A client, who recently lost a brother, asked me how she could help her mother who was still grieving the loss of her son. It was an excellent question. American culture does not teach us how to grieve. A not-so-uncommon approach is to go to the doctor and get an antidepressant to avoid feeling the pain. But this only delays the inevitable. It does not help you to grieve. And it does not help the person you care about to grieve and move on. How do you help another person grieve in a healthy way?
Just listen. Most people will not be willing to do this and if you can it will be a great relief to them. Seeing someone in pain, especially emotional pain, makes many people uncomfortable and they will try to "cheer up" the grieving person in order to stop their own discomfort. Others may try to turn the conversation to a different topoic or shut down the grieving person's talk about their pain. If someone you love is in emotional pain, listen. Let them talk. Hear their pain and don't try to cheer them up or shut them up. Let them have their pain and feel it.
If their pain is the result of something traumatic or sudden, they may need to tell you the same thing over and over in order to get it out. Other people may be saying to them, "You should be over this already" or "You've told me this already". They may not understand the need to tell it again and again. When I worked with Katrina survivors they would tell me over and over about the day of the flood. They needed to tell it to get it out. If someone you love experienced a sudden or catastrophic loss, listen and listen and listen. Let them say it again and again until they are through with it.
Don't put a time limit on their grief. People will sometimes say, "It's been three months already. You should move on." Grief can easily take a year, or more, depending on the severity of the loss. If they have lost someone to death or experienced a divorce a year is well within reason. Birthdays and holidays have to be experienced without the loved one. The yearly anniversary of the loss will also be painful, and may continue to be painful for a few years to come. Ask what you can do to help and let them tell you what they need. If they want to be cheered up or distracted get specific information about how they would like to do that. If they want to grieve in private, let them. If they want a ceremony, help them plan it.
Understand that they may have many different emotions about the loss, not just sadness. And they may move through different emotions at different times as they process the experience. They may initially be in shock or denial, not quite grasping what has happened and continuing as if nothing has changed. They may move through a period of anger at the person who died for leaving them, or at God for betraying them. They may experience fear as they try to figure out how to carry on without the one they lost. Let them express each emotion and work it out in their own way.
Don't guide, follow. Let the person who is grieving determine what is best for them at the time you are with them. They may need to cry one day, rage the next and be distracted the next. Ask what they need from you. They may not know, but if they do, honor it.
The grief process is complicated and painful, but coming out on the other side can leave the person who experienced the loss with many good things; an increased appreciation for life, renewed appreciation for the people who were there for him, stronger coping skills for dealing with future problems, or an awareness of inner strength they did not know before. Let the process happen and don't try to thwart it with good intentions. You may find that during the process, you yourself have grown as well.