A More Effective And Empathetic Response To Grief

Grief isn’t something many of us are well-equipped to deal with. It comes in so many forms, from the worst possible thing we could imagine experiencing to a child not getting the cup they want at lunch time which, in all fairness, may also be the worst thing they’ve ever experienced. We are conditioned to diminish it for our comfort and, presumably, for the good of the grieving person. But, we all know there’s no off switch for grief. It comes in waves and follows us, swelling to tears at the most inopportune times. We carry it for years, even a lifetime. And, while it’s true that grief usually gets less painful with time, it’s never gone. Yet, so few of us know what to do about it and, when we make attempts at empathy, they can come across as dismissive. This is true of the way we try to comfort our children, just as it’s true of the way we try to comfort anyone else. We’re simply inexperienced and, oftentimes, ignorant of how we can truly help.

Psychotherapist, writer, grief advocate, & communication expert, Megan Devine, knows something about how people grieve. She has spent her career learning what people need most in the worst moments of their lives. Growing up in the United States within a toxic, puritanical, white supremacist culture that does not value genuineness or gentleness has left me, like many of you, inexperienced with emotional self-regulation. It’s one of the reasons I rely so heavily on approaches like Emotion Coaching. Without clear direction, I am lost when it comes to supporting people who are experiencing emotional upset. A couple months ago, a reader of my work named Stephanie Cohn brought an extraordinary video to my attention. In this beautiful 4-minute piece called, “How do you help a grieving friend?”, Megan Devine shares one of the most important lessons I’ve received as a peaceful parent. I hope you will be as moved as I was! (Transcript below)

So, what do we do about all the pain we see in the world, all the pain we feel in our own lives, and why does it seem like our best efforts to help somebody feel better always backfire. I’ve been studying intense grief and loss – baby death, violent crimes, accidents, suicides, and natural disasters – and I’ve learned something really interesting.

Cheering people up, telling them to be strong and persevere, helping them move on… it doesn’t actually work. It’s kind of a puzzle. It seems counterintuitive, but the way to help someone feel better is to let them be in pain. This is true for those giant losses and the ordinary everyday ones.

Educator, Parker Palmer writes, “The human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed, exactly as it is.”

He’s talking about acknowledgement here. Acknowledgement is this really amazing multi-tool. It makes things better even when they can’t be made right. For example, somebody’s struggling. Their baby died or there’s been a bad accident or their mom got sick and they’re just sad. It’s way more helpful to join them in their pain than it is to cheer them up. But, here’s what we tend to do instead.

“You have two other children. You need to find joy in them.” Or, “You know what you need? You just need to go out dancing and shake it off.” Or, “I felt really sad once. Did you try acupuncture?”

We’re not really sure what to do with someone’s pain, so we do what we’ve been taught. We look on the bright side. We try to make people feel better. We give them advice. It’s not like this is nefarious. I mean, we try to cheer people up because we think that’s our job. We’re not supposed to let people stay sad. The problem is you can’t heal somebody’s pain by trying to take it away from them.

Now, acknowledgement does something different. When a giant hole opens up in someone’s life, it’s actually much more supportive to acknowledge that hole and let pain exist. It’s actually a radical act to let things hurt. It goes against what we’ve been taught. In order to really support you, I have to acknowledge that things really are as bad as they feel to you. If I try to cheer you up, you end up defending yourself and your feelings. If I give you advice, you feel misunderstood instead of supported. And, I don’t get what I want either, because I wanted you to feel better.

It’s pretty rare that you could actually talk somebody out of their pain. Rarely does the admonishment to look on the bright side actually heal things for someone. It just makes them stop telling you about their pain. It’s so tempting to try to make things better. When somebody shares something painful, it’s much more helpful to say, “I’m sorry that’s happening. Do you want to tell me about it?” To be able to say, “This hurts,” without being talked out of it, that’s what helps. Being heard helps.

It seems too simple to be of use, but acknowledgement can be the best medicine we have. It makes things better, even when they can’t be made right.

I’m reminded of Robot Hugs’ comic entitled, “Nest,” from about eight years ago that makes me cry every time I see it:

I seek to empathize with my children, no matter how they’re behaving, because I want them to feel safe, loved, and understood. I hope that, as I get more comfortable with their emotions, they’ll allow me into their blanket nests when they need someone to be there when they’re sad. And, I hope that, somewhere in the midst of this relationship building, they will learn how to do the same for others.

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