But, We Will Survive

Continuing the analogy of the tree, we will survive! Just as this tree was not stopped by the piano in its way, we will move forward – whether we want to or not. And, in early grief, there are days where it’s work simply to get through the day. But, it’s important that we put the work in – for ourselves and for those that love us.

This is an important image for me as I work through this grief on Day 111 (and our daughter’s 32nd birthday). Yes, I still count the days. I know there will come a day when I will move to counting months, then years. The loss will always be with me. I will always miss him, but life will push forward – just as the life in this tree pushed through the piano. Will the weight of grief be as heavy as this piano? You bet ya! But, life gives us choices. We can work to walk alongside the grief, just as this piano sits alongside this tree creating a beautiful image of the trials of life. Or, we can allow the grief to swallow us or tamp out our life. My hope for you is that you choose to live, to walk alongside the grief.

But, enough with the imagery, what are the skills to survive? It’s important to be with those going through the trials and tribulations of grief – to show up. But, what can we actually DO to help? First, say something. A colleague at work texted about a work question, but first said, “I think of you often, but don’t reach out because I don’t know what to say.” You don’t have to know. Just that you’re trying is enough. Please don’t pull away out of fear of saying something wrong.

In an article for The Guardian, writer Giles Fraser calls this “a double loneliness” – on top of the loss of someone they love, the griever loses the connection and alliance of the people around them (Fraser, 2016). For fear of making things worse, people go silent just when we need them most (Devine, 2017).

As a friend or counselor, you are not expected to be perfect. It’s perfectly ok to lead a conversation with, “I don’t know what to say.” Most don’t. This is a difficult and awful time, but we do need to be there. Admitting you’re uncomfortable allows you to at least be there and say something. That’s the real gift – Companionship!

If you’re not sure what to say, ask! It’s always been confusing to me why we think asking what to say is wrong. It reminds me of the cultural connection. If I don’t know someone else’s culture, it’s respectful of me to find out – to ask them – rather than do the wrong thing. This is much like that. Your friend or client is walking a path – a culture – that you may not have walked. Err on the side of being present. Your effort really is noticed and appreciated (Devine, 2017).

References

Fraser, G. (April 27, 2016). The Gift of Presence, The Perils of Advice. On Being. Retrieved from onbeing.org/blog/the-gift-of-presence-the-perils-of-advice/.

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)

We’re not perfect!

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)

References

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)

Tippy, Tippy Toes

We say all kinds of things to attempt to put meaning to those hard to say things: I love you … to the moon and back; this much (with outstretched arms); to infinity and beyond, etc. I always told Bob that I loved him from the top of my head to my tippy, tippy toes. What that meant to us was all of me. With a love that intense, it is of course painful to say good bye.

So, how do we comfort someone going through such an intense loss. As mentioned in the last blog, we need to resist the urge to try to fix it or make it right. But, that is so difficult. It’s human nature to want to comfort someone when they are in pain. We want to “make it better” as a band-aid does for a child. But, when one is pain, those words of comfort seem patronizing, much like that band-aid. As a child, we thought it was a cure all. Yet, as an adult, we know better.

We can’t remove the urge to want to bring comfort, but we need to try not to act on it. Pause before you offer any kind of support. In that pause, think long and hard what the best course of action truly is. Acknowledgement of the reality of pain is usually a far better response than trying to fix it (Devine, 2017). Just sitting with someone going through the pain of grief is usually what is needed most. More frequently than not, they just need to be heard. They need the reality of the pure and utter mess of a situation that this is validated and mirrored back. And, most of the time, people want to talk about the loss. Grief is uncomfortable, so most people skirt around it. But, we need to push past our own comfort zone for the sake of our friend or client in pain.

The way to truly be helpful to someone in pain, especially at the beginning of loss, is to let them have their pain. Let them share the reality of how much this hurts, how hard this is, without jumping in to clean it up, make it smaller, or make it go away (Devine, 2017). That pause between the urge or impulse to help and taking action lets you come to the pain with skill, and with love. That pause lets you remember that your role is that of witness, not problem solver (Devine, 2017).

And, that’s where I am personally on day 90 of the loss of my amazing husband. And, most remain in this pause – just sitting with the grief to allow respect for the loss for quite some time. Those who’ve walked this journey before me tell me it’s usually about a year. So, remember that just being there is the best way to “fix it” for now. You don’t need to say or do the “right thing”; you just need to be there.

References

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)

Supporting the Walk

Because I hope to help others understand the supporting of grief a little better through my experience, I’m going to focus a little bit on being with someone while they’re grieving. It’s incredibly difficult! Although we as a culture fail to support grieving people appropriately, it’s important to applaud your wanting to be supportive. By wanting to do the big, deep, heavy, hard work of loving someone inside their pain, you are doing a wonderful service!

Yet, to truly be supportive, we need a new image of what grief support really is. Devine writes:

When a bone is broken, it needs a supportive case around it to help it heal. It needs a supportive case around it to help it heal. It needs external support so it can go about the intricate complex, difficult process of growing itself back together. Your task is to be part of that case for your broken friend. Not to do the actual mending. Not to offer pep talks to the broken places about how they’re going to be great again. Not to offer suggestions about the bone might go about becoming whole. Your task is to simply be there. Wrap yourself around what is broken. Your job… is to bear witness to something beautiful and terrible – and to resist the very human urge to fix it or make it right.

We’re all so uncomfortable with grief that we tend to want to fix it so that we don’t have to endure it. Someone going through grief doesn’t have that luxury. The grief must be endured in order to heal. To ignore it would be analogous to ignoring a physical illness. We wouldn’t ignore the broken bone, the burst appendix, the heart arrhythmia, etc. It takes time and support for physical healing just as it takes time and support for emotional healing. We need to allow that!

The biggest thing to remember today is to resist the urge to make it better. We need to notice that urge or impulse, then don’t act on it. Pause before you offer support. We will discuss what to do in that pause as we continue the support and walk through each week.

References

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)