When something “bad” happens to us, our friends, family and colleagues—even mental health experts—are often inclined to alleviate our suffering by reminding us of the all-too-familiar idiom: “it could be worse.” But what happens when it literally cannot get any worse? What happens when the “bad” thing that transpires is so horrific, so insurmountable, that moving on seems utterly impossible? What do you do when “worse” is exactly where you are?
Consider the epic tragedy that took place this past Christmas in Stamford, CT, when Madonna Badger, a New York-based marketing executive, lost her three young daughters and both parents to a fire that started in the embers of chimney ashes, as the family celebrated the holiday together. In just a flash of time and with no explanation, Ms. Badger went from reveling in the joy of her family, to deeply mourning it. For her, Christmas, the once celebratory, unifying, loving and most special time of the year became a dark abyss of solitude and pain.
So, how (if at all) does someone like Ms. Badger climb out from such an abyss? And is it even possible for life to normally unfold after such a horror? As Dr. Rosa Lavergne, Ph.D explains, “My experience working with persons who endure this magnitude of tragedy is that it changes them forever. Life as the person knew it no longer exists. The individual is ‘altered’ and must create what is called a ‘new normal.’ Parents who lose a child, report that the death of a child is the most painful compared to losing any other family member. So, the person does not overcome the traumatic-grief; but they instead accommodate their life to cope with the loss and emptiness that follows such a tragedy. This type of healing process can take years.”
There are no right answers or set formulas when it comes to dealing with monumental loss or pain. But as Dr. Lavergne explains, there are various insights that we can keep in mind, as we try to console those who are grieving.
10 Tips for Helping People Cope with Deep Grief:
- First, when someone is grieving, they may not want to hear advice; instead, they want you to focus on how they feel. It is better to say nothing or admit that you are at a loss for words than make statements such as: “this is God’s will” or “it can always be worse.”
- When someone is experiencing trauma related grief, it is important to understand that in order to help the individual through the process, you must have a healthy and safe relationship with one another.
- Be aware that the griever may experience an array of emotions: fear, guilt, anger, sadness, among many more—so the process of navigating all of these emotions is long and intense.
- Help the individual embrace his/her spiritual belief, whatever it is.
- Listen more and speak less.
- Let the person know you are available and then be available.
- Engage the person in activities such as: exercise, cooking healthy dinners, going for walks in natural environment, and other activities he/she enjoys.
- Pushing the person to be happy is never helpful. Let them be—and be with them.
- If you notice that an individual has suicidal thoughts they must take it seriously and talk about it with a mental health professional. Although suicidal ideation can be part of grieving, the person grieving needs a professional assessment of the risk and any necessary intervention.
- Understand that in the different grief theories, acceptance is the last stage of the grieving process—this stage occurs at different times for each individual; so extreme patience is the most important component of helping someone work through the challenging stages of their abyss.