By Marla Cantrell

Being human is the only prerequisite needed to be vulnerable to grief. It’s so universal that you’d think we’d know how to fix it by now. But grief doesn’t work that way, and you can’t prepare for the loss you feel when a loved one dies.

Rebecca Ward, MSW, LCSW, who offers counseling in Little Rock, describes grief this way: “It’s like asking you to prepare yourself for the stomach bug. You can’t. When it happens, you will be sick.”

Some deal with it by talking with friends and family they trust. For many, faith is a harbor. But others get stuck in grief. Months later, they’re sleeping too little or too much. They reject offers to go out to lunch, to a movie or for a drive to see the riot of spring flowers. Maybe they stop getting dressed in the morning. Perhaps they forego a shower one day and then the next.

What, they wonder, is the point?

That “stuck place” is what often sends people to see professionals like Ward and Sherri Gansz, LCSW, with Cardinal Care Center in Northwest Arkansas.

Ward offers no platitudes on that first visit. “I simply ask them to tell me what is happening in their life and just listen, prompting when necessary… They do not have to be strong with me, though I think really feeling the pain of loss takes more strength than to try to stifle or ignore it.”

Gansz takes a similar approach, offering a sympathetic ear and the freedom for clients to express all their emotions, which can run the gamut from sorrow to anger. Sometimes, if their loved one died in a violent way, such as a car crash, she starts off slowly, not talking about the actual event until she’s sure they’re ready.

“I’ve read that 75 percent of people who come to counseling do so because of grief,” says Gansz, adding that grief is a varied thing and includes experiences such as rejection and the loss of friends, a marriage, pets, income, physical abilities or health. Those suffering the aftermath of abuse also experience grief.

Gansz is quick to point out that there is no timetable for grief. It takes as long as it takes. “I lost my father when I was 14, and I had to do CPR on him, so there was a lot to go through. It took me about six years to really come to terms with that.”

That experience led her to a career that allows her to help others. For her, it’s an example of the other side of grief, when your life is mended back together.

While Gansz and Ward offer hope through therapy and counseling, there are things you can do to help someone who’s hurting. 

“Having been through the loss of my parents and some friends, the most helpful thing for me was someone coming to be with me and not expecting anything of themselves or of me. Just being with me. Letting me feel their presence and the comfort that brings,” Ward says. “People trying to ‘cheer’ me up was not what I needed because I wasn’t cheerful. Listening and talking about what has happened was very helpful… Grief is something that needs to be shared. Cry, and you feel some relief, but cry with a friend, and you feel some healing.”

Gansz adds, “Asking someone what they need is not helpful. That puts the burden on them to come up with something for you to do. It’s better to jump in and help. Bring them a meal. Visit. It’s surprising what someone might be missing. After my father-in-law died, my mother-in-law missed getting birthday cakes. When we realized that, we made sure she had a cake.”

A birthday cake. A shoulder to cry on. Taking a call from a distraught friend in the middle of the night. All these things help, and they remind us that while we’re all vulnerable to grief, at least we don’t have to face that inevitable sorrow alone.