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Dr Natasha Bijlani  MBBS, FRCPsych., Consultant Psychiatrist at Priory Hospital Roehampton, looks at how to support a person who is grieving the loss of someone close to them.

Coping with the loss of a family member or close friend can be very difficult. Everyone reacts differently to loss and how a person responds can depend on many factors such as their personality and upbringing, religious beliefs, health, as well as the circumstances of their loss.

There is no ‘normal’ period for grief to end and it can last for months or years. Bereavement can lead to a range of emotions such as sadness, shock, denial, anger, confusion and helplessness, which may be expressed in no particular order. Some people also experience intense physical symptoms such as exhaustion and numbness, which make it difficult for them to perform their normal daily tasks. 

Most people recover from grief on their own with the passage of time, using healthy coping mechanisms and with the support of their family and friends.

How to best support a grieving person

When supporting a grieving person, offer up your time and company. If you are struggling to think of things to say, avoid phrases like, “be strong”, “I know how you feel” or “they are probably in a better place”. Also, avoid asking them about the intensity or length of their grief, comparing their grief to others or saying that the deceased would not want them to be so sad.

Instead, let them know that while you may not be able to fully understand their loss, you are available to them if they want to talk or even just have someone to sit with them so they are not alone.

Allow the person to mourn their loss by expressing their emotions to you and others. Encourage them to accept these reactions as well as the intensity of their response. You may also want to assist them as they perform rituals in-keeping with their cultural and religious traditions and beliefs.

You should encourage the person to keep up with their usual routine and regular healthy habits such as getting adequate sleep and eating well so that their health doesn’t decline. 

When providing appropriate compassionate support, try not to let the grieving person rely on you so much that it starts to affect your daily life. Everyone needs to learn to cope by themselves eventually.

Dealing with ‘complicated grief’

It is thought that around 15% of people are susceptible to ‘complicated grief’, which is a condition more severe than the average loss-related life transition.

Those who develop this can end up with changes to their personal relationships. They can also develop a sense of meaninglessness, a prolonged yearning or searching for the deceased individual, and a sense of estrangement from their personal beliefs.

For someone who has possibly developed complicated grief or is showing symptoms of depression, it is important to think about getting a psychiatric assessment so that the person is able to get access to any support that they need.

Seeking professional support for grief

If you feel that the person you are supporting isn’t recovering from their loss as you might have expected them to, and they have been unable to regain their usual level of functioning or independence, try and encourage them to seek professional help.

Trained bereavement counsellors and therapists can provide them with expert guidance and psychological support. 

The widely held belief that grieving should be about ‘letting go’ is now being challenged. It is considered more helpful to encourage the bereaved to try and foster a constructive continuing bond with the deceased person. This can include remembering the good times, setting up an internal dialogue with a lost loved one, thinking of that person on a regular basis and imagining the person's reactions to current life events and problems. 

The bereavement counselling and therapy that is available at Priory can help a person to reach this point on their journey. As every person’s bereavement process is unique and complex, our therapists are able to provide a person with treatment that is suitable for them, supporting them throughout their grief so that they feel supported, have the time and space to talk, and learn effective techniques for coping with their emotions going forward.

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