After the Sandy Hook school shooting
By Lloyd J. Thomas, Ph.D. -
Last Friday, like most people including President Obama, I was horrified and heartbroken by the news of the mass killing at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Tears came … words could not.
This morning, my sadness was replaced by an overwhelming desire to “do something.” Since I live more than 2,000 miles away from Newtown, I could only think of sending out the columns below. The first one I wrote to be printed next February. The second one I wrote in 1997. It is my hope they will assist others who have been unspeakably impacted by yesterday’s events. This is all I could think of doing.
Helping others to grieve
Over the past couple months, I have attended several “memorial services” for friends who have died. I became aware of so many people who have been bereaved of loved ones and are grieving their loss. I also became aware that many friends and relatives have no idea of what to do or say to help others with grief. This column is for anyone who wants to help others through the grieving process.
Simply be present
It is not so important that you say the right things. Nevertheless, it is critical that you are present with your listening, sharing, holding hands, gentle hugs, even a box of tissues. The non-verbal actions you take will send the message that you are there for them, that you acknowledge their emotional pain and that you care. It is also important that you keep making your presence known 3, 5, 6, 9 months after their loss. They may need you more then.
Focus your complete attention on whatever the bereaved one is sharing. Accept the content of what they are saying without arguing or questioning. The process of listening is more important than the content of what they are saying. Whether or not what they say makes sense to you, their talking is healing.
Let them cry
Whenever we tell mourners not to cry, we are discounting their emotional pain, and probably are afraid of our own discomfort. The best thing you can do is to comfort them … even cry with them. However, never tell them to stop crying.
Giving to the mourner is critical
You can give them food, flowers, money, time, of yourself. Even giving them your energy by doing simple, but necessary tasks (e.g. answering the phone, addressing thank-you notes, preparing a meal, bill paying, getting groceries, doing laundry or washing dishes). Simple tasks can seem overwhelming to the mourner. So let them know what you are doing (or wanting to do), so you don’t unintentionally cause them more pain. Avoid becoming intrusive.
Supportive assistance for decisions
Grieving people are usually depressed and emotionally spent. Therefore, making great decisions is usually not uppermost in their minds. Encourage them to put off big or important decisions for as long as they can. For those decisions that cannot be put off, be as supportive of them as possible so what they decide is in their personal best interests. Perhaps you can offer to be a “designated decision surrogate,” or encourage them to find a spokesperson they trust.
Use your intuition (and empathy)
It is likely that if you think your loved one is sinking into a very deep depression over their loss…they probably are. If you think they are not eating or sleeping or coping effectively with their stress…you are probably correct. Trust your own intuition by paying attention to everything that is going on. By doing so, you are in a better position to assist their recovery period.
Be cautiously involved
Often, we want to protect and shield our loved ones from emotional pain. Being of assistance in the process of healing can be very helpful when they are ready to heal. However, be prepared for them to reject your involvement, especially when they sense they are hurting you. Don’t force them to involve you if they don’t what you to be involved in key decisions. Stay with them, but involve yourself in their grief only if they allow it. Again, avoid pressuring them or becoming intrusive.
Share what has comforted you in the past
Read poetry, share caring quotes, sing comforting songs together, share religious beliefs, or create a scrapbook of special memories. Your love and caring will comfort them and allow for faster healing. Keep in mind that grieving is a natural (human) response to loss.
Holding grief back, or keeping it inside only prolongs the grief process. Anything you do to assist the mourner to express his/her grief in any manner they wish will be helping them to heal.
Healing from grief
There is no known medication for grieving. Healing from grief requires time. It requires understanding. You need to allow for emotional pain. You need long-term supportive connection with the living. You need to talk about the dead. You need to strengthen your positive memories.
James Fogarty, Ph.D. wrote a book, “When Grief Becomes Complicated.” In it he lists some of the “risk factors” associated with “complicated grief.” There is no other kind! The recent death of a loved one contains all the normal risk factors for those close to the deceased. Perhaps you will recognize some of these as well.
• Sudden, unexpected death which is traumatic or violent;
• Dependency upon the deceased;
• Persistent anger with the deceased;
• Experience of previous or multiple losses;
• Previous mental/emotional health difficulties;
• A history of family dysfunction; Isolation of the person or family.
Certainly, loved ones can expect to experience complicated grief. Most of us are aware of denial, anger, depression, desire to blame, and that awful ache/void in our hearts. These are all normal, painful processes through which each individual must move at their own individual pace. Complicated grief occurs when people are overwhelmed and begin to engage in maladaptive behavior or stay in the state of intense grief without progressing through the mourning process toward completion, and moving ahead with their own lives.
And what are some of the signs or symptoms of such complicated grief? Fogarty describes some as:
• Radical and sudden changes in lifestyle;
• Rejection of friends and family;
• Extreme guilt and depression;
• Self-destructive impulses to “join the deceased;”
• Experiencing physical symptoms the deceased had, prior to death;
• Inability to speak of the deceased without experiencing a new grief reaction, equally intense to the first one;
• Development of a repeated theme of “loss” in one’s life;
• Minor events triggering major, intense grief reactions.
Here are some suggestions for healthy healing from complicated grief:
• Allow everyone in the family to participate openly in the grief process;
• Allow your feelings to flow out in harmless release — usually this is crying;
• Talk with one another;
• Talk about your experience;
• Talk about your memories;
• Talk about the deceased;
• Talk about your wants, needs and desires;
• Talk about your future;
• Acknowledge all your feelings, including possible relief, anger, revenge or fear;
• Forgive the deceased for any hurt and all their mistakes…this is for your sake!;
• Recognize your own growth as you move through the grieving process;
• Engage in traditional and enjoyable rituals you used to do with the deceased;
• Honor the memory of the deceased by supporting what they supported;
• Honor the memory of the deceased by doing for yourself what s/he would want for you;
• Write a journal of positive memories to comfort you later;
• Seek new perspective on your own life and the relationships you have with others;
• As with all experiences, live in the present moment by letting go of the past.
Grief is always hard to experience. Perhaps the above will make it a little easier.
Dr. Thomas is a licensed psychologist, author, speaker, and life coach from Wellington, Colo. He serves on the faculty of the International University of Professional Studies.