Grief Support with the CTC
Processing the loss of friends and classmates
As many of you continue to reach out to friends and families of our students Austin and Chandler, who were killed in an automobile accident on November 19, the following information about the grief process and the role of family, friends, faculty members and resource personnel might provide some additional materials and insights for those of you who talk and work with those who are hurting.
During the first hours of grief, the most critical assistance will come from family and friends with an already established relationship with grieving individuals who rally around to share in the grief experience. This is necessary to the process. Talk therapy or medication is not as helpful in this early stage of grief, because any attempt to further numb or minimize the grief response may delay the recovery process for individuals down the road. However, it is appropriate for helpers to listen, provide empathy and help the grieving individual remain comfortable during this early phase, being mindful of factors such as culture, chronological age and personality which can and will significantly impact the grief expression.
The most important thing to remember is the process of grieving in response to a significant loss like this one will simply require time, patience, courage and support. The grieving person will likely experience many changes throughout the process, and those who reach out to the grieving individuals in our community need to allow the grieving process to take place while providing support and care.
Normal Responses to a Traumatic Loss
Shock is often the initial reaction to loss. Shock is the person’s emotional protection from being too suddenly overwhelmed by the loss. The grieving person may feel stunned, numb or in disbelief concerning the loss. While in shock the person may not be able to make even simple decisions. Friends and family may need to simply sit, listen and assist with the person’s basic daily needs. Shock may last a matter of minutes, hours, or (in severely traumatic losses) days.
Sadness is perhaps the most common feeling found in grief. It is often but not necessarily manifested in crying. And the crying episodes may differ in intensity and duration based on many factors, including culture. Sadness is often triggered by reminders of the loss and its permanence. Sadness may become quite intense and be experienced as emptiness or despair.
Anger can be one of the most confusing feelings for the grieving person. Anger is a frequent response to feeling powerless, frustrated or even abandoned. Anger is also a common response to feeling threatened; a significant loss can threaten a person’s basic beliefs about self and about life in general. Consequently, anger may be directed at self, at God, at life in general for the injustice of the loss, for others involved, or at the deceased for dying.
Guilt and less extreme self-reproach are common reactions to things the griever did or failed to do before the loss. For example, a griever may reproach him/herself for hurtful things said, loving things left unsaid, not having been kind enough when the chance was available, actions not taken that might have prevented the loss, etc.
Anxiety can range from mild insecurity to strong panic attacks; it can also be fleeting or persistent. Often, grievers become anxious about their ability to take care of themselves following a loss. Also they may become concerned about the wellbeing of other loved ones.
Physical, Behavioral and Cognitive Symptoms. Often, grief is accompanied by periods of fatigue, loss of motivation or desire for things that were once enjoyable, changes in sleeping and eating patterns, confusion, preoccupation and loss of concentration.
During the initial stage of traumatic grief, the individual needs to be given permission to express his or her pain. The grieving individual needs to have as much time as needed to cry, or talk about the loss. Friends, and other helpers such as chaplains, teachers or counselors do best by listening, empathizing and allowing the grieving individual to express the pain. It’s important not to discuss the details of the loss until the individual who is grieving may be ready for such disclosures. Emphasis may be given to helping the grieving individual manage practical matters, such as the care of the home, managing the children and funeral arrangements. Grief counseling may be helpful further along the grief journey to help facilitate the completion of grieving tasks within a reasonable time frame, and should grief reactions become abnormal or complicated, grief therapy may be necessary to achieve healing though the utilization of specialized interventions to help resolve the conflicts of separation.
Guidelines for Helping
Helpers often ask questions such as: “What should I do? What should I say? Am I doing the right thing? Did I do the wrong thing?” Here are some suggestions for helping the person in grief.
- Make contact. Make a phone call, send a card, attend the memorial service or funeral, bake and deliver cookies. Don’t let discomfort, fear or uncertainty stand in the way of making contact and being a friend.
- Provide practical help. It’s usually not enough to say, “If there’s anything I can do, let me know.” Decide on a task you can help with and make the offer.
- Be available and accepting. Accept the words and feelings expressed, avoid being judgmental or taking their feelings personally, avoid telling them how they should feel or what they should do.
- Be a good listener. Many in grief need to talk about their loss; the person, related events and their reactions. Allow grievers to tell their stories and express their feelings. Be patient and accepting of their expressions.
- Exercise patience. Give bereaved people “permission” to grieve for as long or short a time as needed. Make it clear that there is no sense of “urgency” when you visit or talk. Remember, there are no shortcuts.
- Encourage self-care. Encourage bereaved people to attend to physical needs, postpone major decisions, and allow themselves to grieve and to recover. At the same time, they may need your support in getting back into activities and making decisions.
- Model good self-care. It’s important for you to maintain a realistic and positive perspective, to maintain your own life and responsibilities, and to seek help when you feel overwhelmed or don’t know how to handle a situation.
For further help in processing grief responses to this tragedy, please visit the Counseling & Testing Center webpage and choose the Resources link.
Counseling & Testing Center