We all know that feeling. When someone is grieving we all have the instinct to comfort and empathize. To help them feel less alone.
However, often our best intentions and attempts at empathy (or as my friend jokingly calls it – ‘attempathy’) fall short of being genuinely helpful. Which can unfortunately leave both parties feeling deflated and horrible… when the intention was to support and uplift. Ugggghhh.
So, first, let’s look at a list of things to scratch from your vocabulary.
Think back to the loss of a loved one, a pet, that time you lost your job or ended a relationship. How many of these things did you hear? How did it make you feel when you heard them?
I bet you can tick several off that list.
I also know, because you’re human, that you’ve said one or more of the things on that list to someone else. EVERYBODY DOES THIS. It’s okay. You’re allowed to make mistakes.
WHY DO WE RESORT TO THESE UNHELPFUL PLATITUDES IN THE FIRST PLACE?
Because being around someone who’s grieving makes us feel vulnerable. We don’t want to remember and connect with our own pain (#uncomfortable). When we haven’t healed our own grief, we simply can’t deal with someone else’s.
So, we look for the quick escape, to acknowledge them without getting too close in case we accidentally feel our own grief again.
As a result, we end up parroting everyone else’s “sorry for your loss” and “my condolences” and we move on – and away from our own pain.
Here’s the good news – we can all learn to show up differently next time.
3 THINGS YOU CAN DO WHEN SOMEONE IS GRIEVING
1 – Be a heart with ears
Listen to their story. Encourage them to share with you what happened and how they found out. Ask them how they’re feeling that day (since it changes often).
Refrain from offering any suggestions, advice, or similar stories from your own life unless SPECIFICALLY ASKED FOR by the griever.
They aren’t broken. You don’t need to fix them. They’re human and going through a tough time with some really big and often conflicting emotions. We want to help them, to heal them. We want the griever to know that we see their pain. That we understand. That we’re in it with them. Which is why not rushing in with our own stories, or words of advice can be SO hard to do.
If you can listen with empathy, (No judgement. No criticism. No pseudo-Freudian analysis or oh-so-helpful unsolicited advice.) then you can create a safe space for the griever to express how they’re feeling which is SO important for them to begin healing. Emotions are feminine energy which I often view as waves of water that need the masculine energetic container to rage and flow safely within. Therefore, all you need to be is that safe container for them, to ‘hold space’ so they can let their emotions flow.
But how do you ‘hold space’ for someone? By simply being a heart with ears, it is easily one of the most powerful ways you can support them. I also encourage you to find stability through your legs and feet, literally. Connect with earth energy and breathe deeply into your belly. This will invoke presence and support you as you support them. Doing this will allow you to be their stability in the chaos and the gentle guiding force towards the safe shore.
2 – Circle back and check in
A griever is flooded with support immediately after their loss. But as time goes by…everyone returns to their regularly scheduled lives. That’s exactly the time to check in with a griever.
- 2 weeks after the funeral
- 3 months after the divorce
- 6 weeks after losing a job
Or any time that person ‘randomly’ pops into your heart.
Reaching out can be as simple as sending a text and letting them know you’re thinking about them. Or setting up a time to grab a coffee or go for a walk together. The point is, CONNECT because I don’t know one person who has gotten through life without someone else. Connection is key, make the effort.
3 – Offer help
- skip the “call me if you need anything” speech and pick a very specific way that you would love to help
- mow the lawn or shovel the driveway
- make a nourishing meal they can throw in the freezer (yes, casseroles are still a lovely gesture…but you’re capable of more 😉 )
- or hop online and get an UberEats gift certificate – it is the modern equivalent of a casserole
- go to yoga or for a walk with them
- take the kids to school or pick them up
- offer to take the dog for a walk everyday at a specific time- offer to get their groceries, fill prescriptions, run errands
- get a gift certificate for a massage or acupuncture or reiki or any kind of body work really as they’re all great ways to begin to passively release emotions like grief
- get a gift certificate for coaching to help them move forward when they’re ready (subtle plug)
Grievers rarely follow-up with “call me if you need anything” because when the loss is fresh and heavy they often don’t know which way is up, let alone what they need. Start with a specific offer to help and be open to any other suggestions they might have for you.
We’ve all fumbled our attempts at empathy (#attempathy). We’ve all resorted to cliched platitudes when we couldn’t figure out what to say. That’s okay. We’re human. We mess things up – often. Forgive yourself.
You can choose differently next time. You can be a heart with ears. You can circle back and check in. You can offer to help and show you really mean it.
It takes a bit of practice to let go of the old and often-reached-for scripts. It takes courage to hold space for someone to be vulnerable. You might not get it perfect the first time. That’s okay too.
It’s never too late to show up with an open heart, a willingness to listen and a desire to be of service.