How You Can Help a Friend Who Has Lost a Significant Other

Gaining an understanding of the bereavement process and what a friend may be going through can help us develop skills that allow us to genuinely be there for each other when we’re needed

Author: Batya Greene, LICSW
woman sitting with grieving friend

As the old saying goes, in this world “nothing is certain except death and taxes.” The bittersweet experience of loving someone profoundly only to one day lose them is one we all may face at some point in life’s journey. 

Support from a good friend can help ease the burden of grief. But as friends, we often struggle to know precisely how to support someone who is suffering from the loss of a significant other, to find the right words or actions that would truly make a difference. Gaining an understanding of the bereavement process and what a friend may be going through can help us develop skills that allow us to genuinely be there for each other when we’re needed.

What is bereavement?

According to the DSM5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), which mental health care professionals use to diagnose and treat mental health conditions, bereavement is described as “intense yearning or longing for the deceased, intense sorrow and emotional pain, and preoccupation with the deceased or the circumstances of the death.”

Everyone experiences bereavement differently. Factors such as an individual’s history, experiences, support system, and capacity to cope, among others, shape how we process and recover from the loss of a significant other.

The signs of bereavement

The signs we witness in someone who is going through bereavement can often be confused with depression, such as not sleeping or eating well. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a Swiss-American psychiatrist,  was one of the first mental health professionals to articulate the stages of grief. She identified denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance as the stages one typically goes through during the grieving process. Over time, these stages have been expanded, and we now understand that grieving is not a linear progression, but rather individuals move up and down and back and forth between them. Other emotions such as anxiety and even relief are components of bereavement, but are not as often discussed even though they frequently occur.

What is normal and when is it time to seek professional help?

Bereavement time frames are different for everyone. Those who have experienced a loss commonly ask “Is my process normal? Is my grief taking too long to ease or go away?” The answer most often is there is no defined normal time frame for bereavement. 

Everyone grieves in their own way, and on their own timeline. A lot of the work we do as social workers is focused on helping those who are grieving learn to be gentle with themselves and accept their grieving process without judgement. Self-compassion and patience are important. It doesn’t help to try to push away the pain of grief or to count the months, worrying whether one is progressing too slowly through the bereavement period. 

It is the job of the bereaved individual to resume their normal life. However, if your friend finds they are unable to do so even after a considerable period of time, it may be necessary to seek additional support from a mental health professional to address their emotional well-being. 

In assessing a bereavement process, social workers look at severity and duration. Although not common, according to the DSM5, if severe symptoms such as feeling that life is meaningless, excessive avoidance of reminders of the death, detaching from supports, isolating, and not accepting the death, among other symptoms, persist for more than a year and are causing “clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of function,” the person may be struggling with “Persistent Complex Bereavement Disorder” and will require more intensive intervention.

How grief can impact health

The mind-body connection is real! Just like any other stressful situation, if an individual who is grieving doesn’t talk about and process the grief, it can manifest physically with symptoms such as unhealthy blood pressure, gastrointestinal issues, migraines, and even hives. Sleep and mood are also often impacted, and if the grief is not addressed and expressed, additional physical symptoms can arise.

Beyond physical and emotional disorders, losing a significant other can also create spiritual distress. Grieving individuals may question their spiritual or religious beliefs when faced with profound loss. The question of how this could happen to a good person often arises.

The increased risks for older adults

Older adults are at particular risk of suffering physical, emotional, or spiritual decline after losing a significant other. They are often managing multiple losses–layers of loss upon loss. With advanced age, friends and family members start to die. This reality can cause older adults to become isolated and they can lose the structure, offered by social interaction and activities that once filled their time. 

Beyond losing loved ones, older adults may be suffering loss associated with life changes like having to move or needing more assistance. They are often dealing with their own health concerns and they may be thinking about their own mortality.

How you as a friend can help

Community holds you up until you can hold yourself up. A neighborhood at Hebrew SeniorLife’s Orchard Cove senior living community recently experienced a number of losses, and the remaining spouses have formed an informal support group. They bake for each other, go to meals together, check in, and most importantly have open conversations about their losses, including the challenges of aging in general. It has been incredible to watch the power of the Orchard Cove community help these folks heal.

There are a number of things a friend can keep in mind when supporting someone who has lost a significant other:

  • Witness your friend’s sadness. Be there without judgement.
  • Be there without trying to fix anything. Bereavement takes time and you shouldn’t interfere with the process. Don’t tell your grieving friend to move on.
  • Listen. Although well-intentioned, saying things like “you’re strong” may not be what the bereaved need to hear.
  • Assist with household chores that may be a burden, like shopping and cooking.
  • Show up when everyone else clears out after the loss. Don’t disappear.

Bereavement support offered by Hebrew SeniorLife Hospice Care

Bereavement support from hospice spans 13 months. The support offered depends on needs and may include visits, calls, and also an invitation to participate in our bereavement groups, which are open to all family members served by Hebrew SeniorLife Hospice Care

We run these groups multiple times per year. Bereavement support is one of the most important services offered by our hospice, and one many people do not know about. It’s reassuring and comforting to those who are grieving to know that our support does not disappear after the death of a loved one. 

One thing we know for sure about grief is that we have to talk about it to help ourselves heal. Hebrew SeniorLife Hospice Care bereavement support offers that opportunity to express feelings, observe one's process, and heal.

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Hospice Care

Hebrew SeniorLife Hospice Care works to bring meaning and fulfillment during the final stage of life, in addition to providing comfort and management of symptoms related to a patient’s illness.

About Batya Greene, LICSW

Clinical Social Worker

Batya Greene, LICSW, is a clinical social worker who joined Hebrew Senior Life Hospice 10 years ago. Batya has enjoyed watching the HSL Hospice thrive and grow from its early days into the vibrant organization it has become. Batya came...

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