Life is full of loss. One of the most challenging things is to know how to support our friends and loved ones when they are experiencing a death, a profound loss or a trauma. It is a heart-connected, human instinct to reach out and help another who is in pain and yet we can still make a mess of it. Our lack of experience, our mind, our ego, all get in the way and we can sometimes feel at a loss as to how to really be helpful.
One of the most important things to understand is that our fear of emotion very often gets in the way. When we experience loss or trauma it is our emotions, particularly grief, that allow us to process that experience and to heal. And yet, in our culture, we have defined grief as ‘a downer’, as something depressing and even pathological. So, in effectively supporting another person, we have to manage our discomfort with our own emotions.
When there is loss involved there will also be the emotions of grief, anger and fear. It is a natural process of feeling, expressing, releasing and healing. One of the greatest gifts we can offer to someone in pain is to give them permission to express whatever they are feeling. When emotions are allowed to be expressed, they do their job and move on.
Here are 8 tips about how to best support a loved one or friend who has experienced a death or other loss:
- It’s okay to say that you don’t know what to say. “I don’t know what to say right now but I’m just so glad you shared this with me”. What makes the most difference for someone is the sense of connection and the feeling of safety to express themselves.
- Listen deeply and follow the person’s lead. Or perhaps they just need to be quiet. Notice if they are needing to talk and express their feelings. If so, let them know that you are there to listen. Be attentive to whether they respond to physical touch and comfort or if they need space. In the case they concerned with practical details, you can help with those. Perhaps they are seeking some kind of spiritual perspective and you can explore that with them. Follow the person and meet them wherever they are, even if it doesn’t make sense to you.
- Don’t fall into the trap of trying to distract the person from whatever emotion they are feeling. Don’t try to talk them out of their grief, anger, or fear even if you are not comfortable with those emotions. Let them know, with your words or your presence, that it’s okay for them to express what they are feeling.
- It’s fine to express your own feelings but only in the context of the other person’s experience, rather than making it about you. So don’t say “I cried all night when I heard,” as if you are trying to impress the person with your own feelings.
- Avoid offering empty platitudes, clichés or un-asked-for advice. Someone has died: “He’s in a better place” or “It’s God’s will”. Someone has a devastating experience: “In the future, you’ll look back on this and see what a gift it was”.
- Avoid beginning anything with “At least”. “I just lost my husband in a skiing accident” = “At least he was doing something he loved”. “I just had a miscarriage” = “At least you know you can get pregnant”. “I just failed my bar exam” = “At least your husband has a job.”
- Don’t compare your experience to theirs: “I know what you’re going through – I had this experience….”. Actually, you don’t know exactly what they are going through – everyone experiences pain differently. They don’t need you to make it about yourself, however, if you’ve had a similar experience, it’s possible to join them with feelings of compassion.
- Sometimes it can be helpful to share your own experience of loss, but only in the appropriate context. Be mindful if the person seems to be seeking a sense of meaning or if they are asking for your perspective and experience.
If you would like to explore this topic in greater depth while shifting the perspective from that of a morbid and depressing reality to an opportunity to grow and heal, you might consider doing some coaching with Prema. If you are located in southern California, join Prema in a safe community container in which to explore this potent subject that can be a profound teacher for what is important in life. The Peaceful Dying Workshop will be held on June 4th in Malibu, CA.
“The Peaceful Dying Project….was so helpful in connecting me with my feelings and fears regarding death, while allowing me to share and express them…. I’ve realized that I don’t have to do this alone. By involving my loved ones, the process becomes easier for everyone. I discovered that the thread of community and heartfelt relationship extends into all corners of life experience, including death”
As an initiated Marakame or shaman in the indigenous Huichol tradition of Mexico, Prema Sheerin is a healer, spiritual counselor and teacher. Prema has worked with individuals, couples and groups for 25 years, supporting people to reveal the knowing of the heart, bring forth balance and healing, and find their path in the Divine play of life. She offers workshops internationally and has a traditional healing and life coaching practice in Asheville, North Carolina. Prema offers various programs for the Sacred Fire Community