As a physician, I have seen acute grief in the hospital and treated the symptoms associated with grief in my office practice. However, nothing has taught me more about how to support a person through grief than the recent experience of a close family member. I share these lessons with you so you might be better prepared to help someone close to you who is in grief.
Observing the one-year anniversary of her husband's death, a close family member shared with me a touching essay she wrote for her grief counselor about her husband, her grief, how her life has changed and how she has made it through the past year. Her essay made me realize how her grief has permeated every part of her life, and how little others understood her pain. Throughout this past year, she often shared her thoughts with me on what things have helped her get through a day and what things were less effective in helping her deal with her grief.
The most important thing I learned was that, while we often feel the need to say something to help lessen someone's pain, comfort comes not from what you say but from how you listen. You cannot truly understand the sense of loss unless you have also lost a husband or life partner. Avoid making statements like, "At least, he didn't suffer." "He lived a long life." or "It will only get better." As much as we all want to offer solutions and encourage our friends or loved ones, these statements might serve to create distance rather than promote a supportive environment.
Instead, listen and make reflective statements, echoing back what you hear to show that you are listening. For example, "It sounds like you're feeling frustrated with your family's attempts to get you out of the house before you're ready." Also, don't expect her to seek your company or "move on with her life." Realize how much her world has changed and that everything she does may be a reminder of those changes. Take the initiative in easing her back into the world. Don't wait for an invitation but invite her to a restaurant or movie.
Watch for signs of physical and mental health problems. It is common for people who are grieving to experience loss of appetite, stomach upset, weight loss, depression, sleep disturbance, loss of energy and physical symptoms of anxiety, such as palpitations or aches and pains. Remind her that her health care professional can be an important resource during this difficult time, and encourage her to seek help when she experiences any of these symptoms. While it might be common for people to experience these symptoms during grief, there are still ways to make her feel better. Even if depression is a reaction to grief, it can still respond to antidepressant medications with or without counseling.
Financial stress can be particularly hard to deal with while you are grieving. In my practice, I have often seen that grief symptoms begin to clear only after the finances have been settled. If your friend or loved one has experienced a loss, you might offer to help her to sort out her finances. For example, join her on trips to the bank, or help in refinancing a mortgage. Contacting insurance companies and paying the taxes alone for the first time can also be stressful. Your company and participation can be extremely helpful.
For maintaining health after the loss of a loved one, three important things to focus on include:
Although nothing can replace the part of her life that she has lost, a woman survives the loss of her partner with the help of time and the people and friends around her. I know now that there are better ways to help a loved one deal with grief than simply saying, "It will get easier."
Alice Y. Chang, M.D. is a former instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School. She is currently associated with University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. Her clinical interests and experience are in the fields of primary care, women's health, hospital-based medicine and patient education.