How to Be with Someone who is Grieiving

Your best friend’s beloved cat just died.   Your favorite co-worker was just laid off.  Your elderly aunt, who suffered from cancer for many years, just died and your cousin is bereft.  In any one of these situations, you might likely be uncomfortable, and don’t know what to do.  You are certainly not alone with this dilemma.

The first thing to remember in being with someone who is grieving a loss is the word “be” – notice that the title of this article starts with “how to be”, not “what to do.”  You may be tempted in the case of the death of your best friend’s cat to offer to take him to get a new pet.  In the case of your laid off co-worker, you might be tempted to give her resume- writing or job-hunting tips.  In the case of the death of your aunt, you may be tempted to tell your cousin that the death was a blessing and at least she lived a long life.

Although these possible reactions sound like they might be helpful, they actually can do more harm than good at the beginning of someone’s grief process. Here are some “doing” things to avoid:

  • Avoid the temptation to fix it.  People don’t like to feel that something is wrong with them that needs to be fixed.
  • Avoid giving advice, unless it is asked for.
  • Avoid the use of clichés, such as “maybe it’s a blessing” or “I know just how you feel” or “God works in mysterious ways.”

The key to being with a grieving person is listening.  Sounds easy, doesn’t it?  However, listening is really not that easy for most of us.  We find it much easier to do than to be.  So, we give advice, or offer to fix it or do something else to fill the space.  It is difficult for us to sit in silence with another, being a caring presence.  We tend to be uncomfortable witnessing another’s suffering and sitting in that empty, groundless space.  So, we do things to fill that silent space that are well-intended but not helpful to the grieving person.

The following are some keys to effective listening and being a caring presence for someone who is grieving:

  • Center yourself before entering the room.  Have the intention of being present for your friend. Slow down. Breathe mindfully, inhaling nourishment and ease for yourself and your friend, and exhaling stress and tension.  Feel your feet on the floor in order to get grounded.
  • Leave all distractions aside.  Turn off your cellphone, iPad and computer.  Don’t worry – your messages will still be there and can wait.  Forget about your plans for the rest of the day — they too can wait.
  • As you sit with your friend, check in with yourself periodically, putting about seventy-five percent of your attention on your friend, and about twenty-five percent on yourself.  Check to see if you are staying present – Is your mind wandering? Are you jumping ahead and figuring out the next thing to say?  Are you getting anxious hearing about your friend’s loss?
  • Leave your agenda at the door – simply be with your friend as he or she is at that moment, as much as your might wish to make it better or different – remember that it’s their process, not yours.
  • In staying present, be aware of your own triggers.  Perhaps you lost a beloved pet, just as your friend just did, and being with your friend is triggering your own pain.  Breathe into that pain for yourself, and breathe out from that tender place for your friend.  Your own pain is truly an opportunity to be authentically and open-heartedly present with your friend, and an opportunity for healing for both of you.

 

There is nothing more healing than feeling truly heard and understood.  This is the essence of active listening and “companioning”:  being with another in life’s journey as equals on the path.  Listening to and being a mirror for another’s pain is the essence of companioning.  As the eminent humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers noted:

I find that when I am close to my inner, intuitive self, when I am somehow in touch with the unknown in me…whatever I do seems to be full of healing. Then, simply my presence is releasing and helpful to the other. There is nothing I can do to force this experience, but when I can relax and be close to the transcendental core of me…it seems that my inner spirit has reached out and touched the inner spirit of the other. Our relationship transcends itself and becomes a part of something larger. Profound growth and healing and energy are present (Rogers, A Way of Being, 1980).

The Pain of Unaccepted Grief

Carl’s partner Bob died. Bob’s parents would not allow Carl to play a role in Bob’s funeral plans and Bob’s healthcare providers did not recognize Carl’s decision- making authority. Peggy’s beloved dog Lolly died three months ago, and her friends don’t understand the depth of her grief. Janet’s ex-husband died in a car accident, and her friends think she should be glad he is finally out of her life instead of being sad and grieving. Barbara’s best friend committed suicide, and she feels more judgment than compassion from her peers regarding the death.

These are all examples of what has been called (Doka, 1989) “disenfranchised grief.” Disenfranchised grief has been described as “a grief that persons experience when they sustain a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, publicly mourned or socially supported” (Doka, 1989, p. 6). Disenfranchised grievers may feel that they don’t have the right to grieve, and may feel abandoned or isolated in their pain. Validation, acknowledgement and support are vital to the healing of grief, and when these elements are missing, the grief process can become complicated and difficult, requiring professional grief counseling.

Disenfranchised grief can occur when (1) the relationship is not recognized, (2) the loss is not recognized, or (3) the griever is not recognized. Examples of unrecognized relationships include those between gay partners, ex-spouses, neighbors, colleagues, counselors and others. In the example of Carl and Bob described above, Carl sought grief counseling to work out his feelings of anger toward Bob’s parents and toward the medical establishment. My nonjudgmental validation of Carl’s feelings and acceptance of his grief assisted him on the road to healing.

Pet loss is an important example of a loss that is not recognized. Peggy came to see me because her grief about the loss of her beloved Lolly had become depression: she blamed herself for Lolly’s death, and was judging herself and feeling shame for having such strong feelings of grief. Peggy’s harsh self-judgments were reinforced by the responses of her friends that it was “only a dog” and that she should “get over it.” In validating the depth of Peggy’s grief, I assured her of the strength of the human-animal bond and the unconditional love we receive from our pets, and that her grief was not only acceptable, but right.

Other examples of losses that are not universally recognized or accepted include abortion, divorce, infertility, job loss, disability, suicide and witnessing another’s decline due to dementia. Some of these losses, such as suicide or abortion, are not always socially validated, and cannot always be publicly expressed. A deep sense of loss may be felt after losing a job, losing one’s independence due to disability or illness or having a loved one with dementia. However, because there is no literal, physical death in these situations, the grief that these types of losses can cause is not always recognized or accepted. Group support, in addition to counseling, for these types of losses can be very helpful and validating.

Disenfranchised grief can also occur when the griever is not recognized, because it is incorrectly assumed that he or she is not capable of grief. Examples include children, people with dementia, roommates in nursing homes, and people with developmental disabilities. Everyone experiences loss and grief, and a person’s level of cognitive development or dysfunction must be taken into account in providing support and counseling.

Those experiencing disenfranchised grief may lack the social (or societal) support necessary to face the pain of grief and accommodate it, and if the relationship has been severed or not openly acknowledged, there are often no bereavement rituals or outlets for expression to help the disenfranchised griever cope with the loss (Rando, 1988). Indeed, the “very nature of disenfranchised grief creates additional problems for grief, while removing or minimizing sources of support” (Doka, 1989, p. 7). The support of a grief counselor or group can be of great help for those experiencing the complications of disenfranchised grief, so that the loss can be validated and the grief transformed into healing and growth.

References

Doka, K., ed. (1989). Disenfranchised Grief: Recognizing Hidden Sorrow. New York: Lexington Books.

Rando, T. (1988). How to Go on Living When Someone You Love Dies. New York: Bantam Books.

Do Our Pets Grieve After Loss?

Lucy and Andy, my two cats, have been best buddies ever since we brought Andy home fourteen years ago, when Lucy was one year old.  As I write, they are nestled next to each other.  Lucy, who has always been very healthy, is starting to show the signs of age:  recurrent urinary tract infections, and the beginnings of kidney failure.   As a hospice bereavement counselor, I support family members through their anticipatory grief, and their grief after the death of their loved one.  Is Andy starting to prepare for Lucy’s demise? How will she react after Lucy dies? How can I support her in the process?  I know plenty about supporting humans through their journey of grief — how do I do that with my animal partners?

Many have observed behavioral changes in their pets after their animal and human companions die.  They may search for their friend, stare out the window, seemingly in hopes that their friend will come back, stop eating, cry or seem depressed, clingy or withdrawn.

Some researchers believe that a cat or dog’s concept of death is similar to that of a young child.  Young children do not have the cognitive development to understand the finality of death, and grief counselors urge parents to talk honestly about death, in as much detail as a child can understand and tolerate — we cannot do that with our pets.  Pets can experience absence of what they became used to with their animal companions — their warmth when cuddling, their heartbeat, eating side by side.  Some behaviorists believe it is helpful to show surviving pets the bodies of their deceased buddies.  Indeed, it has been observed that a cat may stop searching for his or her playmate once shown the corpse of his dead friend.  If that is not possible, searching behaviors may continue until the surviving cat realizes in some way that his or her friend is not coming back.

So, how do we support our grieving animal friends? As a grief counselor, I always keep in mind Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and it is therefore important to start with the physical.  With humans, I always ask if they are eating and sleeping well and getting exercise, using psychoeducation to explain that grief is stressful in all domains — physical, emotional, social and spiritual — and that if the bereaved does not take care of the physical component, he or she will not be able to move forward in a healthy way on the journey of grief.  Obviously, we cannot explain this to our animal companions.  Instead, look for eating and sleeping changes.  Not eating can be very dangerous in animals, and can lead to liver failure and death.  Hand feeding may be necessary in this case, and the physical closeness involved in hand feeding can be soothing and aid in healing.  It is also important to observe if the animal is urinating normally, as urinary tract infections can occur in times of stress.

Emotional support is also important in the healing of grief.  I have observed time and time again how important touch is in working therapeutically with those who are dealing with loss.  When I comfort a grieving spouse, a hospice patient who is scared and confused in dementia, and others who are experiencing the pain of loss, the touch of a hand or a hug is often  far more healing than words.  It is the same with our pets — massage them and talk to them in comforting tones. Continue to observe their behavior, and if they seem fearful, depressed or anxious, spend as much time as you can with them, talking to them in a soothing way and petting them so that they learn that they are safe.

Our pets are very sensitive to changes in their human companions’ emotions, and may become anxious.  Therefore, it is important for us to take care of ourselves, and get the support we need, whether from friends, a grief counselor or a support group, so that we can best support our pets.

Pet Loss: Grief, Meditation and Healing

I recently lost my beloved cat Lily. After experiencing Lily’s death, I had a fleeting urge to go unconscious – sleep, eat, drink wine, whatever.  As a grief counselor, I of course knew that wasn’t the way to go, and the urge passed.  Instead, I took a walk, using the opportunity to ground myself.  Breathing in, I felt my feet touch the earth, breathing out, I felt peace and spaciousness mixed with my grief.  Then I recalled the story of the Buddha and the grieving mother, who learned that everyone is touched by death and grief.  I looked up into the blue sky and saw a flock of birds flying in formation.  I was opened into a sense of wonder and heartfelt compassion.   Again, I touched my grief and allowed myself to cry deeply, feeling my heart breaking.  I was reminded by Stephen Levine’s phrase: “Tragedy holds the seeds of grace.”

Experiencing my emotions on the level of felt bodily sense energy is vital for me, and my mindfulness meditation practice is a great way for me to work with my emotions.  I have always been very intellectual and analytical about my feelings, and have learned through my meditation practice that theoretical or analytical understanding is really the booby prize in therapy and in life.

Later in the day after Lily’s death, I sat down to meditate.  Immediately as I sat down, all the pain came back.  Instead of pushing it away or analyzing it, I allowed myself to feel it – a throbbing burning pain in my chest, pounding in my heart and head, hands tingling.  I touched the painful sensations on each inhale, and let them go on each exhale.

After practicing this way for a while, the pain was transformed into the nakedly alive feeling of sadness and compassion for myself and all others who are grieving.  I welcomed my emotions without self-judgment as my friend, knowing that they are an expression of my life force.  What was left was an open hearted and tender love for my Lily.