Helping Those Coping With Grief This Emotional Life on PBS

Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS

Grief and Loss

		

Helping yourself & others

Repressing or avoiding emotions can hinder the natural grief process.

Denying feeling means denying the chance to mourn. Avoiding or denying necessary support can keep the wounds of grief open. Turning to alcohol, drugs, or other distractions will only make things worse in the long run. The most consistent advice from people who have traveled the very painful road of grief is this: allow others to help you.

Helping
yourself

Helping yourself

The way we process grief is different for each person. Research has shown that it is not necessarily how you cope that’s important, but that you find a way of coping that is right for you. Here are ideas that have helped many through the difficult, early phases of grief and mourning:

  • Seek support through family and friends
  • Process emotions through grief support groups
  • Turn to grief counseling
  • Find meaning from the experience; this can include taking comfort in a religious community or exploring spiritual views; finding meaning does not necessarily mean turning to religion or spirituality; it can include finding a new outlook on life or fulfilling new goals in light of the death of a loved one
  • Attend to your physical health, including maintaining a healthy diet, exercising, and getting enough sleep
  • Continue to engage in existing hobbies and creative and social outlets
  • Become educated about the grief process

Helping
others

Helping others

Everyone grieves differently. One family member may cry loudly and incessantly. Another may be withdrawn and quiet. Another may show physical symptoms. These are all valid ways of dealing with grief; there are no “normal” steps of grieving. The one thing that everyone in mourning needs, however, is support. The steps below, adapted from the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, can serve as guidelines for helping others deal with grief:

  • Recognize all of the feelings. Reactions vary. Do not judge another's feelings or assess how well they are or are not coping.
  • Accept cultural differences. Cultural and religious views, even individual beliefs, vary. Understanding alternate views without judgment will help those going through bereavement.
  • Help them renew interests. When the grieving person is ready, step in to help renew their interest in existing activities or hobbies. Be specific with suggestions, such as, “Let’s go to see a Saturday movie matinee.” But if you’re turned down, don’t push.
  • Remain available to the bereaved. Loved ones will need your presence and possibly help for weeks or months, long after others have returned to their normal routines.
  • Offer specific suggestions of help. Don’t say, “If you need help, call.” That call probably won’t come. Instead, offer specific help with tasks such as cooking meals, doing yard work, or taking on other definable chores.
  • Build a caring circle. Gather a group of friends and/or family who are able to take on specific tasks for some time. This can include everything from childcare to going to the grocery store.
  • Keep checking in. Regular contact during the first couple of years after death is helpful. Notes, cards, calls, and in-person visits are ways to stay in touch.
  • Be aware of special and anniversary dates. Certain days, like birthdays, holidays, and family occasions, can be more difficult for those grieving the death of a loved one. If that person would be spending such a day alone, invite them to spend time with you and your family. They may decline your offer, but it means a great deal to the bereaved that you've extended it.
  • Be a good listener. Often, the most important action you can take is to let them express their feelings and also listen to stories about their loved one. Storytelling is itself a form of healing.

Helping
caregivers

Helping caregivers

Those who care for loved ones with a terminal illness, such as cancer, also need support. They are grieving in the midst of their caregiving. The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization provides solid, helpful suggestions:

  • Ask what you can do to help
  • Offer specific suggestions for how you can help
  • Ask how the illness is affecting them
  • Avoid saying “I know what you’re going through,” even if you have been a caregiver; each circumstance is unique; it’s more helpful to say “I’m so sorry” about their situation
  • Listen and look for ways to provide help and support


When the loved one dies and caregiving ends, it’s natural for the caregiver to feel both relief and grief. They may also feel guilty about feeling relieved. You can remind them that providing care is exhausting and that it’s normal to be relieved once it’s complete. Caregivers often fail to get enough sleep or the right things to eat, too. As the caregiver goes through the grief process, a reminder to rest and the offer of a home-cooked meal may be welcome.

Helping
children

Helping children

Grieving is hard for adults, but grief can be confusing to children. Whether they are dealing with the loss of a grandparent, friend, parent, sibling, or pet, they may not yet have developed coping skills to adequately process grief.

Common reactions among children facing a difficult loss can include:

  • Anxiety
  • Sleep difficulties
  • Sadness, longing
  • Anger and/or acting out
  • Guilt or shame
  • Problems in school
  • Bodily complaints


You may need to answer questions and explain repeatedly; this is a normal part of a child’s process of understanding and grieving. And, depending on age, they may not understand that death means the person is never coming back. Use clear terms when discussing death. Very young children may think that “losing” someone means they will eventually be found.

Children may not display sadness the same way adults do, and they may want to engage in their usual activities. It does not mean that they are not grieving or did not love the person who died. It’s okay to permit a child to engage in fun activities as they need to. But unusual changes in behavior could indicate that the child is having trouble coping with grief and loss. For example, after the death of a parent or sibling, it is typical for a child to become very clingy—not letting the surviving parent or siblings out of sight. Bereaved children may also show regressive behaviors, such as bed-wetting. Seeking advice from a counselor who specializes in childhood bereavement may be called for.

Find Help

Locate mental health and well-being support organizations in your area.