A lot of people don’t know how to be around someone who is grieving. We say insensitive things. We run away, not knowing what to do. I took a class about this, and I certainly don’t have it all worked out or understand it all, but I think some of it that I’ve gleaned might be of help, so I’m going to share it.
Sometimes we say “it will be OK.” I think this is spurred on by fear. The friend doesn’t know how to be with a person who is in pain. They are trying to point towards the future, to point out that this won’t always be this way. The friend isn’t OK with what is happening right now, and doesn’t know how to deal with it.
It is healthy to acknowledge the way things are right now. It is ok to say that things are terrible. Sometimes it won’t be OK. Sometimes it will get worse. You as the caregiver have to be able to be present in the middle of that feeling.
I feel that we are afraid of feelings, any feelings. We are afraid of our own feelings, and of other people’s feelings. We don’t know how to be with someone who is experiencing anything other than joy, especially if that someone is ourself.
The trick is just to be there. You don’t have to fix anything. You just have to listen.
This can be the hardest thing you have ever done.
I heard a story about a man who was trying to help his wife who had breast cancer. He said he didn’t know whether to bring the bucket or the toolbox. He didn’t know if he should just listen to the wails and laments (the bucket) or if he should try to fix things (the toolbox). Sometimes it is a little of both.
We are taught to fix things. We are taught to have solutions. The trick here is that the solution is to let the other person get it out. The way you fix it is to be present to their pain. Feelings have a way of getting stuck inside us. We need to get them out.
We help by letting the other person have a safe place to let them out. How do we make it safe? Listen without judgment. The subject just is, it isn’t good or bad. Listen with your full attention. Don’t check your cell phone or watch TV. Make eye contact. Listen – don’t speak, except to ask questions to further your understanding of the issue.
Ask the person how you can help. Let them guide you. Often what you think they need isn’t helpful at all. Sometimes we will suggest what we would like, rather than trying to understand what the person would like. Sometimes people foist their own wishes and needs off on someone else, and walk away, thinking their duty is done.
I’ll give you an example. My brother sent a lily plant to the house when our Mom died. He expected me to plant it and then take care of it as a living memorial to her. I’d spent a year taking care of her, and he left us alone and poor in that time. There was no way I was going to take care of a lily plant, with finicky rules about how you had to dig it up and store the bulbs in a cool dark place every year. I’d just spent a year watching Mom die. I wasn’t prepared to spend time watching this plant die. I chucked that plant into the English Ivy, to let it fend for itself. His gift was worse than useless.
If the thought is what matters, put some thought into it. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. If you can’t even get near that idea, ask them what would be useful, and do it.
Don’t ever say “I understand.” You don’t. Even if you have been through the exact same circumstance, you can’t understand what it is like for that person. Each person has a different history and a different emotional make-up. So what should you say? Don’t say anything. Ask. Ask the person to tell you more about it. Ask them to tell you how they feel. Feelings are what matter here.
One of the worst things you can ask is “why”. Don’t use the word “why” at all. “Why” puts people on the defensive. You can say “Can you tell me more about…” for instance.
Remember that it isn’t your pain. This may sound odd to say, but it may help you to have a sense of distance. By not trying to process your own pain, you can be there to help the other person process her pain.
Just wanting to be of help is helpful. It is OK to say you don’t know how to help. Just don’t leave. Keep up with your usual routine with each other. Have tea together, go to movies, have lunch. Make a point of spending time together.
If it is hard for you to be around her pain, remember that it is harder for her to be in the middle of it. You lessen her pain by sharing it with her. And you gain strength and knowledge for the next time you have a friend who is in pain.