Counselling

How to Support Someone in Their Walk With Grief

A central theme throughout my Walking With Grief workshop is the importance of offering support by “sitting with,” acknowledging, and witnessing other people’s pain rather than trying to make things better. We need to understand that this pain is there for a reason – the greater the love, the greater the loss. Trying to shift the pain away before the person is ready can feel like the opposite of support; it can minimize their experience of loss and even their relationship with their loved one.

You can offer support by “sitting with,” acknowledging, and witnessing other people’s pain rather than trying to make things better. 

I know this because I work with individuals experiencing grief every day in my counselling practice. I lead groups and workshops on this topic all the time.

Recently I was reminded of this tenet of grief – I felt the pull to offer comfort so strongly in myself. After the first day of my workshop, one person stayed back to connect with me personally. They shared about the death of their beloved dog, Misty. They detailed Misty’s last day with them – she was having fun running and playing in the park, and later had a visit good with the neighbours. Later that day, Misty was acting a little “off,” and without much warning, she groaned, laid down, and died.

Pain is there for a reason – the greater the love, the greater the loss.

As I listened to this heartbreaking experience, I found myself profoundly drawn to say things like, “At least Misty knew your love” or “What a beautiful last day she had.” The pull to ease the pain of loss through an attempt to comfort was strong and compelling.

Fortunately, I noticed this in myself and instead asked more detailed questions about Misty, her personality, and her favourite memories. As we continued to talk about Misty and about grief, I shared my urge to say, “At least you had a wonderful last day . . .” She replied:

“Oh, we heard this a lot! It was so annoying. Yes, we had a good day, but . . . our dog just died and it’s unbelievably awful. I know people were trying to comfort us, but comfort is not what we needed. We wanted people to understand our loss.”

Notice the Urge to Fix

“When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing, and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.”

–Henri Nouwen

I sometimes joke at the beginning of my grief workshop, “Reflect on this Nouwen quote and then go live it. That’s it. You can go home now.”

Of course, living this is easier said than done. As helpers, we care, and one way to demonstrate care is to try to comfort. There is nothing wrong with this – it can be an appropriate response at times, but timing is key when it comes to grief. The first task of the supporter is to acknowledge and witness.

The Need for Self-Awareness

The more we can relate to the loss or the person who is grieving, the stronger the pull to fix. As a dog lover myself, I dread dealing with the death of my dogs – I don’t want to think about it. It makes sense that I felt compelled to try to make it better for this grieving person, but without self-awareness, we often just go on autopilot. This can include attempts to “fix,” which isn’t always helpful when supporting others.

Acknowledge and Witness Their Experience

Listening to the story of Misty’s death, I said, “That’s heartbreaking, I can’t imagine what that must have been like for you.” This acknowledgement opened the door for more of the details of their loss. And as they shared, I started to ask more questions about Misty:

  • “What type of dog was she?”
  • “What was her personality like?”
  • “Where do you experience reminders of her?”
Part of the acknowledging process is highlighting and valuing the person’s experience.

Part of the acknowledging process is highlighting and valuing the person’s experience. And witnessing means getting curious about their experience by asking questions.

Recently I heard something that continues to resonate deeply: “We all die two deaths: the first is when our physical body dies; the second is when the last story of us is told.”

Grief is part of all our lives. One cannot know love without loss, or loss without love.

Sharing stories of loss is a critical way that we keep the impact of those we have lost alive. It keeps alive the love. Don’t run from this. Don’t try to comfort it away. Bearing witness to this love is a great gift for the teller and the listener. And for the one who lives on through the telling.

Sharing stories of loss is a critical way that we keep the impact of those we have lost alive.

For more FREE RESOURCES on this topic and others, visit our free resources page.

Author

John Koop Harder

MSW, RSW – Trainer, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute

To receive notification of a new blog posting, subscribe to our newsletter or follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
© CTRI Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute (www.ctrinstitute.com)
Interested in using the content of this blog? Learn more here.

Share this:
Receive Email Updates

Sign up for our Newsletter to receive your free e-manual