Dear Alistair

Dear Alistair,

An elderly friend of mine has recently lost his wife. He knows that it is important to grieve, but I don’t think he knows how to do this. I don’t feel I can help because I am not sure what he is supposed to be doing or feeling. Please advise me so that I can help him.

I think that this is a really important question. The reason I say this is because not only does recent research suggests that men grieve somewhat differently to women but it also seems that the grieving process is generally not a simple case of progressing through the so-called “five stages of grief” (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance). In fact, the latest research shows that because we are all unique in terms of our life experiences, physiology and psychology the following is true: – Grief is not easily defined or categorized;
– There is no order to grieving;
– There are no time limits; and
– There are no stages.

Rather, there are reactions, and these reactions are not only emotional but also physical, cognitive, spiritual, and behavioural. Grief is more of a roller coaster than a step-by-step process, and reactions come and go in seemingly random order. Grieving is a very human, very natural process. A person may try to deny it or hide from it, but it is part of us. If possible, it may help to try to view grief as a blessing, however difficult to bear, because it honours the person we love.

Having said the above, it seems that anger is a common emotional reaction, and it can drive people away when they are most needed. As such, your friend is likely to experience some anger at his lost love, at the Powers That Be, even at himself – for not doing more to save his wife’s life. In the end, though, the process of grieving will help him let go of anger and allow him to be open and loving to those he does love, and maybe even to someone he will love in his future.

We used to think that grief was time-bound with an end-point that needs to be reached. It is not. We live with loss. The intensity of the emotions may lessen over time but the grief remains to a greater or lesser extent. Your friend might actually experience a profound, unexpected reaction to the death of his spouse years later, perhaps triggered by an emotional event of one kind or another, such as the marriage of his son or daughter, for example.

Be aware that grief can eventually turn into a clinical depression. In particular, if your friend’s grief becomes disabling, if his anxiety becomes overwhelming, and certainly if his behavior becomes destructive to himself or others, then he should seek help from a psychologist.

Whatever your friend does, he should look for support and companionship. He should be encouraged to share his feelings (in a safe environment), be this with you or other friends, in therapy or a support group. It helps most individuals enormously.