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Grief Guidelines for Leaders

Everyone grieves differently - no one person's way of dealing with grief is better or worse than another person's.

Common reactions/expectations for those experiencing grief:

  • Re-experiencing the event through flashbacks (whole or part) or recurrent distressing dreams. Intense distress is often felt when someone is exposed to events that resemble any aspect of the traumatic event or at anniversaries (like one week, one month, one year) of the event.
  • Feelings of intense guilt are often present along with “what if” type thinking. Survivor guilt is common.
  • Avoidance of certain situations or feeling numb. People often try to avoid thoughts and/or feelings about the death or other activities that may arouse the same feelings.  Avoidance at this time could mean that the next time a loss occurs, it may feel more intense.
  • Feeling detached or estranged from others in their life. Feeling isolated even though they have many people around them.
  • Anxiety or increased arousal may be present, including difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep (especially early morning awakenings), nightmares about the event during middle and late sleep, extreme awareness of the activities around them, exaggerated startle response, difficulty concentrating or finishing tasks, unexpected aggression--may "bite someone's head off" for no reason, or explosive anger.
Girl shoot #28 - Thursday

Common reactions/expectations for those experiencing grief:

Our emotional response to any kind of significant loss may be understood better using Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief and loss. If you are inexperienced with grief, this model gives some framework for what one may be going through.  Remember that the stages are not rigid, orderly, or necessarily consecutive.

  • Denial: Denial may be the first stage you encounter, and it can be protective and help us survive the beginning of the loss process. You may wake up in the morning and think the event was just a bad dream. As time passes, reality sets in and we can begin healing. However, feelings that you were suppressing will arise.
  • Anger: Anger in the grief process may come out as behavior or verbal explosions.  People say things that they wish they hadn’t and often in an explosive manner.  Anger at the person who died is very common. It's important to remember that underneath anger is pain, and anger can give us structure to what doesn't make sense.
  • Bargaining:  This may be with a higher power or with someone else.  “Please, please, please don’t make this be true.”  This can happen after you wake up and begin to remember…. and try to bargain to make it just have been a bad dream.
  • Depression: You may notice disturbances in eating and sleeping (more or less than usual), isolation, and disinterest in normal activities. People who are grieving can expect this and need to know that it’s normal.
  • Acceptance: This stage is where you can think of the person who died and not feel so sad.  You begin to remember things and events other than the death.  You begin to remember the person who died as much more than just the death. You may never "be okay", you just learn to live without the person present.

Students can come talk with a Mental Health Services counselor if they want help moving through this process. Mental Health Services also typically offers a Grief & Loss Group as well as self-help.

Grief Can Be a Roller Coaster

Instead of a series of stages, we might also think of the grieving process as a roller coaster, full of ups and downs, highs and lows. Like many roller coasters, the ride tends to be rougher in the beginning; the lows may be deeper and last longer. The difficult periods should become less intense and shorter as time goes by, but it takes time to work through a loss. Even years after a loss, especially at special events such as a family wedding or the birth of a child, humans may still experience a strong sense of grief.

It's important to accept and acknowledge all feelings that may come up for a person. Be willing to sit in silence. Don’t press if the grieving person doesn’t feel like talking. On the other hand, people who are grieving may need to tell the story over and over again, sometimes in detail. You can offer comfort and support just with your presence. If you can’t think of something to say, just offer eye contact, a squeeze of the hand, or a reassuring hug.

Things to Consider Saying:

  • I’m sorry for your loss.
  • How can I help you?
  • I wish I had the right words, just know that I care.
  • I don’t know how you feel, but I am here to help in any way I can.
  • You will be in my thoughts and/or prayers.
  • My favorite memory of your loved one is…
  • Tell me about your loved one.
  • Say nothing - just be with the person or give a hug if appropriate.

MYTH: The pain will go away faster if you ignore it.
Fact: Trying to ignore your pain or keep it from surfacing will only make it worse in the long run. For real healing it is necessary to face your grief and actively deal with it.

MYTH: It’s important to “be strong” in the face of loss.
Fact: Feeling sad, frightened, or lonely is a normal reaction to loss. Crying doesn’t mean you are weak. You don’t need to “protect” your family or friends by putting on a brave front. Showing your true feelings can help them and you.

MYTH: If you don’t cry, it means you aren’t sorry about the loss.
Fact: Crying is a normal response to sadness, but it’s not the only one. Those who don’t cry may feel the pain just as deeply as others. They may simply have other ways of showing it.

MYTH: Grief should last about a year.
Fact: There is no right or wrong time frame for grieving. How long it takes can differ from person to person.

What Not to Say:

  • At least they lived a long life.
  • They are in a better place.
  • It was their time.
  • There is a reason for everything.
  • Aren’t you over them yet? They have been dead almost a month now.
  • They were such a good person; God wanted them to be with him.
  • I know how you feel.
  • They did what they came here to do and it was their time to go.
  • What can I expect to feel after a loss? What’s normal and isn’t normal?
  • How long does the grieving process take?
  • What should I do about the anger I feel?
  • What should I do if I’m not able to focus on my day to day responsibilities?
  • Is it ok for me to go about my day to day as I normally would?
  • How can I help someone else that is deeply impacted by the loss?
  • How can I cope?
  • How can I be supportive to a friend experiencing grief?
  • What do I do when people claim they are grieving for someone they barely knew, and this was someone I knew very well?
  • Is it normal to feel sad after a death, even though I didn’t really know that person?
  • Is it okay to distract myself/how can I distract myself?
  • What do I do if I feel hopeless – nothing can be done at this point, nothing could be done before?
  • What do I do if I keep thinking about things I could have done differently, or seen before?
  • What if I feel anxious after a death (fear of driving, fear of crossing the street, doing day-to-day activities)?
  • Is it normal to feel numb/empty?