Supporting Others Through Grief

by Rev. Sharon Leman, MLA

March 2009

Rev. Sharon Leman

When the calm of routine is interrupted by unexpected losses such as unemployment, sickness, divorce, or death, the experience can abruptly bring life to a stop. Just as driftwood becomes caught in the silt of shallow waters, emotions can become stuck, lodging deeply into grief.

Have you ever watched water spilling over rocks in a river? Focusing on one spot of a stream, it appears unchanging. However, in reality it is an ever-changing landscape of swiftly moving molecules. All at once tumultuous and serene, rushing water reflects both the predictability of our lives and its moments of upheaval.

If only providing meaningful support for a grieving person was as easy as tossing a beached log back into familiar waters. Watching someone we care for struggle with loss can be frustrating. Trying to come up with a plan to make things better often leaves the mind racing in circles. Searching for the right words to say can leave a person either silent or babbling aimlessly in an attempt to fill the void.

As Jane Welsh Carlyle suggests, the best help transcends words: “Never does one feel so utterly helpless as in trying to speak comfort for great bereavement. I will not try it.”

To provide support is to allow the pain of another to touch us. Realizing compassion, differences fall away.

When supporting others in grief, release all expectations. If you are not sure what to do, just be. Listen. It is our ability to hold another’s difficult emotions in love that makes a difference. Create a safe place where honest feelings can be expressed. Your caring and presence can be a beautiful gift for a person who is struggling to find their way through grief.

What a Grieving Person Needs

Choice. Do not assume you know what another person wants or needs.

Honesty. Be honest about what you feel. For example, if you don’t know what to say to a bereaved friend, tell them you don’t know what to say. No one expects you to have all the answers.

Acknowledgement of the loss. Affirm the reality of what has happened.

Your presence. Words are not always necessary to show support. Silence is OK—it is perfect for accompanying a loss that reaches deeper than words.

Empowerment. Support decisions or actions that help to re-establish a sense of control in life.

Someone to listen without judgment. Encourage thoughts and words to flow freely without worry of censorship.

Validation. Provide support even if to you the person’s emotions and feelings seem irrational.

On the flip side, it is also good to be aware of what does not help. For example, throwing mud at a piece of driftwood is not going to help move it back into deep waters to catch the river’s current. Similarly, when supporting a person who is grieving, some words and actions may feel akin to mud-slinging. Although such conversational “fillers” may feel proactive, they actually muddy the waters by taking up time that could have been used for genuine sharing.

What a Grieving Person Does NOT Need

Pity. This can feel condescending. To feel sorry for someone reflects our separateness from that person, whereas sharing sorrow speaks of compassion.

Advice. Each individual is unique. What was a benefit to one person does not mean it will benefit another.

Judgment/criticism. To judge and critique another creates more hurt, adding to the weight that is already burdening the person’s heart.

War stories. Well-intended though it may be, when someone diverts focus towards their story, it stifles genuine sharing.

Platitudes/clichés. Examples of statements to be avoided: “You should be thankful for what you have,”  “It was God’s will,” or “At least he/she is not suffering.”

To be ignored or isolated. When a person suffers a loss, to be left alone is to suffer the additional loss of community.

Someone to “fix it.” Sometimes a situation cannot be fixed or made better. The journey is through grief, not around it.

Henri Nouwen beautifully summarizes what it means to walk with sensitivity alongside those who grieve:

“When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving much advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a gentle and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”

When loss strikes, life becomes submerged in grief. Given time, clouds clear, the sun returns, and the raging waters of sorrow retreat. Day by day, little by little, recovery takes root. Among the ruins, all is not lost. As grief recedes, the soul emerges wiser and richer for having endured.

Notes and Sources

Janet Childs is a Grief Counselor, Crisis Intervention Specialist, and the co-founder of the Centre for Living with Dying in Santa Clara, CA. For over thirty years she has generously shared her compassion and deep-spirited wisdom with those experiencing trauma and grief in the community. Her teaching is the foundation of much of this article. For all that I have learned from her, I am grateful.

Also see: Carol Staudacher, A Time to Grieve. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.