National Grief Awareness Day: 5 questions about life after a loss
When we lose a loved one, the grief can feel overwhelming. One of Josh Andrzejewski’s many roles as a chaplain includes helping families experiencing loss and grief. In recognition of National Grief Awareness Day on August 30, he answers some questions about the grieving process – and how to be supportive of others when they’re going through it.
What are some ways grief can manifest itself?
Grief manifests differently in children and adults. Most children grieve in small bites: talking about death, followed by play/activity, followed by tearfulness, followed by joking. In young children, it can involve regressive behaviors (returning to bedwetting, baby talk). Young children also don’t understand the concept of “permanence,” and it often takes time for them to understand that the person is gone forever. In older children, grief can involve changes in eating, changes in sleep patterns and increased clinginess. Grieving children may struggle more with transitions and harbor fears about the death of another close loved one. Teens sometimes regress in their self-care abilities or other responsibilities (showering, schoolwork, chores) and may avoid talking about their grief in order to "protect" their caregivers.
Adults tend to grieve in waves. Some days are much harder than others, even long after the person has died. Tears may come more easily and be triggered unexpectedly by special dates, songs on the radio, photographs or sometimes for seemingly no reason at all. These emotions can spike around six months after the death, when those who have been most supportive begin to return to their "normal" lives and check in less frequently.
What’s important for people to know about the grieving process?
Grief is not linear or predictable. One day may be marked by intense sadness, while the next may bring anger or acceptance. The ups and downs can feel like a roller coaster (and I am not a fan of roller coasters!). Grief is a part of life, not a stage to be overcome. It takes as long as it takes, even if that is a lifetime. Grief can also bring about growth – there are things people learn about themselves through grief that they could never learn any other way.
It’s important not to judge grief responses, unless they cause harm to oneself or others, or persistently interfere with daily life (eating, sleeping, bathing, work). There is no single “right” or “appropriate” way to grieve. Grief doesn’t lessen over time. Instead, we grow over time.
I often share this metaphor: Grief is like waking up each morning to hike up a mountain, and you never know how heavy your backpack will be. One day it’s 100lbs, the next it might weigh 20lbs. Over time, your strength and ability to carry the weight will grow, but the backpack is always with you.
How is grief related to the death of a child unique?
When a child dies, families grieve both the loss of the person they were as well as the future they will never experience. As time goes by, caregivers mark birthdays and milestones (first days of school, accomplishments, graduations) that will never come. These occasions are painful to think about, but they can also be an opportunity to reconnect with memories of the child and celebrate their place in the family, even if they’re no longer physically present.
How do you help families who are experiencing grief?
The pain of our grief is directly proportional to how much we love the person who died. The first thing is to acknowledge the grief, and not try to fix or change it. It’s a part of who we are, and it is healthy to grieve. While acknowledging the loss, it’s also important to explore the ways we remain connected to the person who died. How will that person continue to touch our life? How will they continue to touch the world?
Resilience is the ability to adapt in positive ways when faced with a difficult situation. Research shows resilience is not only an inborn trait, but can be learned and honed over time. Good self-care, supportive routines and strong communication all contribute to resilient families.
What advice would you give for helping someone else in the grieving process?
- Listen, listen, listen. If you feel like you need to say something, say, “I love you,” and then stop. Even if the silence is uncomfortable, don’t try to fill it with explanations that will fall short or platitudes that can’t possibly address the depths of their pain.
- If you’ve had a similar experience, ask if the person wants to hear what worked for you – and acknowledge that the same strategies may not work for them.
- Make a list of all the important dates (the anniversary of the death, six months later, birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, etc.) and put a note on your calendar to reach out on those days – for years to come.
- Don’t be afraid to say the name of the person who died, or to share memories when they come to mind. This will help the grieving person know that their loved one is still touching others’ lives.
- Offer to provide concrete support (Can I bring you a meal? Can I watch the kids for you? Can I mow your lawn?) rather than saying, “Let me know if you need anything.”
- Pay attention to the grieving person for signs that they may need additional, professional help (struggling to do activities of daily life, increased use of substances to cope, repeated statements of hopelessness). Share your observations and concerns for their well-being and partner with them – and others who love them – to find support.