No one likes to talk about grief, suffering, or sadness.
Yet we all experience these feelings quite often — it can be the grief that comes with the loss of a loved one to the grief for the loss of a dream. I’ve written about the grief that accompanies the changing seasons of our lives before; but with my return to the world of hospital nursing, grief has been on my mind.
I’m not an expert by any stretch on this topic; however, I’ve seen raw grief up close, read about stifling sadness, and felt the dark clouds of melancholy descend with no light in sight. Within these experiences, I’ve noticed a few things; some react supportively to others’ pain while others seem to want to escape as soon as possible. For the latter group, I wonder if it’s because we just don’t know what we could possibly do or say to help.
While I’m continuing to learn how to best support someone through their grief — these are a few things I’ve seen work the best.
Enter into Their Suffering. We’ve all heard the phrase — you never truly know a man’s life until you walk a mile in his shoes. This is so true for grief. We don’t know exactly what grieving people are feeling, but we can attempt to imagine so we can show empathy. You’ve never lost a parent? Me neither, but just imagining losing one makes my heart ache. I can bring that feeling into a conversation with someone going through that loss not so I can say, “I understand,” but so I can say, “My heart is breaking for your loss. I’m so sorry. I know you loved ______ so much and you will miss them greatly.”
Validate their Feelings. Perhaps you would not be devestated to lose your pet rabbit, or you would not be broken hearted to lose an estranged relative, or you would find the news of a cross country move exciting, not terrifying. Remember, these are your feelings — not the ones of the person experiencing these losses. To support, you validate, validate, validate. Just as in the hospital where you believe the level of pain reported to you by the patient — as part of the grief support team, you believe the depth of grief expressed. This is crucial. No one wants to feel belittled or disregarded, ever, but especially not when they are emotionally fragile, walking through grief.
Focus on responses like these: “I’m so sorry you lost your special pet.” “I’m so sorry for the loss of your relative.” “That sounds so difficult for you to leave all of the familiar to move.” Not these: “It’s only a rabbit.” “Your relative didn’t even talk to you – why do you care?” “Moving and leaving everyone you know sounds like an adventure to me!”
Everyone grieves differently. No matter how you think you would grieve in a particular situation — this is in no way about you. This is about the one who grieves. Some seem to handle grief stoically, others extremely dramatically — neither of these approaches nor any in between mean the person is not grieving. There is no roadmap, no checklist, no game plan for grief. There are twists and turns, valleys and mountaintops, victories and defeats. As one who longs to support others in the process, throw away your preconceived notions on how to “grieve right” — because it doesn’t exist.
No clichés. If you have ever grieved anything in life, how much did you enjoy hearing: “Well there must be a reason!” “Everything will work out fine!” “God has a plan and won’t give you anything you can’t handle!” “Christians aren’t supposed to be sad.” “They are in a better place.” “I’ll be praying you won’t be sad anymore.” “It’s not the end of the world, you know.” “It wasn’t meant to be.”
I can only hope these phrases are said because people are truly at a loss when it comes to supporting someone who is grieving, because, quite frankly, they are awful, and I’ve never heard of anyone feeling supported when these are said to them while they are hurting. This is not to say I do not believe God is in control, has a plan for our lives, and that we have hope in heaven; but when you are crushed by the weight of grief, you want someone to validate your feelings, not brush them away with an overused cliché.
It’s ok to wonder why. When horrible events or disappointing outcomes occur, sometimes we feel guilty for asking why. Mostly, I think, because we are afraid it shows we doubt God’s plan or we don’t have a right to question. I disagree. For those of faith, I believe our God is certainly big enough for any and all of our questions. If He’s not, then He’s not the sovereign God we believe is in control, right? When nasty, awful, unspeakable things happen, it is ok to wonder why. Let those who grieve wonder why — don’t try to answer this rhetorical question, you aren’t going to bring their loved one back or reverse the fact their dream just turned into a nightmare.
Talk about the loss. I don’t know if this one is universal or unique to the particular person grieving; however, I’ve had so many people tell me they long to talk about the loved one they lost, but most people are too afraid to bring them up. No one wants to make them cry. However, contrary to what is commonly believed and there’s definitely a time and place, but most people enjoy nothing more than talking about someone special to them. Ask about their favorite memories and listen as they process.
It’s ok to grieve. As we all try to be the best support system we can be to those who are hurting from any number of things, reassuring someone who is hurting that it truly is ok to grieve, and that you are not afraid to walk through it with them is worth a million times more than any trite clichés could ever be.
What would you add? Subtract? What has helped you most when you’ve been grieving?