Healthy Spaces

How to help someone cope with losing a loved one

Depending on the child's developmental stage and his capacity to conceptualise and understand what death is, be as simple and concrete as possible in your explanation.
Depending on the child's developmental stage and his capacity to conceptualise and understand what death is, be as simple and concrete as possible in your explanation.PHOTO: ST FILE

Just last week, two young men in Singapore died when they were hit by an oncoming train, while in Brussels, bomb blasts killed a few dozen people.

The lives of those who are mourning their deaths are changed for- ever. Despite knowing that we all have to die some day, news of the loss of a loved one would likely overwhelm us.

Our world changes and we may feel sad, angry, guilty, shocked, frightened and even depressed. These emotions are part of grieving - a complex process we go through in reaction to the loss of a loved one.

Everyone experiences grief differently, but there are some things you can do to help a grieving person or a child cope with it.

Helping adults

NO FORMULA

There is no hard and fast rule as to how long it will take to recover as it varies from person to person. Factors such as our relationship with the deceased, our beliefs, past losses and presence of other life stressors can affect the grieving process.

MS CANDICE TAN, senior medical social worker, Tan Tock Seng Hospital

LEND A LISTENING EAR

Grief and loss can be taboo subjects, and some people simply avoid mentioning the deceased person.

However, it is helpful for the grieving person to talk about his thoughts and feelings regarding the deceased, said Ms Brenda Lee, senior clinical psychologist at the Institute of Mental Health.

Let him talk about how his loved one died, she said. "Conveying our willingness to be with and to support the person who is grieving can also be helpful," she added.

This can be done by simply offering your company (even if it is in silence), she said.

HELP OUT

Grief can be exhausting and it can be hard for a grieving person to ask for help.

Offer practical assistance, such as helping out with the household chores or getting food or groceries, said Ms Lee. It need not just be about helping them with errands. You can also offer to take the grieving person to a movie, said Ms Lee.

BE PATIENT

Allow the grieving person to grieve in his own way.

Do not impose your expectations or offer patronising statements such as "he will not want you to be this way", said Ms Candice Tan, senior medical social worker at Tan Tock Seng Hospital.

The statements may not make sense to the bereaved individual in the period of intense pain, she said.

Do not expect him to stop grieving in a set amount of time.

"There is no hard and fast rule as to how long it will take to recover as it varies from person to person," said Ms Lee. "Factors such as our relationship with the deceased, our beliefs, past losses and presence of other life stressors can affect the grieving process."

OFFER SUPPORT FOR SPECIAL DAYS

Ms Tan said family and friends should plan ahead for "anniversary spikes" such as the first death anniversary, significant life events and special dates like birthdays.

"The period leading up to these dates can be distressing for some as it can trigger many memories and anxieties," she said.

Feelings of loss and grief can return on these occasions, even after the grieving period is over, said Ms Lee. Offer to help or listen.

WATCH OUT FOR WARNING SIGNS

If the difficulties associated with grief persist for more than 12 months after the death, it suggests that the grieving person is having difficulties coping with the loss and may need professional help, said Ms Lee.

These difficulties include a persistent yearning and longing for the deceased, a desire to end one's life in order to be with the deceased, intense sorrow, difficulties adjusting to life without the deceased, and excessive avoidance of any form of reminders of the loss, she said.

If the grieving person's mood is persistently low and he experiences pervasive thoughts of worthlessness and guilt, which are not limited to instances associated with the deceased, he may be suffering from depression, she added.

A grief counsellor can help a person to go through the process of grieving, such as coming to terms with the loss, adjusting to life without the deceased and finding a way to remember the deceased while continuing with life, said Ms Lee.

Helping children

BE DIRECT AND CLEAR

Depending on the child's developmental stage and his capacity to conceptualise and understand what death is, be as simple and concrete as possible in your explanation, said Ms Tan.

Tell him the person has died and how he died; for example, his heart stopped working.

A young child who hears his mother say, "Dad passed away" or, "I lost my husband", may be expecting that his father will return or simply needs to be found, said the United States-based The Dougy Centre.

Children aged around 10 or older may begin to understand that death is final, while pre-school children think that it is reversible.

LISTEN TO THE CHILD

Just as how it is helpful for adults to talk about their thoughts and feelings when they are grieving, it is important for a child to know that it is all right for him to express his thoughts and feelings about the death, said Ms Lee.

Also, children may have many questions but they may not be able to articulate their thoughts as coherently. Answer their questions patiently, said Ms Tan.

"Involve children as far as possible in the grieving period, even during the funeral sessions," she said.

REASSURE THE CHILD AND HELP HIM REMEMBER

Just as how adults struggle with feelings of guilt, children may blame themselves for having caused the death, said Ms Lee.

"It is therefore important to reassure the child that they are not responsible for the death even if they do not outwardly express guilt."

Also, talk to him about the person who died. For a child who worries that he may forget the deceased, you can acknowledge his fear, share that you have similar fears, and talk about ways to remember the deceased while continuing with your lives, shared Ms Lee.

"One way of remembering the deceased is to make a memory book where the child can put in photographs, stories and objects that will help him or her remember the deceased."

LET HIM GRIEVE IN CYCLES

Young children's grief reactions may differ from those of adults. They also need time to take a break.

"They may be crying one moment, but happily playing the next," said Ms Tan.

"This is normal as children may tend to experience the grief and emotions in spurts rather than in a sustained fashion."

  • This is the last of a two-part series on death and dying.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 29, 2016, with the headline 'How to help someone cope with losing a loved one'. Print Edition | Subscribe