— Grieving people need to tell their stories. How friends and family members can truly offer support.
by Amy Florian
An icy road. A no-fault car collision. In the blink of an eye, I became a 25-year-old widow with a 7-month-old baby boy. When John died, I was utterly devastated. And despite being surrounded by a multitude of loving, very well-intentioned people, none of them had a clue what to say or how to act around me. I felt isolated and alone.
Since that time, I’ve completed advanced education and certifications in Thanatology (the study of loss, grief and transition) and I’ve worked with over 2000 grieving people. I’ve heard and seen firsthand that wrenchingly difficult losses like mine happen all the time – there is a suicide, a child dies, a home burns to the ground, or other tragedies strike. As was the case for me, when these awful events occur, the survivors often hear a chorus of would-be comforters say, “I can’t imagine how you feel!”
I’ve learned that “I can’t imagine” still leaves a lot to be desired. When tragedy strikes in the life of someone you care about, you could do so much better.
I used to join so many others in teaching people that this is a good phrase to use, because it’s not immediately hurtful like “I know how you feel.” (Never say that, by the way. Even if you’ve had a similar loss, you never know how the other person feels.) Yet by listening to so many grievers, I’ve learned that “I can’t imagine” still leaves a lot to be desired. When tragedy strikes in the life of someone you care about, you could do so much better.
The Isolation of Grief
The truth is: We have very active imaginations. We actually CAN imagine what they’re going through. We just don’t want to. We recoil at the idea of envisioning ourselves in their shoes. So we tell them, and ourselves, that we can’t imagine it, and it keeps the pain at a distance. It allows us to offer pity or even sympathy, but not empathy and companionship.
That distance is palpable to the grieving person as well. When one comforter after another keeps saying, “I can’t imagine how you feel,” they begin to feel like a lonely outcast, thinking there must not be anyone else who has ever felt like this.
And if there isn’t a single person who can imagine what this might be like, then there isn’t a single person capable of accompanying them through it. Since no one cares enough to be in the pain with them, they’d better keep it to themselves. It’s a very isolating experience.
Follow Their Lead
I offer two alternatives that are more helpful and supportive. As always, whenever you inquire about someone’s experience of grief, you follow their lead in what they are willing to tell you. They will let you know pretty quickly if they don’t want to talk, and that may be the case for a wide range of reasons.
Open the door and invite them to talk, but always allow them to shut the door and decline the invitation.
Perhaps they’ve been crying all morning and just found a moment of respite, so they don’t want to go there. Perhaps they don’t feel comfortable enough with you with talk about it yet. Perhaps they are exhausted and don’t have the energy into try verbalizing their feelings right now. So, open the door and invite them to talk, but always allow them to shut the door and decline the invitation.
In the vast majority of cases, though, their story will pour out to anyone courageous and caring enough to ask. The grieving person needs to tell their story in order to make it real, comprehend what happened to them, and begin processing the experience. It’s incredibly helpful when they find someone who is willing to listen.
You may be more comfortable with one or the other of these options. They both generate the same information, and both are totally invitational and non-intrusive.
Complete Article ↪HERE↩!