Written By Shannon Ang
We speak to author Charmaine Chan of The Magic Circle, a book that contemplates grief and loss, as well as a grief counsellor. They dish out useful tips in helping a bereaved individual through the bleak phase after the loss of a loved one.
There’s no way of escaping this. Inevitably, we are bound to experience grief and loss at different points in our lives. But what actions or words come next? Saying the wrong thing can trigger an unexpected outpour of emotions, while being silent may be misinterpreted as indifference.
It’s a tricky situation and unsurprisingly, most are at a loss at handling it. Especially those who haven’t been on the end of receiving condolences and then one day, it hits you hard. In Charmaine Chan’s case, she reveals that one of the greatest ways her sister’s death (caused by bile duct cancer) impacted her was making her more compassionate.
“In terms of people going through loss, you can’t even imagine how it was like – so how can you commiserate?”, she reasons after fessing up that she was lacking empathy before going through her sister’s death. The distressing experience has now given her the credibility and authority to interact with people going through cancer. She even went as far as writing a letter to the family members of a friend who had passed away due to cancer, which was something she wouldn’t have done previously.
Here are several other ways you can express care and concern for someone who’s grieving and help them tide through their difficult time.
1. Respect and accept their way of grieving
Ironically, even though it’s experienced by everyone, people process grief differently. “Some people talk, some people might not. Some want to be distracted and pretend that it didn’t happen, you just have to be accepting and go along with the ride,” says Chan.
The healing period cannot be rushed or forced, adds Martine Hill, director and counsellor of Alliance Professional Counselling LLP. If tears come into the picture, she advises not to stop your peer from crying since you will be perceived as shutting them down. Give him or her the opportunity to let loose of their pent-up emotions and render silent support in the form of a gentle touch.
2. Don’t try too hard to say right things
That means not resorting to cliché phrases such as, “I know how you feel…” and “I am sorry for your loss…”, which are things that people can feel pressured to say just to fill the void. For Chan, nothing beats sincerity. When her sister passed away, her close friends emailed saying that they love her and will always remember her sister for who she was. It was a simple act, but it offered her great comfort. “It made me feel that I will not be alone in remembering her,” she says.
Sending flowers is also another feasible alternative to let the other party know you are with them spiritually and thinking of them.
3. Doing what needs to be done
The key is doing it unobtrusively, just like how Chan’s husband, Mr Kok Chuen Chiat, did when she was still caught in the “fog of grief” when her father passed away. He was actively involved in helping her with the funeral preparations.
For her, this act was immensely comforting and useful as Chan mentions that one is already emotionally dealing with so much. And it definitely helped that her husband was a good listener and intuitively understood her emotional needs. There was one occasion where he even insisted on bringing her out on a date just so that she could take a break and talk if she wanted to.
To avoid being invasive, Hill suggests that one can offer to help him or her with simple daily tasks. For instance, if your peer seems to be struggling to keep up with academics, take the initiative to help them take down lecture notes and update them of any school happenings.
4. Check in regularly
Sometimes, people have a tendency to avoid expressing their condolences because they simply do not know what to say. Admittedly, this might be even worse than blurting out cliché phrases of condolences.
Hill agrees. Citing an article from Market Watch, she says it’s “pure cowardice” to be off the radar when someone’s grieving. Instead, she suggests checking in with regular text messages or emails. This way, there is no pressure or expectations placed on the person to reply. If you do decide to call, keep it short. She explains that grief can take up a lot of energy and brain hard-drive, hence concentrating can be difficult.
5. Being there
“My family was spread out [across different continents] so we all grieved separately. That was a big mistake,” acknowledges Chan. When she lost her grandmother years later, her family gathered together, and for her, it was immensely comforting. She recalls them sitting around to reminisce the good times.
The same goes for sitting together in silence. “Hug, give a warm embrace, lean on each other, hold hands when you feel you have nothing to say. Physical contact is an incredible tool for release of oxytocin, a hormone that brings us peace and comfort,” says Hill. She also notes that, however, grieving as a family is not something that might work for all, as some might feel confronted with each others’ sadness, evoking feelings of helplessness and guilt, which can be detrimental instead.
6. Get professional help
Sometimes, your peer will require additional support to aid them through the grieving process, and this may be out of your hands. In this scenario, it’s best to refer them to a professional or specialist.
You can help by accompanying them to seek counselling services at the campus’ Student Affairs Centre.
Everyone experiences grief, yet it’s often talked about in hushed tones, or met with consternation and awkwardness. Dealing with grief and loss is often an exhausting and complicated process for the person, and the least we could do is be open and empathetic. Ultimately, the “right” way to help someone deal with grief is to go about it their way, and we can start by having conversations about it.