No plasters, no books: how to help someone survive the grief vortex
Updated: Apr 2
There are two types of people in this world. Those who have grieved and those who haven’t. For those who haven’t, let me put it like this: Grief is a you-shaped hole that has been torn through the universe, ingesting every last atom that previously belonged to you. It’s a hole from which you will certainly never return. That’s about the only thing you are sure of as your innards disappear through the vortex.
If someone had offered me a book about grief during such time, I would have ricocheted it off their head. You don’t, after all, offer a plaster to someone who just stepped on a landmine.
So perhaps the first rule of grief-club is don’t get out a book about grief. The gesture implies that the griever needs to learn how to grieve better or heal faster or in some way be different to how they are presently being; that perhaps they need to grieve less, suffer less, cry less. And this is the single biggest mistake people make when trying to help someone grieve: Stop telling them how.
From the death of a loved one to the death of a belief, the grief vortex swallows us all at some point. Yet despite this being an inevitable part of life, and regardless of all our social strengths combined, as a society we seem inherently shit at helping each other through what is as natural as birth. I use the word ‘natural’ lightly, because nothing about grief feels natural, even though it sadly is.
When someone you care about is drowning in an invisible sea, it is easy to feel helpless. But you can be so much more than a floundering bystander saying and doing all the wrong things with the best intentions. By being mindful of these five key areas, you can actually be a lifeline.
1) Know the nature of the beast
One of the biggest challenges we face when it comes to supporting those who are grieving is that grief, as an experience, is largely misunderstood. Both highly unique and deeply personal to each individual, how can we presume to know the intimacy of the process for others?
The Oxford Dictionary describes grief as to feel intense sorrow. Well, I don’t know about you, but I feel intense sorrow every time I reach the end of a packet of Oreos, or when the final scene of Marley and Me is on TV, or when I succumb to the fact that no matter how long I wait, I will probably never get to ride a hover-board like Marty McFly. Nope, sorry Oxford, intense sorrow just doesn’t cut it.
The Cambridge Dictionary defines grief as very great sadness, especially at the death of someone. I agree more with this, if we could add ‘or something’ to the end, because grief is the mourning of death, yes, but death does not always mean the death of a person. We can grieve the death of a concept, a friendship, a marriage, a belief, a dream, a home, a self-identity; all the things that are part of our design, our routine. Things that, if lost permanently, would feel like a severed limb. Even hate can be grieved when its source is lost without warning.
Grief is immense pain. No scan or X-ray will prove your broken body, your ruptured lungs, your failing heart, but you can feel it. So my definition is to suffer immense pain caused by significant loss. If you think about it this way, in terms of physical trauma, it immediately becomes clearer on what to do and what not to do in order to help.
2) Accept the chaos
You don’t need to be a psychologist to have heard about the ‘Five Stages of Grief’. Coined by pioneering psychiatrist and author Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, these stages - denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance - have been famously bound as the human model for experiencing grief, altered by others over time as seven stages and so forth. But while there are portions of truth in this model, most people I know who have experienced grief have not felt anything that fits neatly into a linear emotional journey.
Especially with the biggest losses, the process seems more akin to tripping through a constantly twisting kaleidoscope; the colours, shapes and textures of the human emotional spectrum warp beyond recognition. ‘Stages’ does not seem fluid enough, although I agree that acceptance does usually arrive in some form, eventually.
Professor David B. Feldman PhD of the Department of Counselling Psychology at Santa Clara University, wrote a great article in 2017 for online journal Phycology Today, explaining how the Five Stages of Grief is misleading and can actually be detrimental to those upon whom it is imposed. The problem with compartmentalizing grief into stages, Feldman highlights, is that it can leave individuals feeling shamed or frustrated if their experience is different, as if they are grieving incorrectly or abnormally.
It also misleads outsiders, who think they understand the stages of grief, to interfere with and criticise those who are not following the stages neatly. Sound unlikely? I can assure you it happens. People say the most incredibly insensitive things in an attempt to help (interfere) with the grieving process, and this is partly down to ignorance over what grief really is. If we stopped trying to impose our own preconceived notions onto others and instead fully accepted the chaotic, prolonged, inconvenient and ugly-as-hell facets of grief, then we would be much better at supporting those who are tripping like a disaster through their own kaleidoscope.
3) Don't judge
Whether your tool is alcohol, drugs, food, sex, exercise, spending, risk-taking or all of the above, grief can make us desperate for endorphins and dopamine; the happy hormones. Considering there is no greater emotional pain than raw grief, it is completely understandable how we may reach for our go-to pain relief this way. And yet we will almost always be chastised for doing so.
Unfortunately, society squirms at the sight of a person undone. This is why drug and alcohol addicts are shunned and why so often homeless people are drug and alcohol addicts who have faced significant loss. The relationship between grief, endorphins and dopamine is so interwoven and yet we try to deny it. We label it as a sign of weakness instead of accepting what is a natural part of grief that requires a large level of damage-control and empathy.
For me, it was food. A counsellor once told me that comfort-eating during grief is a survival mechanism; our body’s way of preparing for a harsh winter. I was quite happy to take her word for it as I sobbed my way through my third tub of Ben & Jerry’s at the time. The part of her advice that resonated though was that sometimes it is ok to not be ok. Getting self-destructive and drinking through the mornings, binging through the evenings and impulse shopping through the entire database of Amazon is going to have major ramifications, of course, but if someone you know is behaving this way because of grief, be mindful before simply telling them to stop.
When people lay screaming in hospital, they are given morphine. Women are given epidurals during labour. Alcohol was used as primitive pain relief. Public holidays that encourage mass spending and overindulgence typically take place during the coldest and darkest - the hardest - times of year. Needing artificial comfort during adversity has been a natural human response since the dawn of time. If someone you know is making their situation potentially worse this way, instead of telling them to stop, or downplaying their pain with insensitive suggestions, how about you just stay close? Help to mitigate the situation discretely, compassionately and without judgement.
4) Be present
Losing friends is a byproduct of adversity that we don’t usually see coming. It’s not that people set out to be shit during times of need, it’s just that all too often people lack insight into what's really happening. They try to fix the situation and when this doesn’t work, tensions build. Indeed, it is common for close-ones to make the grieving process harder, particularly by those who have never grieved before. When you have rejected every invite and started to become a hermit crab with poor conversational skills, lesser friends may persecute you on the merit of the un-grieving you - that entirely different person they used to enjoy - and this is when lectures transpire.
True friends stick around and be in the darkness with you; they don’t try to hurry you up, clean you up, even pick you up, because they realise nothing will. Instead, they stay for the duration; they hear you without judgement or expectation and say, “ok, I can’t take the darkness away, but I can stay in it with you.” They don’t leave and they don't complain that the friendship has become imbalanced. Simply listening and staying present sounds relatively easy, but actually this is a real test of loyalty and empathy that a lot of people struggle with.
Putting expectations onto others is part of our social makeup, so removing those expectations and being completely selfless towards a person who is grieving can be a challenge. Again, swap the emotional pain for a physical equivalent and it makes sense. Would you be offended if your friend wasn't there for you while they underwent chemotherapy that made them sick every day? Probably not. Utilise your empathy and compassion, plus a little common sense, and remember that grief is excruciating.
Your role (as someone who wants to help) is not to pull and push the griever into directions that you believe would better serve them. Your role is to be present, that’s all. It sounds simple but it isn’t. Every electron in your brain will try to regurgitate futile advice; you need to do this, you need to stop that. These words will tinker on your lips and if you’re not careful they will spew out all over the griever at the worst moment.
5) Forget time
If you remember what you are dealing with, if you truly accept the chaos - without judgement - and are prepared to just be present in the darkness with a person who is grieving, my last bit of advice is to forget time. When it comes to overcoming adversity in general, time takes on a whole new form, but no more so than when the adversity is grief.
There is no set time that a person should grieve. There is no stage or phase or period that works for everyone. Whether a person is still struggling a year later or ten years later, the timescales of grief are completely, unapologetically unique to the griever. I write more about this in my upcoming blog the grief-time continuum because to me it is one of the most important and vastly misunderstood facets of grief and adversity.
So for now, all I will say is this; if you wish to help somebody with their journey through grief, be prepared to relinquish all rights and judgement over how long that journey may take. Of course you are not expected to stay on the train the whole time, sometimes just being there part of the way is enough, but if you want to help, then accept that the pace of the journey and its final destination is not yours to steer.
That's it. These small but incredibly impactful suggestions are pretty much all you can do, because unless you have a magic wand there is no other remedy when a person is haemorrhaging for something they have permanently lost.
The grief vortex is an all-consuming, life changing experience that some individuals may never recover fully from. But if you can implement these five steps with empathy, you could be a lifeline during a time when there really isn't one, which is pretty amazing. Just be ready to let your friend or loved-one bleed out without reaching for the plasters or books.