People often share their uncertainty about what to do for a grieving person. They are afraid of making a mistake, saying the wrong thing, or causing the person to cry. Tears are not to be feared. They are a physical and emotional release. Tears when witnessed by a deeply caring person not trying to fix us, but instead be quietly with us, are healing. Perhaps more healing than tears unwitnessed.
A person in grief already feels isolated, clearly bereft from the person they loved, and now from the everyday life of family and friends. Their life as they know it has stopped. Their energy is limited. In our fear and uncertainty, we can compound their isolation when we avoid them. Or maybe even more difficult when we try to make them happy, averting their sorrow with constant activity, and not even saying the name of the person they loved.
It always starts within, when preparing to serve others. Sitting with a person in grief requires getting in touch with our own experiences with grief and loss. What did we learn from those experiences? Can we connect with that sense of deep sense of loss we felt? Can we be real with that other person? If we are to support them, we might want to ask ourselves what do we need? How can we find our comfort level for supporting them? Can we let the time together not be about our uncomfortableness, but rather the holding of their sorrow in a compassionate light?
Let’s consider some tips for supporting a grieving person that, in addition to our reflection within, might help us with this uncomfortableness. The following tips, and those to follow in the next few blogs, come from Melinda Smith, M.A., and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., with their full permission. A complete viewing of their work can be found at: https://www.helpguide.org/articles/grief/helping-someone-who-is-grieving.htm
SUPPORTING A GRIEVING PERSON TIP 1: LISTEN WITH COMPASSION
While many of us worry about what to say to a grieving person, it’s actually more important to know how to listen. Oftentimes, well-meaning people avoid talking about the death or change the subject when the deceased person is mentioned. But the bereaved need to feel that their loss is acknowledged, it’s not too terrible to talk about, and their loved one won’t be forgotten. By listening compassionately, you can take your cues from the grieving person. Never try to force someone to open up, but let your grieving loved one know that you’re there to listen if they want to talk about their loss.
If the deceased’s name comes up, talk candidly about them rather than steering away from the subject. When it seems appropriate, ask sensitive questions—without being nosy—that invite the grieving person to openly express their feelings. By simply asking, “Do you feel like talking?” you’re letting your loved one know that you’re available to listen.
Accept and acknowledge all feelings. Let the grieving person know that it’s okay to cry in front of you, to get angry, or to break down. Don’t try to reason with them over how they should or shouldn’t feel. Grief is a highly emotional experience, so the bereaved need to feel free to express their feelings—no matter how irrational—without fear of judgment, argument, or criticism.
Be willing to sit in silence. Don’t press if the grieving person doesn’t feel like talking. Often, comfort for them comes from simply being in your company. If you can’t think of something to say, just offer eye contact, a squeeze of the hand, or a reassuring hug.
Let the bereaved talk about how their loved one died. People who are grieving may need to tell the story over and over again, sometimes in minute detail. Be patient. Repeating the story is a way of processing and accepting the death. With each retelling, the pain lessens. By listening patiently and compassionately, you’re helping your loved one heal.
Offer comfort and reassurance without minimizing the loss. Tell the bereaved that what they’re feeling is okay. If you’ve gone through a similar loss, share your own experience if you think it would help. Remember, though, that grief is an intensely individual experience. No two people experience it exactly the same way, so don’t claim to “know” what the person is feeling, or compare your grief to theirs, or offer unsolicited advice. Again, put the emphasis on listening instead, and ask your loved one to tell you how they’re feeling.
Editor’s Note: Friends of Hospice offers community grief support groups throughout the year in both Pullman and Colfax, including monthly drop-in groups and time-committed group sessions over the course of 8 weeks. Please check our website for current offerings: www.friendsofhopsice.net/grief-support-2/