Helping a Friend Cope With Grief

To prepare ourselves to help a friend cope with grief, it is useful to consider how our friend may have been affected in distinctive ways by his or her loss.

A Unique Relationship with the Person who has Died

Even when two people love the same person, each of them will have a different relationship with that person. One will be that person’s mother; another will be his or her father. One will be a sibling or grandparent. Still others will be a friend, peer, neighbor or coworker. This seems obvious, but it is often forgotten. The unique qualities of our friend’s attachments to the person who has died ensure that many aspects of his or her losses and the challenges that he or she now faces will be distinctive and individual.

Different Modes of Death and Distinctive Personal Circumstances

The way in which the death occurred can also be significant. For example, people will be affected in different ways if the death is sudden or expected, if it occurs from natural causes or is the result of some human agency, if it is peaceful or traumatic. And the death may take place when an individual is experiencing many other stresses or may recently have experienced other important losses.

Individual Cultural, Religious or Spiritual Values

Another important issue has to do with the values that our friend brings to the encounter with death and the values that guide us in our effort to help. Value frameworks inevitably influence how one reacts to any death-related situation. For some the death may fit into such a framework in appropriate ways, while for others the death may disrupt the values they had previously held.

Grief is an Individual Experience

The immediate lesson to keep in mind when we try to help a friend is this: Although there is much that we may share in common with our friend, we also need to respect the individuality of that person’s experiences of loss and grief. As a result of the issues we have already mentioned, as well as others that include distinctive aspects of personality, life experiences and other factors, our friend is likely to respond in some unique ways to an important death in his or her life.

Another closely-related lesson is: Every individual is likely to mourn, or actually cope with grief, in uniquely personal ways. This coping encompasses all of the efforts one makes to manage one’s losses and one’s grief reactions to those losses. We all learn to cope with life’s challenges from many sources, including our own life experiences, others around us, and social and cultural messages. Sometimes we cope in more or less productive ways. The key to helping a friend is to pay attention to the specific ways in which he or she is coping with death, loss and grief.

Different Styles of Coping

Many have asked: Do women and men cope differently with death and loss? In fact, coping is not simply a matter of gender; rather, it is about different styles. There is a spectrum of coping styles ranging from those that emphasize experiencing and expressing emotion to those that focus on practical matters and problem solving. Because women and men are often socialized differently in our society, more women may be on the expressive end of this spectrum, with more men on the problem-solving end. But any person – male or female – may cope with death-related losses in either one or a combination of these ways.

A Moral for Helping: Meet the Other Person Wherever He or She Is

If we draw together the many issues that enter into an individual’s responses to the death of a loved one, they lead to this basic moral: When we want to help a friend after a death we must try to appreciate how our friend’s responses may differ from our own and seek to meet our friend wherever he or she is. To do that, we need to ask ourselves what issues our friend is facing and how he or she is trying to cope.

What is it that our friend lost because of this death, and how is he or she reacting to that loss? Did our friend lose a father or mother, a brother or sister, a grandparent or friend? Was the relationship a warm and caring one, or was it perhaps not very close, possibly even complex and ambiguous?

When helping others cope with loss, we often focus primarily on their feelings of grief, such as anger, sadness, relief and guilt. In addition to these, we should also observe carefully other grief-associated reactions, whether they are physical, psychological, social or spiritual. For this, we must use our eyes and ears to watch and listen to the bereaved person. We need not say much; primarily, we need to offer our presence to our friend and validate as normal what he or she is experiencing.

Once we have come to appreciate what our friend is experiencing, then we can ask how he or she is coping. In this, our primary role is not to give advice or tell our friend what to do. Instead, our purpose is to help that individual recognize and appreciate the efforts that he or she is making to cope with loss and grief.

We need not be completely passive in our role as helpers. We can gradually suggest some constructive ways of coping and even join in some of them, such as memorial rituals, commemorative activities, and ensuring that our friend gets attention that all bereaved people need. Throughout, we can appreciate the privilege that is ours when we are permitted to offer help to a friend in the shadow of death.

About the Author

Charles A. Corr, Ph.D, is Professor emeritus, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, and former Chairperson (1989-1993) of the International Work Group on Death, Dying, and Bereavement. Dr. Corr’s professional publications include 22 books and more than 80 articles and chapters on a wide variety of death-related topics.

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