As a grief expert and author, I’m often asked how to best support the bereaved. One of my suggestions is to keep showing up for them even when they seem to have pulled it together. The bereaved often conceal their emotional pain rather than revealing it to others. If they reveal it to others, this means they must reveal it to themselves. And facing this pain sickens and scares them beyond the telling.
It is not unusual for the bereaved to feel that the death reveals a part of themselves that isn’t worthy of sharing. There may be embarrassment, shame, terror, a thousand lies. And instead of unpacking these truths and seeking advice, they conclude it is better to set it aside.
In the midst of it all, the bereaved sense that what others want from them is to see them living a fulfilling life. And the one thing the bereaved know they can accomplish is putting on a brave face. They may share how they are “sentimental” at times and appear to others they are coping well. The bereaved may even tell their therapist they are making progress because they are worried that their pain may be too much even for the trained professional.
And so it is not unusual for the bereaved to use verbal and physical camouflage to appear less vulnerable because they are often afraid their loss and pain will break their relationships with others. They are afraid others are sick of them, so they will tell others what they feel is most comfortable to hear. On the surface, the bereaved can talk about the changing of seasons, or the latest sports scandal. However, what they are not communicating is more significant.
When it comes to listening to the bereaved we can all be hard of hearing. The bereaved aren’t saying “Pity me.” They are saying, “Don’t forget me. Remember me.”
The astonishing thing about the bereaved is they feel they’ve faded away from everyone. They are not sure if the world is now blind and deaf to their presence but they feel the change. People hold their tongue and don’t mention the name of the deceased, so they feel their loss is insignificant. Countless things have come to an end, and the bereaved are scared they will lose their connection with others, too.
And wanting to feel connected to others is part of the human experience. When our lives overlap that of another human there is a way to keep it separate, as grief can do, or there is a way to hear and hold space for the bereaved. To listen. To keep listening and to listen more to the silence at every turn gives way to healing.
Our common culture says we have to show up ready. We need to have content to share or a meal to give, but what the bereaved really need is someone to be fully alive and present with them. In a way, taking time for them is a way to touch the humanity in our own lives as well.