You’re grieving. How can I help?

It seems that I have encountered a good deal of grief lately. My friend Joanne suffered for months with an infection in her leg, only to lose the battle and part of her leg. What was amazing to me was her resilience during this ordeal.

She was positive, and hopeful.

She made statements such as “As long as I can enjoy my grandchildren, and swim, I will be okay.” She didn’t even complain when she couldn’t her wear prosthesis because of the scab on her stump. What she didn’t say was that she was mourning the loss of her leg. She didn’t need to, we knew.

Then just yesterday my friend’s only child was thrown from a car in which she was riding and killed instantly.

I have no idea how people even breathe after losing a child, no less actually survive. But the bigger question is “What can I do to help?” Grief is a normal reaction to loss, and the loss can be anything from a leg to a loved one, health, or the break up of a relationship.

Grief reactions seem to follow a similar pattern, and the first stage we typically encounter according to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, a leading expert on death and dying, is Denial and Isolation.

We make statements like “No, not me, it cannot be true.” Denial serves as a buffer after unexpected disturbing news. This often temporary state of shock allows us to collect ourselves.

It helps us prepare for what must follow.

Some people manage to remain in a state of denial for long periods of time, but most of us eventually move to another stage, like Anger.

It is in this stage that finding someone or something to blame helps us make sense of the situation. We make comments like, “The doctors should have told me sooner there was a problem” or, “If only I had been a better wife he wouldn’t have asked for a divorce.” Anger is a difficult emotion and it is helpful to understand that it too is a normal part of grieving.

Another stage is one of Depression. Once we are facing the truth of our fate, a very real sadness may emerge. The depression stage is necessary and beneficial if we are going to move to the final stage, Acceptance.

Acceptance should not be mistaken for happiness. It is as if the pain has diminished, the angry struggle is over, and some emotional balance returns. We are not our “Old Selves” again because there is a new situation and a new identity, and the “Old Self” that existed before the loss is forever altered.

People often report feeling stronger, deeper, better for having faced and overcome the loss. The acceptance stage is an opportunity for growth, reaffirmation, and renewed hope.

I need to point out that progression through these stages does not happen in an orderly, predictable manner.

We are all unique individuals and will grieve in our own way. Some of us will get stuck in one of the stages for a long time, others will move through them all rather quickly. Some of us will jump right to Acceptance, think we are finished, only to find ourselves feeling Anger or Depression down the road. While it is not uncommon to skip one of the stages, what usually happens is that we do each of them several times. In a single day a grieving person can feel Anger, Depression, Anger, Anger, Denial then Depression. What a roller coaster! So how can we help? First, try to control your own fear of loss. If all you can manage is “I’m sorry for your loss,” that’s just fine, but find the courage to say it.

Secondly, one of the most comforting things during a time of loss is the presence of someone who understands the grieving process and can understand that our reactions are normal. It is helpful to be the friend who understands that anger, depression and denial are all stops on the road to Acceptance.

Finally, if you can listen, do so. Telling the story over and over can help recovery, and if you are one of those people who can listen to the loss, that will help. If you are not, your “I’m sorry” is still a great help. John Lennon said it well,

“I get by with a little help from my friends.”