Grief is uncomfortable. It’s uncomfortable for those who are experiencing it and often for those who observe it. In our grief-avoidant society we stumble clumsily through our interactions with the bereaved, hoping for a quick escape. Seeing someone in pain makes us shrink back, fearing that the intensity of their anguish will spill over and we won’t know what to do, or that their pain will wake something in us that has long remained dormant. How then can we get comfortable enough with grief so we can show up powerfully when our loved ones are hurting?
Open Your Heart
Grief is part of life and to open your heart to love fully you open yourself up to grief. You cannot claim to be living an awakened life and be immune to grief, it is part of being human and we need to stop treating it like a dirty little secret.
We can learn how to be present with someone else’s pain without trying to change it, fix it or make it better. I’ve learned a lot working as a grief coach, and I want to share some of those insights with you.
Nothing Say Can Make it Better
When someone has lost a loved one through death, divorce, miscarriage or separation it hurts like hell and nothing we can say will make it better, accepting that fact helps us take some of the pressure off when we are struggling to find words of comfort- there are none. Acknowledge their pain but keep it simple, say things like:
“I am sorry for your loss” “I can’t imagine what you must be going through right now” “I am here if you need to talk”
Leave your Platitudes at the Door
Well-meaning friends, colleagues and acquaintances often unwittingly add to the suffering of the bereaved in their attempts to make it better by offering platitudes and clichés intended to comfort. Apart from being trite these kinds of statements offer no consolation to the bereaved and add to the pain someone is already shouldering. We need to be aware of what not to say when we don’t know what to say. Here are some examples.
"At least they are no longer suffering."
"She had a good life."
"You have an angel in heaven now."
"They are in a better place."
"It was God’s Plan for him."
"God will never give you more than you can handle."
"Time heals all wounds."
"It was her time."
Words and Intentions
When dealing with sensitive situations, your words do matter as much as your intentions, and I would even argue more so because they can be hurtful, even when the intention is not. “I know exactly how you feel” (usually followed by tales of when a similar experience happened to the speaker) is one example of this and it makes me brace when I hear people saying it. The sentiment is intended to be a display of compassion and understanding, but the reality is you don’t, no matter how many things you have in common with the bereaved, know how they feel. Often said with the intention of conveying empathy it results in you making their grief all about you! This one in particular seems to cause to a lot of unnecessary hurt, leave it out. If you don’t know what to say……say nothing.
We have already established that there aren’t many words to comfort the bereaved, but being aware of what not to say can go a long way. So if there isn’t much you can say to help what can you do?
The Power of Silence
We underestimate the power of silence. When grief rips through the very fabric of your being there are no words to make it better, but knowing that you are not alone and feeling the support of someone’s physical presence can make it bearable. Don’t be afraid to be present, in silence, the griever will appreciate it and if they want to talk your ability to support them silently suggests that they can trust you with their words. Let them talk, ask questions that allow them to express their unique grief experience but avoid questions that pry into the details of the event.
Offer Practical Help
The recently bereaved are often experiencing the cognitive element of grief which can affect decision making among other things so vague offers of help, don’t help. Be Specific. Offer to cook, clean, pick up relatives from the airport or kids from school or whatever task you feel might help but avoid imprecise offers such as “ How can I help?” or “I’m here if you need anything”
Physical Contact – a God Send or Torture
A quick squeeze of a hand or shoulder can offer comfort to the bereaved but if you are thinking of more extensive physical contact hold your horses. In all of life’s important moments a hug can be the most powerful thing you can offer someone, but when that someone’s whole world has been torn apart they may be feeling extremely raw and this level of touch can feel suffocating. The only way you can know for sure is by asking if they would like a hug, if they say no respect that and don’t assume you know what is right for them. Also keep in mind that they may not appreciate a hug today, but tomorrow it could be the life-line they need, check in often and keep the lines of communication open.
One of the things I consistently hear from my clients is their despair at how quickly the world moves on without them. We tend to want to move away from the discomfort of grief as quickly as possible overlooking the fact that this is not an option for the bereaved, intense grief often lasts longer than we would hope or expect. So be patient, be aware that even several months or years later your loved one may need support, check in with them often and be kind when they express difficult emotions, even if you feel like you are unjustly at the receiving end.
A final note.....
My goal is to normalise the grief experiences so that more people feel supported during life´s darker moments, if you found something particularly helpful or hurtful while you were grieving please share it in the comments, together we can build an more informed, more understanding community.
As always, you can email me directly on firstname.lastname@example.org with questions or comments.