At a speaking engagement of mine a few months back, a woman in the audience said something that I will never forget. She had lost her spouse more than a year before and continued to grieve deeply. But something in her suffering had shifted, she said.
“I used to see grief as an enemy,” she said. “After reading your book, I see grief as a companion.”
She referred to Getting Grief Right: Finding Your Story of Love in the Sorrow of Loss, which I co-authored with Fort Worth grief therapist Patrick O’Malley. In it we tried to normalize grief, to assure readers that bereavement does not conform to steps or stages; that every person’s grief is unique; that grief is not a pathology, a mental illness or a sign of weakness. Ultimately it is an expression of love, how we often redefine a relationship with the person we have lost. The intensity and duration of grief, Patrick tells readers based on his long personal and professional experience, is commensurate with the depth of love for the person now gone.
But though tried to provide comfort and assurance to those who grieve, the book also seeks to educate those who seek to support the bereaved. The short answer is this: to truly support a grieving person, you must willingly enter into his or her pain.
We quote the great Catholic writer, Henri Nouwen.
Compassion asks us to go where it hurts, to enter into the places of pain, to share in brokenness, fear, confusion, and anguish. Compassion challenges us to cry out in misery, to mourn with those who are lonely, to weep with those in tears. Compassion requires us to be weak with the weak, vulnerable with the vulnerable, and powerless with the powerless. Compassion means full immersion in the condition of being human.
“This is a tall order if there ever was one,” Patrick says in our book. “How, exactly, do you show true compassion for a grieving person? Here are a few ideas.
“Show up at the house, visitation or funeral; express simple words of sorrow; and then let the mourning person dictate what happens next. She may open her arms for a hug, or she may clearly want to keep people at a distance. He may be calm or agitated. She may be jovial or weeping. He may want to talk about his loss or about baseball. She may be angry or grateful. Be with them wherever they are.
“I define intimacy as truly knowing another person and being known. Being with a person in grief is a unique, one-way intimacy. You are there to know the grieving person but not to make him or her feel better. Don’t try to move the bereaved from one emotional place to another to make yourself comfortable. Be with them without an agenda. You may be more comfortable with a person’s anger than with their silence, or you may rather talk about sports than the accident—but this isn’t about you.
“Listen with your eyes and respond with nods that convey, “I get it.”
It is indeed a tall order, but a simple one. This is another way of putting it: Just be present. Fred Rogers demonstrated every day of his life the enormous power of pure human presence -- humanity without expectation, judgement or agenda -- even in the most difficult of times, particularly in the most difficult of times.