Grief is messy and humans are messy. We need to accept that going through loss is going to be messy. As you sit with your client or friend in this pause that is new grief, the best thing to do is to admit that there’s nothing that you can do to “fix it”, but you are here and you care for them. But, we’re the counselor; we’re expected to know what to do. Yes, we’ve been taught all those words of comfort, but they don’t fit right now. In early grief, nothing you can do or say is going to be right. It’s PAINFUL! We can’t heal someone’s pain by taking it away from them. It is much more useful and kind to acknowledge the pain.
It is relief for both you and your friend or client to tell and hear the truth. This stinks and it’s going to for a while. It’s analogous to a wound in the body. We can take medicine, wear a cast, etc. But, the body takes time to heal. And, usually as we heal, the body spits out messy things such as pus, blood, etc. To expect that mental pain would do anything less is ignoring the pain. We need to allow that same messy healing for the mental anguish of grief, especially out of order grief. (Worden calls this complicated grief, but isn’t all grief complicated?)
Carrying this analogy even further, I’m reminded of the tree. It doesn’t really even heal the wound. When a tree is wounded, the injured tissue is not repaired and does not heal. Trees do not heal; they seal. If we look at an old wound, we will notice that it does not “heal” from the inside out, but eventually the tree covers the opening by forming specialized “callus” tissue around the edges of the wound. That’s how those holes that we call “knots” are formed.
And, the tree continues to grow even with the wound. In early grief, we’re still part of the wound. We haven’t moved on to actual healing. That will take time. And, it will take even more time and work to form the callus around the wound that will allow for the tree to begin to focus on growth again. Arborists advise that, rather than seal out infection, wound dressings often seal in moisture and decay. In most cases, it is best to simply let wounds seal on their own. We can carry this lesson to ourselves. It’s best not to even attempt to fix the wound, but to allow your friend or client to sit with their grief and learn from it. These are high-level “soft” skills and not easy to practice as it’s human nature to want to fix something that appears broken. But, the main skills can be expressed as simple counseling: (1) Be truly present, (2) Listen attentively, and (3) Provide Unconditional Positive Regard. The biggest lesson: Don’t fix!
Grieving people would much rather have you stumble through your support than have you confidently assert that things are not as bad as they seem. Please, for all that’s holy, don’t remind them how strong they are! They don’t feel strong at this moment. We need to let the pain exist so that our friend or client feels safe enough to say, “This hurts.” As a support person, companionship inside what hurts is what is asked of you. By not offering solutions for what cannot be fixed, you can make things better, even when you can’t make them right. (Devine, 2017)
Devine, M. (2017). It’s OK That You’re Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand. Boulder, CO: Sounds True. (ISBN: 97871622039074)