I Feel So Helpless. What Can I Do for My Loved One Drowning in Grief?

January 17, 2024 ◊ By Elisa Everts ◊

I Feel So Helpless. What Can I Do for My Loved One Drowning in Grief?

What can I DO for my loved one drowning in grief? 
Last week I talked about complicated grief, now recognized in the DSM as Prolonged Grief Disorder. After reading about complicated grief last week, you might be thinking, Ok, I can accept that my loved one is drowning in grief, but what can I do for her besides look on in helpless dismay?

Don't Avoid Them; Don't Shut Them Down
The first thing to do if you love someone in grief is not to run away and not to shut them down. Ok, agreed, that’s two things, to be (not) done in close succession. 1) Check in regularly. Once a day, once a week, whatever you can handle (and please note that you can usually handle more than you think you can; let love push you to grow). Please do not abandon the bereaved. They already feel the most excruciating loneliness. Please do not exacerbate this pain by absenting yourself because it makes you uncomfortable. As Glennon Doyle is fond of saying, We can do hard things.

2) Do not try to shut down their feelings. I am always shocked to encounter people who believe that the best way to handle grief is to forget as quickly as possible and "move on." It is profoundly wrongheaded to think that the way to end grief is to turn off the fountain of grief. That grief is in there and the only way to bring it to any kind of resolution is to get it all out. If you try to shut down the expression of grief it will stagnate, ferment, boil over, explode and/or result in physical, emotional and social illness that will be far more costly in the long run than just letting the bereaved person scream and cry it out for however long it takes.

What Happens When People Shut Down in Grief?
Complicated grief, which is where people get stuck in grief, sometimes because they don't know how to let it out, can affect the individual physically, mentally and socially over the course of many years. Without appropriate treatment, complications may include:

  • Depression
  • Suicidal thoughts or behaviors
  • Anxiety, including PTSD
  • Significant sleep disturbances
  • Increased risk of physical illness, such as heart disease, high blood pressure or cancer
  • Long-term difficulty with daily living, relationships or work activities
  • Alcohol, nicotine use or substance misuse

When I suffered from complicated grief for seven years (more, really), I suffered from every single one of those effects. In my case it took some intervention and some trauma therapy, which involved going into the traumatic narrative and reliving it long enough to get unstuck (more on that in the future).

Other cultures are so much better at grief than most of us are in the US. In many countries mourners gather together to weep and wail and totally unleash the agony they feel. This often helps them to then pick up the pieces of their lives and carry on (not move oncarry on--move on suggests forgetting, which does not resolve grief. Carry on acknowledges you always have them and your grief in a sacred place in your heart as you move forward). If we can find ways to unleash the grief as other cultures do, we could be healthier.

Grief never heals instantaneously, but it will never heal at all if it never gets expressed. Let your loved one pour out their grief as they need to.

What If You Are Not a Touchy-Feely Person? 
3) What if you are not a touchy-feely person and the thought of feeling someone else’s pain with them makes you break out in hives? Fear not, there is a place for you. Perhaps you are a doer, not a feeler. Then do.

There is so much to do when someone is grieving. Get their permission of course (you don’t want to assault their autonomy on top of everything else), but you can wash dishes, buy groceries, clean the house, do the laundry, mow the lawn, change the oil in their vehicle, take care of the plumbing—all those life things that can be a little overwhelming when you are not grieving, but can be so unmanageable when you are. Ask their wishes and then choose something (e.g., With you permission, I’m going to do the lawn once a week).

And of course food. If you don’t cook, pick up Panera or Chipotle. Make sure they have the opportunity to eat (but don't force food on them either). Provide childcare. Offer to have their children stay the night with yours. There are so many practical things to be done by the nontouchy-feely. There is a place for you.

If You Are Touchy-Feely
4) If you are more comfortable in the world of emotions, the bereaved person may wish for you to simply sit with them quietly. Don’t talk. Don’t try to explain why this might be God’s will for their life. Don’t say Everything happens for a reason. Don’t preach. Don’t poison the air with toxic positivity. Don’t even say Everything is going to be ok. Everything is not going to be ok for some time. Right now just acknowledge that this sucks. In many ways nothing will ever be ok again. It has to be ok for them to not be ok.

Invite them to talk about the one they have lost. Most people want to talk about their loved one. Don’t shut them down. Let them remember and reminisce. Laugh, cry, tell stories, repeat.

Let Them Lead, As They Can
Take your lead from the bereaved. Ask what they want. Do they want to be held or would they rather not be touched? Do they want to go for a walk or a drive or to sit quietly together on the couch? Don’t turn the TV or the radio on without their consent. Let them decide what they want in their atmosphere.

You may think you know better because you are not lost in grief, but you have to let the grieving person take agency over their own surroundings (I like the colloquialism of letting them be the boss of themselves). They have lost control in the most horrible way imaginable. Don’t take even more control away from them by making decisions for them without consulting them.

Do not abandon them. Do not shut them down. Do whatever you can to make life manageable. Do not force your will or your idea of what grieving should look like upon them. This is love, dear ones. You just keep moving forward in love.

I send you mine,

Elisa square portrait

About the author

Dr. Elisa Everts is the founder of Evertree Hope Management and is a dynamic public speaker, author and trainer. Dr Everts is passionate about helping cancer patients and bereaved people in their quest to survive and live a full life during and after cancer and grief. She has the personal experience of surviving Stage IV cancer and the loss of many loved ones. She understands the challenges inherent in these experiences and the importance of cultivating hope through the stories we tell others, and even more importantly, to ourselves.

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Elisa Everts, phd

Speaker | Author | Educator

Finding Hope in Cancer & Grief

Elisa Everts, phd

Speaker | Author | Educator

Finding Hope in Cancer & Grief

I speak to medical professionals and patients, helping them provide hope when there seems to be none. If you or your organization need someone to help process the difficult topics of cancer and grief, let's set up a complimentary call, 703-656-6691, ee@elisaeverts.com.

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