What struck me, following the first meeting of our grief group series, was realizing how you can scan a room, see faces, and assume people are okay. They look okay. They’re acting fine. They have friendly smiles and warm handshakes.
And yet, once we got through introductions and took the conversation deeper, these seemingly “okay” people found the courage to expose their wounds. We moved beyond niceties and safeguards to arrive at the core of bereavement—a place we all find ourselves. Loss is universal and unavoidable. It hurts, it’s difficult, and there’s no way around it.
Those brave souls reminded me that we each carry around the invisible weight of grief. For some, it’s light as a feather, a faded memory housed in an otherwise contented heart. Reminders of the deceased bring warmth and comfort. For others, it’s a rock in the pit of their stomach. Triggers lurk around every corner, threatening tears and ruminating thoughts (coulda, woulda, shoulda questioning). For others still, it’s an unbearable anchor, impossible to lift and daunting to drag. They feel completely undone by this agony.
The uninvited accessory that accompanies them all? A new lens. After a loss, we see things differently. We notice all the ways our world has changed forever more. During the holiday season, brimming with rituals and traditions, reminders of who is missing are especially poignant. The rhythms and roles we had established are suddenly nullified. There’s so much to mourn.
“There’s no place like home for the holidays.”
“Home is where the heart is.”
What if this sense of “home” feels elusive or perhaps completely inaccessible?
In his memoir about losing his wife, A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis wonders if earthly lives can be depicted as “unimaginable, supercosmic, eternal somethings.” And if these “somethings” could appear as two circles. “Two circles that touched,” he goes on to ponder. “But those two circles, above all the point at which they touched, are the very thing I am mourning for, homesick for, famished for.”
There is such raw yearning within this emptiness.
How does a heart survive such sorrow? Not without doubt. Not without feelings of despair. Yet, we cannot bypass grief. We must sit in it. Sit with it. We must allow it to knock us sideways. What an unparalleled test of courage. Moments of distraction and even denial are also warranted. The psyche needs reprieve and patience, as well as open-hearted, generous support.
How can we offer this type of support to a mourner?
- ONLY ASK “HOW ARE YOU?” IF YOU’RE WILLING TO HEAR THE ANSWER
Allow for the real response to emerge. Make space for many possibilities. A person mourning might admit to feeling crushed, hopeful, tired, stunned, or anything in between. Often, when people inquire how a mourner is doing, they want to hear a positive answer. This is well-intentioned, of course, because people generally appreciate when others are happy. When the answer might actually be more complicated, we need to resist the urge to insert our own wishes with a caveat, i.e., “How are you?” quickly followed by, “Okay?” This leaves no space for exploring what’s present.
- REACH OUT AND HOLD AWARENESS
Bereavement can feel quite isolating. Toss someone a lifeline. Send an “I’m thinking of you” message from time to time. Extend an occasional offer or invitation. Just be sure to do so without adding any pressure. We can ask; we cannot expect. Preface ideas with statements like “When you’re ready…,” or “When you feel up to it…” Open-ended invitations and practical, specific offers help forge connection. Mourners feel recognized in their suffering and also empowered to refuse or accept suggestions without guilt.
- BE GENEROUS WITH KINDNESS
Clearly, this is best practice for humankind in general.
In terms of grief, we need to remember its invisible nature. Most people aren’t wearing mourning attire or donning other noticeable markings these days. And even when we know someone is grieving, we can’t be sure how they’re experiencing it. Let’s be abundantly thoughtful. Let’s commit to assuming everyone we encounter deserves our care and compassion.
- AVOID FIXING AND JUDGING
We don’t need to rescue people from bereavement. We cannot save them from their pain, nor should we feel obligated to do so. What we can do is believe in the strength of others. We can trust their inner compass, especially when they are in a place of doubt. We must not add insult to injury by questioning their grief journey. Instead of placing them on an arbitrary timeline of “getting over it” too slowly or quickly, we can simply honor where they are, which hardly remains stagnate or predictable. Mourners appreciate validation more than advice.
FOR GRIEVING HEARTS:
- Give yourself permission to be with your grief. Welcome it all (as you can)—the tears, heartache, meaning-making, answer-searching, questioning, doubts, regrets, wishes, relief. It’s all normal. Mourning can be very exhausting…and noisy. Seek an open-hearted listener as needed.
As we ring in the new year, can we aspire to go a little easier on ourselves and on one another? Can we find beauty in being complex, interdependent humans?
“Healing means integrating loss into the mind and finding a new way of being in the world. The loss remains an unshakable memory, forever housed inside us. Yet, as we take timid steps, our hearts begin to grow outward beyond the space inhabited by the sadness. New experiences, new connections, new opportunities for joy widen our capacity for happiness. ‘Moving on’ means honoring our grief and bravely opening ourselves to what’s to come.”
–Cultivating the Doula Heart: Essentials of Compassionate Care, Francesca Arnoldy