Who are these gurus, sages and wise ones,
Who speak with such authority
about a heart they do not know
and a life they have not lived?
Too often when a friend is grieving, we focus on ourselves. What should we say, what should we do to “make it better”? Desperate to fix her pain, we ask how she is, hoping to inspire a positive response with the tone of our voice or an encouraging look. We dispense advice. We predict improvement over time. We say that we want to help but offer no specifics or options. We diminish the loss, thinking we can lessen the grief.
Google “how to help a friend who is grieving,” and article after article will appear about what not to say, written in tone that implies there are words that will repair the grief, make it better, heal the other person’s pain. With the best of intentions, we search and search for the right words. We try out different phrases and approaches. But no matter how perfect the words or how pure the intentions, our friend still grieves. In despair, we pull back, worried that we aren’t the one to comfort, that we don’t know the secret to easing our friend’s sadness, not realizing that our absence is causing even more pain.
What those articles don’t tell us is that we have it all wrong. We are not superheroes swooping in to save the day. The wound is not ours to heal, the broken heart not ours to repair. We willingly try to shoulder a burden that is not ours to bear. And when we fail at the impossible, we think it’s about us. But it never was.
Therapist Megan Devine gets it right when she says, “My job is not to make this better. My job is to tolerate my own helplessness in the face of her pain, without trying to relieve that helplessness by offering platitudes or false comfort.”
What does help? Showing up. Witnessing your friend’s pain. Acknowledging what’s true – that her life has been shattered by this loss, that nothing will ever be the same again, that the death of her child, spouse, sibling is wrong and unfair. That loss sucks, and most people don’t understand and won’t try. That some of her friends and family will offer platitudes and false comfort. That her tears and her story will frighten people, and they will pull away right when she needs them the most.
But what is also true is that you are there, putting her first, no matter how scared or uncomfortable you are. That you are willing to sit with her pain. To witness her grief. To listen intently without judgment, no matter what comes out of her mouth. Not trying to fix anything but offering instead to help carry her pain and make her feel less alone.
It’s your willingness to use your ears, not your mouth that helps ease another person’s pain. When someone is crazed with grief, you don’t hear much of what others say anyway. But even in that dazed state, you know when someone else is listening, willing to take in whatever comes out of your mouth, no matter how scary or dark. You remember the people who acknowledge the gaping hole in your life and refuse to look away. You know who’s willing to say the name of your loved one and remember how he lived instead of how he died. You remember who didn’t try to fix anything and who never forgot that your grief is yours and yours alone.
Life isn’t about perfection. It’s about loving one another and showing up, despite our mistakes and our imperfections. Witnessing pain and celebrating a life. Doing your best for the people you love. Holding their hand. Walking them home.
We’re all just walking each other home. Ram Dass