Monday, November 28, 2016

In Grief: “Being There” for Someone in Mourning

[Reviewed and updated August 30, 2021]

When your fear touches someone’s pain, it becomes pity. When your love touches someone’s pain, it becomes compassion.  ~ Stephen Levine

Why is it so hard to "be there" for someone in mourning? If you're like many other good-hearted, well-meaning people, you may find it difficult to be with someone who is anticipating or coping with the death of a loved one. When you aren't sure what to say or do to support another person, it's natural to feel awkward and uncomfortable.
It's not that you don't care or don't want to be helpful ~ it's just that you feel completely helpless in the face of loss ~ and so does the person you want to help! You cannot take the mourner's pain away, and you cannot answer the question, "Why?" You cannot bring back the person who died or restore the health of the person who is dying, and your friend cannot make you feel better by seeming to be helped. This is especially difficult if you've never been around people in mourning before, or if you've had no prior experience with deep grief in your own life. Another person's death may remind you of your own past losses, or of those that you also must face one day. It's hard to confront the fact that at some point death will take your own loved ones, too, and that eventually you also will die. Feeling awkward and uncomfortable in the face of such realities is understandable.

What are the requirements for helping another in grief? To "be there" for another, you will need sufficient time, patience, perseverance, flexibility, optimism, understanding, warmth, and compassion. If that seems like more than you can offer ~ if you think that you don't qualify ~ consider this: You are only human, and those who are struggling in grief need someone who can identify with them, someone who won't judge them, someone as human as they are. While you may not know what to say, there still is plenty that you can do. And because you are only human, do only what you can, and let it be enough. If you're a member of a family in mourning, give yourself permission to not always be there for other family members. Be good to yourself. Take a break if and when you need it, and seek some outside social and / or spiritual support, or personal grief counseling. The best way to take care of another's grief is to take care of your own grief first.

What if the mourner is a child? Remember that anyone old enough to love is old enough to grieve. Do what you can to give children special attention. Create quiet time for talking. Let them know you're sad about the death and would be glad to talk with them about it, if and when they want to.

What if someone is mourning the loss of a beloved pet? Acknowledge the person's pain as legitimate and real, no different from that of losing a cherished friend or special family member. Recognize that only your friend knows the special place in his life and in his heart that was occupied by his animal companion, and only he can measure just how much he has lost.

Does grief differ at certain points along the way? Understand that grief occurs both in anticipation of and following a loss. It does not wait for death to happen; it begins as soon as a person becomes aware that death may happen: when a life-threatening illness is diagnosed or a terminal prognosis is given. It's important to remember that family caregivers (family members, friends, neighbors who provide care to someone who is dying) are in mourning, too, well before the death occurs. They are coping not only with their own feelings of grief and loss, but also with physical and mental fatigue, and often feel overwhelmed with all the financial, legal, medical, and personal responsibilities associated with caregiving.

In the aftermath of the death of a loved one, especially in the beginning, mourners are very susceptible to disappointments and vulnerable to others' insensitivity. They need emotional support to help alleviate suffering, and help to be in the world in new and different ways. If those left behind are to heal through grief, they must also mourn -- that is, they need to express their grief (thoughts, feelings) outwardly. Over the weeks and months following the death, they must accept the harsh reality that someone they loved has died and will never physically be present to the mourner again. Pushing away some of this reality at times is normal; mourners will embrace it in doses as they are ready. To allow all the pain in all at once is to be overwhelmed.

In general, what is needed from a helper? The mourner needs someone who

· is present
· offers to be there in a helpful, loving, supportive, respectful, and non-judgmental way 

· can actively show (demonstrate) that s/he cares

· will bear witness to the struggle

· is with, and will continue to be with, the mourner

· will honor the person's unique journey through grief

· is sensitive to cultural, ethnic, religious, and family traditions

· aims to help maintain the person's physical health and emotional equilibrium

To learn more about each of these topics, do some additional reading. You'll find links to a number of related articles listed at the base of this post.

Your feedback is welcome! Please feel free to leave a comment or a question, or share a tip, a related article or a resource of your own in the Comments section below.
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