I often receive phone calls from people who are concerned about a family member, friend, colleague, or neighbour who is grieving.
In all these calls there is the question: “What can I do to help?”
In answering that question, I am going to give a short description of the brain and what happens in loss.
The part of our brains that helps us think consciously is situated above our eyebrows behind our foreheads. You will often hear this area referred to as the Frontal or prefrontal cortex. The type of thinking that goes on here is known as executive functioning. It helps us analyse our surroundings, make decisions and interact in conscious and meaningful ways with the rest of the world. It is considered this area helps us make sense of loss and allows us to use coping strategies to deal with our grief. It may also try to understand and find meaning and let us think our way out of distress. This is very efficient, but….
Deep in the brain, above the area behind our nose is an area that is known as the limbic system. This part of the brain is responsible for us balancing our internal world and external reality.
One part adds the emotions to our experiences. It responds to threats to our world with fear that feels very real.
Another part is where we store our memories. This area stores all our experiences including loss experiences and will provide the memories that we base our grieving on. Negative grief experiences will impact our grieving in the present.
Other experiences, such as the way we attach with our care givers as children also have a dramatic impact here. The loss of grief is tied up with our attachment style. It can result in loss being perceived as a threat to our life.
The intensity of our grief experience has its foundation in the limbic system.
The limbic system is an area of the brain we cannot consciously control. It is also an area of the brain that provides feelings we have trouble understanding and voicing.
Another function of the limbic system is to respond to threat with the fight or flight stress response. Grief throws a person into this response. This produces a state of high arousal of the limbic system where the more conscious and logical parts of the brain stop functioning. Instead our limbic system takes over and provides the reactions we need to stay alive.
When the fight/flight response in the body activates there are many effects.
The first, as I have already mentioned, is to turn off conscious thought. The person cannot make decisions or often respond with words that make sense.
They are quite likely to lose their appetite as the fight/flight response is focused on movement and does not allow processing of food.
The person may want to move constantly as a flight response.
Or they may become angry, aggressive and combative as a fight response.
They are likely to not sleep.
People who have journeyed some way from their grief and can vocalise their experience more often tell me at this stage they are constantly bombarded with food or drink. Yet the last thing they want to do is eat or drink. Their experience of grief is so overwhelming it leaves no room for anything else.
They also report they often felt numb. There was a great sense of unreality.
They also tell me that people spoke to them and they knew they were talking, but they couldn’t hear them or they weren’t even aware people were there.
In some instances they heard people talking but could not manage to reply. They felt as though they were paralysed.
Others said they just wanted to move, maybe even escape and just walk and walk.
Some felt great anger and lashed out at other people. One of the hardest things was seeing other people going about their day as though nothing had happened. Their world had stopped but everyone else’s had kept going.
WHAT CAN YOU DO TO HELP AT THIS TIME?
Just be with the person. Let them know you are there and want to help them. Be okay to sit in silence, to not have to say anything. Allow the person to speak if they want to. When they speak, just listen. Don’t try to fix things, you can’t. just listen. Let them know you are there to support them.
If the person wants to go for a walk, go with them. That way they can feel supported but also be able to express their need for movement in safety.
You might occasionally offer food or drink. But remember they may not be hungry. Accept their No and don’t try to force food on them.
If there is a steady procession of casseroles, put one in the fridge and freeze the rest. They will be needed some day.
I sometimes have people come to me at this stage between the loss of their loved one and the funeral. There is not a lot of processing that will take place here.
The person often wants to talk. Talking to someone more objective is often easier than talking to friends and family who are affected too.
I also encourage the person to be kind to themselves. To not place high expectations on their behaviour. To not feel they have to look after everyone at the funeral and afterwards. Instead I tell them it is okay to not want to talk to people, to feel angry, to leave if they want to, to not be the consummate hostess. I always remind them they are the one who has lost someone and the priority is their care.
After the funeral things may ease a little and the person may be more able to occasionally engage with the world. They also may appear to get worse as the full reality of their loss, without the distraction of funeral preparations, is able to be experienced.
You do need to watch the person who appears to just shut down and stop eating, talking or generally being with people. Mostly, that person will eventually emerge from that state and start living again.
If you are concerned at the length of time they are in this state, if you are concerned they are getting worse you may consider getting help for them.
Remember they may refuse help.
The best way to approach this is to talk to them about how much you care and are concerned. Arrange an appointment with a grief counsellor and take them to the appointment. Take them home again and make sure they are okay afterwards. You may want to stay with them for a while. They may also ask to be alone. Don’t force yourself on them if they ask to be alone.
It is comforting in this situation to know that researchers have found that when people experience these episodes of great sadness after the loss of a loved one, the sadness has a purpose. It decreases their yearning for their loved one. This allows them to explore memories of their loved one without being overwhelmed. This can help them to heal as it allows them to process some of their most painful memories.
Be there to listen and support your friend. Make sure they know that you care and are willing to support them in any way.
Don’t give advice, don’t tell them what to do.
Offer food and drink but accept if they say no.
If they want to walk go with them.
If you think it will help. take them to a counsellor, but if they refuse to go, don’t force them.
Never tell them it is time to get on with life or get over it.