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).