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How to help a grieving friend

Pain is an inevitable part of life. Some pain you cannot remove. Some anguish you cannot ignore.

Last weekend I visited my friend who has terminal cancer. He has stopped the chemo which was temporarily prolonging his life. It was a difficult decision deciding between prolonging life and being too ill to live it and ending treatment and knowing that it's, in effect, a death sentence.

I find myself in a strange situation of knowing a good friend's death is imminent. So, I've been doing some research on how best to cope during this time in limbo and after the inevitable. Death is a difficult topic and so many of us choose to ignore, and not openly deal with it.

Healthy Ways to Cope with Anticipatory Grief

Anticipatory grief is the normal mourning process that occurs when your loved one is still living and you are expecting their death. This type of grief reaction commonly occurs when someone has been diagnosed with a terminal illness or has been dealing with a chronic illness for a long period of time.

  1. Express your pain—Talk or visit with family, friends and health care professionals, such as hospice staff members or a counsellor.

  2. Take care of your physical and emotional health—Take time for yourself, get some rest, make healthy food choices, exercise or engage in hobbies you enjoy.

  3. Spend time together now—Allow the dying person to express how he or she is feeling without judgement, listen, be patient and share stories with one another.

  4. Stay informed—Consider seeking out additional resources for caregivers, such as books or blogs.

  5. Practice love, forgiveness and letting go—Say your goodbyes before your loved one passes. Take time to talk about regrets, fears and concerns. Tell your loved one it is OK, and you’ll be OK, too (if appropriate).

Tips from my own limited experience :

  1. Ask how they are doing 'today'. 'How are you?' is a huge and loaded question. 'Today' makes it specific and there is an understanding that everyday is different. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross.... Is famous for her 7 stages of grief model. But this model isn't linear. When my father died 2 years ago, I seemed to go through a number of different stages everyday for months. (link here)

  2. Instead of 'if you need anything let me know' that puts the pressure on your friend/relative etc to ask, make the effort. It's a cop out really. It's a passive statement. Instead be more specific 'Shall I bring round a casserole on Thursday?'

  3. Try to create a sense of normalcy. No one wants to talk cancer, cancer, cancer! Don't ignore the massive elephant in the room either. I was a ball of emotions when I saw my friend. Then he mentioned he hadn't had an alcoholic drink in 6 months under Dr's orders. I hesitated then said 'You must feel so much better for that.' He burst out laughing, squeezed my arm and said 'Thank you, I liked that'. It then felt like a dam had broken. We were back to our usual bantering selves, ripping each other to shreds, having a giggle. As I was leaving he said it was the most energised and himself he'd felt for weeks. I truly feel I gifted him something special this weekend.

How to coach others through grief

Useful coaching & self-coaching Questions:

  1. Name the loss.

  2. What three words best describe your loved one/identity/relationship/life chapter?

  3. What advice, quotes, or sayings do you remember or associate with them/it?

  4. What do you love or appreciate most about this loved one/identity/relationship/life chapter?

  5. Think back over the gifts this loved one/identity/relationship/life chapter gave to you (including skills or life lessons they/it taught you). Which of these gifts means the most? Why is this gift so meaningful?

  6. In what ways has this relationship or chapter helped you become the person that you are today? Via:

What questions can you ask to support a friend who is grieving?

So many of us don't know how to talk to someone dealing with grief. Many decide to ignore it and not mention it. Maybe even avoiding the person grieving, leaving it so long that they don't know how to reconnect. This leaves many feeling guilty and the griever feeling abandoned.

But here are a few questions that may help:

1. How have things been with your family and friends?

2. How are you feeling about that?

3. Can you tell me about your loved one?

5. When I was going through a difficult time, something I tried was 'X'... do you think this could help you?

6. What can I do to help?

Signposting Support

Organisations like Beyond Blue, Reachout and Headspace have helpful online resources to assist people experiencing grief.

Talking is important, and can be life-changing, so if your friend is having a difficult time, make sure you check in with them to see if they’re okay.

Remember the question 'How are you doing, today?'

I'll leave you with the lyrics from an Ed Sheeran song 'Supermarket Flowers':

A life with love is a life that's been lived

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