ADVICE: Helping others through their grief
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This weekly column is courtesy of the Psychological Association of the Philippines. Do you have a question you've always wanted to ask a psychologist? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
My friend is a single parent and she lost her home and child in the flood of Sendong. We are trying to be with her to pick herself up. She often appears "tulala" (dazed) and would say things like, "dapat namatay nalang ako." (I should have just died.) I am scared that she will hurt herself. What can I do?
Psychological trauma can result from a one-time traumatic event such as natural disasters (e.g., Typhoon Sendong) and deaths (particularly the loss of a loved one). In your friend's case she experienced both so it becomes more devastating.
The first thing you should know is that this is not unusual. In fact, many trauma survivors often feel like they are going "crazy" or that there is something seriously wrong with them. Although there is no one set of symptoms that all trauma survivors experience, some of the more common effects of trauma are:
- Reexperiencing the traumatic event (e.g., having nightmares or distressing memories)
- Avoidance or numbing (such as feeling detached or disconnected to people and things around you)
- Hyperarousal (e.g., irritability, difficulty sleeping, bursts of anger)
- Other symptoms like depression, despair, and loneliness; fear and anxiety; guilt and self-blame; and, social isolation.
It is important that you first reassure her that grief is normal. Thus, the goal of grieving is not the elimination of all the pain or the memories of the loss. Instead, the goal is to reorganize one's life so that the loss is one important part of life rather than the center of one's life. As recovery takes place, the individual is better able to accept the loss and resume a "normal" life. However, the process of grieving requires time, patience, courage, and support.
What can you do to help your friend? Here are some suggestions for helping the person in grief, especially if you truly feel that suicide is a possibility:
Remain calm. In most instances, there is no rush. Don't let discomfort, fear, or uncertainty stand in the way of making contact and being a friend.
Be a good listener. Many in grief need to talk about their loss, the person, related events, and their reactions. Allow grievers to tell their stories and express their feelings. Be patient and accepting of their expressions.
Exercise patience. Give bereaved people "permission" to grieve for as long or short a time as needed. Make it clear that there is no sense of "urgency" when you visit or talk. Remember, there are no shortcuts.
Provide practical help. It's usually not enough to say, "If there's anything I can do, let me know.” Decide on a task you can help with and make the offer.
Be available and accepting. Accept the words and feelings expressed, avoid being judgmental or taking their feelings personally, avoid telling them how they should feel or what they should do.
Encourage problem solving and positive actions. Remember that the person involved in emotional crisis is not thinking clearly; encourage her to refrain from making any serious, irreversible decisions while in a crisis. Talk about the positive alternatives which may establish hope for the future.
Get assistance. Although you want to help, do not take full responsibility by trying to be the sole counsel. Seek out resources which can lend qualified help, even if it means breaking a confidence. Let the troubled person know you are concerned–so concerned that you are willing to arrange help beyond that which you can offer.
Deal directly with the topic of suicide. Talking about suicide is a cry for help. Don't be afraid to ask or talk directly about it. Don't reprimand them for thinking about it. Instead, whenever she appears to have suicidal thoughts, help her clarify where this is coming from and ask her to question the validity of her thoughts/beliefs that lead her to hopelessness. She needs to be reminded that a suicidal crisis is temporary. Unbearable pain can be survived. Help is available and she is not alone.
Dr. Margaret U. Alvarez is a faculty member of the Silliman University Department of Psychology and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. She is also currently External Relations Officer of the Psychological Association of the Philippines.
This column is courtesy of the Psychological Association of the Philippines. Do you have a question you have always wanted to ask a psychologist about? Email us at email@example.com.