. Followed by blaming themselves for not having done things differently.

Depression

This is sometimes a longer and quieter stage of grief. We start to face our emotions and feel the day-to-day feelings of loss. We are no longer running away. Starting to face the reality and coping with the intense sadness, can bring on this stage. Many people isolate themselves, tend to feel confused, overwhelmed, and worthless.  For many, this is the stage where they start to look for outside help.

Acceptance

This can take many months depending on how one proceeds through the other stages. You can still be in the depression stage and start to accept that life will be very different going forward. Slowly, as the depression starts to subside, you feel some good days may lie ahead, with the acknowledgement of accepting your new reality.

  MORE:  How to practice gratitude for a happier life: an expert's guide 

2) Being there: you are not alone

 It's important to remind your friend or family member that they are not alone. Everyone goes through this process differently, so it's important to allow them to embrace the many different options they have.

Express your unwavering presence and readiness to listen without judgment. Encourage the individual to seek support from family, friends, or professional organisations. Cruse is a very good organisation to talk to, or they could possibly join a group.

Also, therapy is a place, where with the right therapist, you can feel psychologically held and be completely open and no longer feel alone. Harley Therapy is a great organisation if you want to have a chat with a therapist.

It’s important that, as the supportive friend, you aren’t going through a grieving process. The friend will need to be resilient and must not dictate and think they know best. They must allow their grieving friend to go through the stages but be empathetic and understanding. If it works, it can be wonderful and build on a friendship that can last the tests of time.

two people hugging for support© Getty

3) Easing back into routine

The time frame once again is different for us all. Encourage those who are grieving to think about getting back into their routine, and to think about their sleep, diet, and exercise. 

Sleep is important and can influence their mood and ability to work through the day.

Is their bedroom set up for sleep? Think temperature, light, comfort, and is it cluttered? Does it feel calm for them? Are they able to relax? A bedroom is a sanctuary, but it can be a place to dump unwanted things or things that need to be stored and dealt with at another time.

Encourage eating healthily as it can help us function better and get back into a healthy routine. If possible, encourage your friend or family to eat fresh, nutritious food and try to resist takeaways.

Try gently suggesting for them to get some fresh air every day - walking is great, it gives people time to think and work through thoughts in their mind that can be holding them back.

I also recommend starting and ending the day with gratitude. You could suggest that your friend notes down or thinks of three things they are thankful for, in the morning and at night. Believe me, it works.

It's also worth encouraging them to take time to write down their routine and how they would like their day or week to feel. We are thinking about the new normal for them and they are important.

4) Make space for their feelings

During times of grief, there can be an additional burden such as dealing with physical possessions or administrative tasks - perhaps things a loved one has left behind for them to take care of – and the addition of these items can often make people feel trapped or overwhelmed. 

For anyone grieving, decluttering the space around them is important to give their mind a rest and room to breathe, but at this time, the bereaved individual may not feel ready to sort through everything or make big decisions on what they might want to keep.

To give the bereaved individual time, self-storage can offer an option. Storing the belongings until their mind is ready to cope with the decluttering process can help to create a clear space to think, relax, create a routine and start to look after their own wellbeing.

5) Create a memorable place

In a decluttered home, it can be important to create a memorable space for the one/ones we are grieving. Encourage the individual to perhaps have a special place in the garden or lighting candles to feel closeness.

We all have our memories but to be able to enjoy and treasure those memories we need to create space for something personal, beautiful, and relaxing.

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