Thursday, November 28, 2013

How to Help a Grieving Person and be a Good Friend

Since I moved to Tallhassee I had to opportunity to attend a grief workshop. It’s been going really well and I wanted to share some of the highlights I was able to learn. Now when it comes to grief it is natural for us to automatically think of death…But grief comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes and we ALL have experienced it at some point. Here are some common examples of grief: death, divorce, miscarriage, moving (whether you are moving, or someone close to you is moving), marriage (your marriage or someone close to you is getting married), graduation, children leaving the home (empty nesters) and the list goes on and on). It’s surprising to think that a life event that’s supposed to be happy like marriage or graduation can actually cause someone to grieve. But though it is most likely a joyous occasion, it is a symbol of change that is about to happen. Most times when we graduate, the friends and bonds that we have grown used to is no longer there. And well marriage…that changes everything! We grieve even when its someone who we never had a good relationship with…Because they were never there when we needed them and when they die we grieve because they will NEVER be there when you still need them. Whatever the situation that causes the grief one thing is for certain…we feel sad, we feel an array of emotions, and it’s tough. This post is for the friends or loved ones of the people who are grieving…

We never like to see people sad. I know for me it really breaks my heart when one of my friends is going through a period of sadness. And I especially wish I could wave a magic wand and take the pain away! I want to say something or do something to make them feel better…And many times I just feel helpless. So here is a little of what I have learnt in this workshop on what to do and what not to do…

1.     Allow the griever to freely express their emotions. Consciously and unconsciously we often reach for tissue, or touch our friend in some way to “help them feel better.” What we are inadvertently doing is telling them, shhh, don’t cry…Don’t express how you truly feel…Cause its kinda making me and the rest of us over here uncomfortable. So the griever is “forced” to push everything inside and hide their true feelings…They are afraid to express their true self because every which way they turn either someone is telling them don’t cry, offering them tissue to dry their tears and help stop them from crying or taking them to a private place so they could cry  alone since its not really acceptable that we cry in public. We learn this from a very young age when our parents tell us to go to our room if we are crying…Or when they tell us, don’t cry…dry your tears! Now we tell adults the same thing.

What to do instead? Don’t do anything. Just sit and listen. Don’t offer any tissue, or place it in a location where they can get it when they are ready…Don’t touch them while they are expressing themselves because that causes them to suppress their emotions. JUST LISTEN.

2.     Don’t offer any words of advice. Lord have mercy, this is a tough one for me cause I want you to feel better…So I feel compelled to say something…But this is what happens when people offer advice…YOUR obvious intention is to make the griever feels better. But what often ends up happening is you unintentionally communicate to the griever that you shouldn’t feel the way you feel. What you are feeling is wrong…And indeed you should feel “better” by what I am about to tell you. So we say things to the parent who lost a child, “At least you have other children…imagine the people who can’t have any.” WE say to the person who has lost a parent, “At least you had him or her for X number of years. Be grateful for the time you shared.” To the person who just moved and feels like they have lost all their friends we say, “Don’t worry, you’ll make new friends.” To the person who got divorced we say, “There are plenty of fish in the sea.” Throughout our socialization we have heard these statements time and time again…so much so, we may even feed it to ourselves. We say to ourselves, “God does not give us more than we can bare, He’s in a better place, He’s not in pain anymore…” But what does ALL of that have to do with how you ACTUALLY FEEL!? We say these things to help them/our self feel better, but while some of these statements may have a layer of truth, it DOES NOT HELP address the grievers’ feelings. And it does not provide them with an opportunity to simply grieve.

So what to do instead? JUST LISTEN…don’t say anything. Offer a judgment free zone where they can cry, talk, be happy, sad or angry. When negative emotions come out, don’t try to stop it…Allow them to just let it out. Saying it’s okay to cry, go on, don’t stop can be helpful to let the person know you are comfortable with them expressing their emotions.

3.     Don’t compare losses. We have a tendency to think that our loss is not as significant as the person next to us. Honestly, when we did our private small group session, I felt that some of the members in my group could write a book! Their life story was so colorful, filled with many moments of highs and lows. I felt that what I had to talk about was miniscule compared to theirs. Yet when I spoke, I cried. I didn’t even want to cry…Heck, I didn’t know I would have cried! Why am I crying?? I start by saying that my mother is alive…But she is not well (mentally). I somehow feel that I shouldn’t feel sad, or as sad as the person who never had a mother. Or whose mother has since died. I feel that feeling sad because I don’t have a mother to be there for Jayce, or be there for me at this stage of my life shouldn’t really be a big deal…So I don’t say anything…to ANYONE…Yet when I started to talk…in a judgment free zone…IT ALL CAME OUT! Much to my surprise…It was like I didn’t even know it was there…still there…after 32 years…

Sometimes we say things to people that really make them feel that their loss is insignificant. When I recently moved from NC to Tallahassee I really felt that I had to grieve alone. In trying to express my true feelings to some of my close friends, I was met with words of “encouragement” then went along the lines of, don’t worry you’ll make new friends…I felt like I had no one that I could just sit and cry with…So I cried alone…For weeks I cried alone…By myself…without anyone knowing…I tried to reach out, but sometimes no one reached back. It was hard…And still is hard. Even now my friends are quick to change the subject if I tell them how I feel about being in Tallahassee.  “I  have no friends here,” I say…”So what’s the weather like?” they say.

What to do instead? Just be a friend. Listen. Offer a judgment free zone. Don’t say anything to try to make the person feel better. Allow them to grieve freely by not downplaying their loss or comparing it to a “real” loss. Don’t say things like, “well it could have been worse…think about those people in
Haiti who lost everything…Or think about such and such who doesn’t have x,y,z…Or think about…” A person who is grieving doesn’t need to think about such and such and so and so. Or why their life is better than 99% of the world. They just need to feel like they can express themselves without judgment, without criticism and quite honestly, we want to know that you can handle it.

4.     Don’t say, “I know how you feel.” Sometimes we feel that we can relate to someone’s loss because we have experienced a similar loss. We may have lost a parent too, or moved and felt like we lost most of our network of friends, we’ve graduated and had to move out of the bubble of school and or even divorced someone we once loved and the list goes on. But no matter how we THINK we can relate, just know that you cannot compare your loss to the loss of someone else. The relationship they shared with their parent, friends, spouse, child etc. is DIFFERENT than the relationship you shared. Even if you are related and you are siblings…my relationship with my father is MY RELATIONSHIP…and your relationship with our father is YOUR relationship. Because of that unique relationship and varied experiences we can never truly know how the other person feels. What to say instead? “I can’t imagine how you feel.” I personally take solace when someone tells me they know how I feel. I feel like they are expressing that they understand and more importantly gives me permission to really express how I truly feel. However, there are many people who may take offense to this statement…You don’t know how I feel! How could you!? You have no idea…talking about you know how I feel!!! So it’s just better to say you can’t imagine how they feel because in reality you CANNOT.

So what does it boil down too? Our job is to just listen and not really say anything. After learning this, it really takes a weight off my shoulders because now I don’t have to try to fix things or make my friends feel better with  my words. My job is to just be there. Be present and be a listening ear with a loving heart in a judgment free zone. My job is simple yet hard…CAUSE ITS HARD TO SAY NOTHING and DO NOTHING when someone is grieving. But that’s what people need. The freedom to feel how they feel and know that there is a space they can do that…WE all need that. So the next time someone wants to talk, just listen…Don’t feel compelled to offer words of advice to make them feel better or look on the brighter side of life. Just listen and allow them to speak, and cry if they want to…Do give them any tissue or try to hug them WHILE they are sharing. At the end of the conversation when they are finished you can ask them if they would like a hug. Thank them for being brave enough to share how they truly feel. And continue to be a listening ear with a loving heart.

So what do you think? What are some things people have done that has helped you as a griever? Share your thoughts so we can help others!

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