The Language of Grief

There are many reasons to treat each other with great tenderness.
One is the sheet miracle that we are here together on a planet surrounded by dying stars.
One is that we cannot see what anyone else has swallowed.
~ Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer

Author Leo Buscaglia was once asked to judge a contest whose purpose was to find the most caring child. The winner was a four-year-old whose next-door neighbor was an elderly gentleman whose wife had died recently. When the little boy saw him crying one day, he went into the man’s yard, climbed into his lap and sat there. His mother asked him later what he’d said to their neighbor. “Nothing,” replied the boy. “I just helped him cry.”

Empathetic children understand the basic truths of life better than most of their adult counterparts do. They are less self-conscious and often braver in the face of another person’s pain. They know the power of sitting with a friend who’s sad or hurt. The comfort of patting someone’s hand or putting an arm around their shoulders. They get that grief has to be felt and acknowledged, and that presence can be more important than words.

I’m not sure when we lose this instinct to sit with the wounded instead of turning away. When we absorb the persistent message that there are “right” words to say and a long list of ones to avoid (only some of which everyone would agree are “wrong”). How we come to believe we have the power to make loss better. Or that what might help one person will work for everyone else as though we are all the same.

It’s no wonder we are paralyzed by someone else’s pain. The stakes are high, the pressure enormous, and the possibility of failure rests squarely on our shoulders.

When my son Jimmy died of brain cancer, I thought becoming a member of this horrible club of bereaved parents would give me the words to reach out to new members. That Jimmy’s dying and the devastating aftermath would provide both the experience and knowledge I needed to know exactly what to say and how to help. Despite learning the hard way that nothing anyone else said or did could ease the agony of his absence or bring my son back to me, I somehow concluded I had the power to do that for someone else. But the more grievers I met, the less I seemed to know.

I am forever grateful to the shattered souls I met in those early years of launching Salt Water. The ones whose stories silenced me, leaving me to sit quietly as they talked. I wasted a lot of time during those conversations, stuck in my own head, desperately trying to find something worth saying, rarely coming up with anything more than “I am so, so sorry.” “How wrong .. how unfair.” I am a slow learner so it took me a while to realize that the less I said, the more it seemed to help. Not that anything was fixed or better. But the other person was left feeling seen, acknowledged, heard. I learned to ask for the name of the friend or family members who had died and for a story or two about why they were so beloved.

I’ve never had a great memory, and grief brain has taken most of what’s left of it. Even if I wanted to memorize a list of what’s acceptable to say to someone who’s grieving, I couldn’t do it. What a relief to realize I didn’t need to. That instead of worrying about what to say or how to help, I can watch the other person and follow their lead. To focus on meeting their needs instead of worrying about my own.

I sometimes as though I’m rediscovering the much younger me. The little girl who sat on the short wooden wall around the playground and put an arm around her crying friend. Who didn’t worry about what she said or how she said it, knowing that her sad friend wasn’t really listening anyway. She just wanted the comfort only a best friend can provide.

We have so little room for each other’s pain, and such limited capacity for our own. Yet our sorrow, despite how different it can be, binds us together in more ways than it pulls us apart. I used to think it was my lack of loss and intact heart that allowed me to comfort a grieving friend or family member. It wasn’t until Jimmy’s death shattered mine that I understood how much room there is in the broken places.

Now when faced with unspeakable loss and immeasurable grief, I trust the power of loving silence. I remind myself about the way the space expands when you sit with someone whose heart is also hurting. The comfort that comes from feeling seen and less alone. And when I catch myself searching for something to say, I focus on what a gift it is to sit here, holding space together, helping each other cry.

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