Yesterday I mentioned my qualms about saying: I’m sorry for your loss. This reminds me of the e cards where they ask: Don’t know what to say? Pick one of our suggested messages. But the truth is, we often don’t know what to say when someone is grieving.
I think the first thing to let go of is the need to make things better.
1.There is nothing I can say that will change the circumstances of another’s suffering.
2.There is nothing I should say to try to change the perspective of the person in pain.
How often have people tried to help you by trying to talk you out of your pain? As I talk about grief, it’s without qualifying it or ranking it on my arbitrary scale. Grief is grief. It’s terribly unfair to say one person’s is worse than another’s. If someone is grieving, their pain is large. If you feel they brought in on themselves or that they’re over reacting, walk away. This is not a teaching moment.
I believe what helps a heart that’s breaking is patient, gentle, loving support, offered in the way the hurting person prefers to receive it, not necessarily in the way I prefer to give it. So I have to begin by asking myself, am I invited? Are we close enough that I’m a safe sanctuary for your broken heart, or do I just want you to know that I care?
If we’re not close, I’m not likely to be the person that can offer true comfort. I can bring a meal, wash the dishes, tell you how terribly sorry I am. I can pray and I can remain available. I may even be able to take your hand for a few moments or sit quietly in the same room. But sharing in the sorrow and anger and fear of your grief is something I earn through relationship, not something that I can force in the midst of crisis.
If we are close, and your heart is grieving, it’s my job to let you chose when and if you want to talk. Sometimes, you may say let’s talk about the weather or let’s just take a walk or you may want to hear some trivial tale, a temporary diversion, unrelated to your struggle. It’s a time to restrain the instinct to prod and probe. It’s your story so it’s up to you to decide how much, how often and how deeply to share it.
There have been times when my heart was breaking and I’ve said, I don’t want to talk about this anymore, it hurts too much. The topic is changed but my heart is so consumed that in a few moments, I’m the one, once again, bringing up bits and pieces of the pain. Sometimes I’ve wanted solitude. Solitude has been five minutes of wailing in the bathroom with the fan on and the water running. And solitude has been hours of staring off into a world of memories.
Which leads to the next suggestion: Don’t expect the hurting heart to know what it wants. Be steadfast, patient and freely extend grace. That may sound easy, but riding in the emotional surf of grief with someone can be bewildering. One moment you may be pulled in close and the next, pushed away. It feels personal. If you’re unacquainted with grief yourself, staying gentle and steady will be even more of a struggle.
Possibly the greatest mistake I can make is thinking that I know what you need by putting myself in your place. That would be figuring out what I imagine I would need. It wouldn’t be listening to your hurting heart and answering in the ways that are the most comforting for you. It isn’t something that has to be, or even can done perfectly. But I don’t believe that sincerity alone is enough.
So much damage is done when we grieve the grieving. If we’re invited into someone’s heart at such a fragile time, then I think we’re responsible to enter thoughtfully and with a willingness to step outside of our own experience. It’s a time for grace.
Tomorrow I’d like to look at what not to say to the heart that’s breaking. Once again, I value your perspective.
She was no longer wrestling with the grief, but could sit down with it as a lasting companion and make it a sharer in her thoughts. ~George Eliot