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What grief feels like, and how to help those going through it

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When her mother died, 13 days after diagnosis, author of ‘The Grief Handbook: A guide through the worst days of your life’, Bridget McNulty, was — quite literally — lost for words. Here she shares more about her experience with grief, and the simple things one can do to help someone grieving.

A friend asked me, the other day, to write a handbook that explains how to support someone going through grief. I smiled and changed the subject. It’s such a lovely intention, but the fact is that there is very little you can do to help someone when they’re in deep grief. 

What I can do — or attempt to do — is put the feelings into words. To try to put the mass of emotions down on paper so one understands (a little) about what it’s like. 

In the days and weeks after you’ve lost someone you deeply love, it feels as if your world has been cast adrift. As if you were on solid land, but you’re now bobbing out to sea, on an unstable raft, liable to fall into the water at any moment. All sense, all stability, all meaning has gone, and everywhere you look it’s just an endless grey horizon of sameness. Until you fall off the raft into the freezing grey water, which is desperate and icy, so you clamber back out — back into the fog and fug of grief. 

There were three things that surprised me about grief when my mom died 13 days after her diagnosis. The first was how all-consuming and hard it was. I had always imagined grief to be an older cousin of sadness, or a big sister of despair. This was something else entirely. Something physical, and emotional, and mental. Something that seeped into every space in my life and made it harder. 

It was only when I did the research for The Grief Handbook that I realised there was a scientific reason behind this. Grief is actually a prolonged stress response, which means your body is stuck in fight-or-flight, flooded with cortisol. Too much cortisol in the body leads to high blood sugar (which I noticed most because I’m a Type 1 diabetic), fatigue, irritability, headaches, gut issues, anxiety or depression, weight gain, increased blood pressure and low libido. A bouquet of physical symptoms that make it more difficult to get through the emotional loss of someone you love, and to grapple with the mental incomprehension that they are gone, now, forever. 

The second thing that surprised me was how boring grief was. Every day felt similarly awful. There was no new information to process and yet I needed — desperately — to process the same information, over and over. To tell the same story of the horror of a 72-year-old mom who had been perfectly healthy, and then had sore feet and acid reflux, and then suddenly lost weight, been admitted to hospital with four different kinds of cancer, had a stroke, and died. In the space of two weeks. 

There were moments — burned into my brain now — that I had to keep replaying. The hospital corridor where I hid from my dad and howled. The garden where I tried to fold in on myself and disappear. The room where we brought my mom home whole, and where she quickly slipped into a morphine coma, and then — just like that — was gone. The timing the timing the timing… That horrified me the most. We were dancing to The Cure playing live in Cape Town in early March, she was in a morphine coma in late June, she was gone on the 1st July. 

The third and final surprise of grief was how words failed me. Words, my constant companion since I learnt how to speak and write, had never failed me before! And yet now, they all sounded hollow. Yes, I was heartbroken — but I had been heartbroken in my 20s when I broke up with my musician boyfriend. Yes, I was exhausted — but I had been exhausted when I was sleep-deprived with young kids in my 30s. Yes, I was sad — but I had been sad about all kinds of minor losses before this… None of the words at my disposal were intense and vivid enough to describe the absolute heartache that made it difficult to breathe, that made me want to vomit, that leached all the joy out of my life. 

How, then, do I tell my friend what she can do to help? 

Well, I have an answer for that, actually. 

Or rather, I have a few suggestions of things that might help, and some that definitely don’t. 

The kindest and most helpful thing to do is also the hardest (sorry). If you are close to someone who is battling their way out there on the stormy seas of grief, just be there. Be the tether that holds their flimsy raft to shore. Sit with them if they want company, check in on them even if they don’t know how to respond, try your best to be a constant, steady presence. It is really hard and boring to be friends with someone who is grieving, but if you can manage it you will be doing them a great service. Because one day (who knows when?) they will need to offload some of the heartache and if you can hold their hand (physically or virtually), this unburdening will be a little easier. 

The other thing you can do is to offer practical help. Somehow, life doesn’t stop when grief takes over. Dinner still needs to be made, the house still needs to be tidied, children still need to be played with and admin still has to be done. All these daily tasks can seem completely overwhelming to someone in deep grief, though. Specific help can be a huge relief. Not, “Let me know if I can do anything to help,” (never “Let me know if I can do anything to help!”) because that puts pressure on the person who is grieving to identify what they need. It’ll never happen. Rather: “Can I drop off dinner on Tuesday at 5pm? I won’t stay,” Or: “Can I pick up some groceries for you / tidy your house / take your kids out for an hour so you can have a nap?” Anything to lighten the daily burden of tasks is a big help. 

The month before my mom got sick, one of her friends started chemo. She felt so helpless in the face of her friend having to undergo this painful treatment every day (the friend later felt so guilty coming to my mom’s funeral). Her solution? Every morning she sent her a funny meme or joke, and she made her a brightly coloured lap quilt so she wouldn’t get cold during treatment. Something to brighten a few seconds of the day, and something practical and cheery to keep her warm. 

Grief is the one thing that is inevitable. It is the one thing you and me and everyone we know are guaranteed of living through. We are all one day going to be cast adrift from the comforting normality of our daily lives, and into the seemingly endless grey fog of grief. And yet, if we know what to expect — if we have held the ropes that hold the rafts of our friends who are out on that stormy sea — it may be a little more manageable. The enormity may be slightly easier to bear. DM/ ML

Bridget McNulty is the author of The Grief Handbook: A guide through the worst days of your life. She is also a content strategist and the co-founder of Sweet Life, South Africa’s largest online diabetes community. 

She lives in Cape Town, South Africa, with her husband, son and daughter, and loves nothing more than a cup of tea and a good book preferably somewhere green and leafy.

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  • I was widowed two years ago and the best things were prepared dinners and shopping! And the few friends that understood the blessing of just sitting with me.