Techniques Used to Assist the Bereaved

It is important to educate people who are mourning that the single most important thing they can do is to give themselves permission to grieve in their own way. There is no right way or right amount of time. Encourage them to honestly assess their feelings (e.g., anger, sadness, guilt) and then share their thoughts and feelings with someone they trust–a friend, family member, clergy, therapist, etc.

How can you help? Most grief experts warn against making drastic changes too soon after the death of a loved one (e.g., moving to a new home, starting a new relationship). These premature changes are often viewed as an attempt to “run away” from the pain of grief.

But as a confidante, you can rely on any number of bereavement-focused questions and techniques to help someone address their feelings and grief.

Set the stage, begin the conversation

  • Create a helping environment by finding a quiet, private place to talk. As you chat, project warmth, interest and respect.
  • When you speak of the person who has died, use the past tense, use his or her name, and do not be afraid of such words as “death, died, dead.”
  • You can begin your first encounter with the bereaved by asking him/her to tell you about the death. What happened that day or night?
  • Ask about funeral plans or memorial services.
  • Ask what has been happening since the death. How have things been with family/friends? Does he/she seem able to talk openly about the deceased?

Ask questions that encourage reflection on his/her reactions to grief

  • Some people have trouble eating or sleeping after a loved one dies. Are you eating OK? Are you getting out of the house and engaging in your normal activities and hobbies? Is anything bothering you lately?
  • What about other difficult times in your life? Were these recent or in the past? (How someone has responded to past losses can tell a great deal about how they are likely to adjust to the current loss).
  • What coping skills have you used in past crises? Try to rely on those same resources now.

Provide tangible support and tactical encouragement

  • Help the person acknowledge past accomplishments as a way of re-establishing self-esteem.
  • Affirm his/her ability to survive the current loss.
  • Ask about his/her relationship with the deceased.
  • Help him/her examine the special qualities and talents that endeared them to the deceased.
  • Remind the survivor that it is normal to feel overwhelmed by the intensity of his/her feelings.
  • Help him/her identify feelings of loss and feel pain. Acknowledge that pain is a part of the grief experience; reassure him/her the pain will not always be so intense.
  • Give him/her permission to cry—and permission to feel relieved if he/she does experience relief.
  • Acknowledge that setbacks do happen and remind him/her not to panic. Grief can feel like an emotional roller coaster at times, but explain that these are remnants of grief, not a signal that it is starting all over again.
  • Grief is physically and emotionally exhausting. Encourage the bereaved to take care of themselves by eating balanced meals, drinking plenty of water, getting enough sleep, exercising regularly and limiting alcohol and other mind-altering drugs, all of which can hinder the grief process.
  • Encourage self-patience and patience with others who might not understand their feelings.
  • Remind him/her to have realistic expectations about the amount of time required to heal from grief.
  • Encourage him/her to take one day at a time. At times, it might be easier to break the day into manageable increments.
  • Suggest a slow start to normal routines by doing small customary chores (e.g., shopping) or choosing 2-3 realistic goals to accomplish in six-month increments. Validating progress and setting goals provides security and a renewed control over one’s life.
  • Encourage him/her to do small things for other people to refocus attention from their own pain.
  • Reassure him/her that is OK to set limits with others and say “no” when appropriate.
  • Affirm his/her right to feel joy, hope and new relationships—none of which are disloyal to the person who has died.

Utilize these specific aids with the bereaved:

Some bereaved feel the need, especially right after a death, to find out everything they can about the illness and/or circumstance of their loved one’s death, and sometimes they want to review the medical records. This is normal and especially typical in a sudden death.

  • Encourage the use of symbols and “transitional objects” such as photos, audio or video tapes, articles of clothing or jewelry, or a collection that was special to the deceased.
  • Suggest expressing his/her thoughts or feelings by writing a letter to the deceased, God or a god..
  • Suggest keeping a journal, poems ore special remembrances of the grief experience.
  • Encourage him/her to visit bookstores, libraries, hospices and the Internet for grief information that will normalize the grief experience.
  • Suggest the use of art work, memory books, memory boxes and the like to express their grief feelings.
  • If he/she has “unfinished business” with the person who died, encourage him/her (as one grief therapist does) to play out in his/her mind what the issue is and how it could have been resolved. Focusing on what the survivor was able to do for the deceased—rather than what he/she should have done—can support recovery.
  • Encourage him/her to role-play situations they fear or feel awkward about, such as starting a new relationship or selling a house. Role-playing can build stronger coping skills.

Find out if hospice care could help your loved one.


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