Walking with grief

Two months ago I lost a friend. We had drifted, gone our separate ways. Although our lives parted the bond that we had when we were teenagers was still strong. My grief hurt, but my grief for his family, his wife, his children, his parents was even more painful.

I’m not on social media all that often these days but when I am I’ve been noticing a general theme of loss- loss of a parent, grandparent, partner, friend or child. Sometimes it’s the loss of what we thought our future would hold like loss of being able to have children or the loss of a partnership. It’s the stories from the people I am connected to, and my own feelings of grief and empathy that has inspired me to write this post.

This isn’t a regular article on grief and loss- the kind that tells you about the stages, what to expect and how to process it. Nope, this one is for the community of people who wrap around someone who is experiencing loss. I decided to write from this perspective because I believe that some of the most incredible healing power can come from our community, especially when it’s able to hold space for us to just be.

Feeling grief and feeling someone else’s grief may be one of the most painful emotions humans can experience. The physical sensations of loss- the way it shows up in the chest, belly, and throat… the deep knowing that something is gone permanently. It’s incredibly painful. Even sitting here writing about it I experience the physical sensations in my body. It’s so powerful that it doesn’t just impact those closest to the loss. When someone we care about is grieving our mirror neurons kick in and we feel it too! We can hurt for the other person, and we are moved to make it better. We want to help. Sometimes in our efforts to support we say things like “I can understand why you’re sad but look on the bright side”, “I can see you’re sad but time will help” or “I know you’re hurting but appreciate what you still have”. There can be time for statements such as these but if we don’t first tend to the emotional experience and communicate why we get it, we leave the person alone. And the last thing someone needs when they are grieving, is feeling alone in it.

So to the community of people out there who may find yourself wrapping around someone in a time of loss, I offer you this…

Rather than saying “I understand but”, try “I understand because”.

First- name the emotion “I can understand why you are so sad

Second- let the person know why you understand by giving three reasons “because….because… because…

If you are having hard time with the “because”, put yourself in the other person’s shoes and just say what comes to mind. You probably won’t be too far off, and if you are, they’ll let you know and then you can validate again using their words.

I can understand why you would be so sad because….

you loved _____ so much,

you had a lot of great times with _____,

and it’s so painful to know that you will never see _____ again.

If you’re having a hard time coming up with the three reasons “it’s hard, it’s heavy and it’s tough” is a good place to start.

Sometimes the person grieving may not be feeling sadness, perhaps they are feeling anger.

I can imagine why you would be angry because….

It’s not fair,

You feel like you or someone else could have prevented this,

You want it to be different.

Once you validate their emotional experience, you can then offer support.

“I don’t know what you need right now, but I want you to know I’m here for you”

“Let me know if there is anything I can do”

“This is the human experience of grief; it won’t be this painful forever”

Now you have the validation script, what does it take to use it? It’s easy enough to know what to say on a cognitive level, but the real work is being able to access it when we’re feeling emotions. We need to be able to create pause to stop our automatic response to “fix”. It’s during the pause that we can remember, “I can understand why you’re so sad because…”

Statements of validation are incredible to receive. They communicate that we aren’t alone, and that someone else understands. It’s this process that helps someone move through grief. This may seem a bit paradoxical- it suggests that we go right to the grief, and hangout there for a while. We plunge into the emotion sit with the pain and discomfort. We need to trust that we won’t get stuck there, nor will the person grieving. Interestingly enough EFFT suggests that what gets in the way of one moving through an emotion is avoidance of it.

The next time you’re with someone who’s grieving, I encourage you to give this a try. I’d love to hear how it goes. And if you’re the one who’s grieving and you feel this might be helpful for your community (who’s do their best to help), please pass it along.

Written by Kathy Kutzer, MSW, RSW, RCC

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