How to Show Up in Times of Grief
The last two years of my life have been riddled with the deaths of friends. Young adults overdosing from heroin is not a new phenomenon that has taken the country captive; it has existed for decades. The recent influx of Carfentanil laced-heroin, however, has been leading to a massive influx of the frequency of overdoses. In January, my boyfriend’s best friend passed away from an overdose. I remember racking my brain every night to figure out how I could take away my boyfriend’s pain. What I could say to make it better. What I could say to ease the silence of grief that was between us. One week ago, my dear friend and sponsor Scottee passed away from Cancer. I received numerous phone calls and text messages from friends and coworkers sharing their condolences. The gestures were absolutely appreciated and I was grateful for the amount of support that I have. More often than not, my friends would ask what they could do. More often than not, when asked how they were doing, my friends identified that they did not know how to show up for their significant others or close friends who were grieving. And more often than not, we miss our opportunities for genuine empathy by trying to “fix” someone else’s emotional pain or quicken the grieving process. I have read time and time again in spiritual or wellness literature about empathy being a process that involves putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes and allowing ourselves to connect with the thing in us that understands their pain. I have constructed lectures solely around healthy communication and the empathic process; how to allow ourselves to hold space for another human being and become comfortable with the silence of not being able to possibly understand their pain in that moment. And yet, when it was my turn to practice empathy, it was incredibly difficult. I felt such a lack of control. I felt powerless over someone else’s pain. I felt like I didn’t have a purpose if I couldn’t make them feel better at that moment. I felt frustrated at not knowing that perfect thing to say. But what if there is nothing we could possibly say to make their pain go away? This is the truth of the matter, as quoted by Dr. Brene Brown, “Rarely can a response make something better – what makes something better is connection.” While this may seem stressful or irritating, I am choosing to look at this as a relief. I do not need to exhaust energy trying to say the right thing. I do not need to shame myself for not being able to take away someone else’s pain. All I need to do is show up and listen. If you love someone who is currently in emotional pain or grieving, know that you cannot take that process away from them. If anything, it would be doing such a disservice to that person and their emotional growth if you had the power to do that. We grow through pain. We cultivate resilience through walking directly into the pain and coming out on the other side. So, what if instead of avoiding someone because you know you can’t “make it better” or “say the right thing,” you simply show up and hold space for their emotional experience? I’ll never forget when a friend of mine was grieving because his brother had just overdosed and died. I was a few days into a new job at a hospital and his brother was in the same hospital on life support. I reached out to this friend and met him outside while he smoked a cigarette. I stood with him, not saying a word, while he spoke about his brother, cried, and eventually stood in silence himself. The silence contained more emotion and meaning than anything I could have possibly said to him. The reality is that I had not experienced the same amount of pain, and that was okay. I chose to throw away my arsenal and spiritual and positive quotes about “time healing all wounds” and “he’s in a better place now” and the rest of those things we say just to say in the wake of grief. I don’t know if he’s in a better place. I don’t know if he’s not in pain anymore. I don’t think this was “supposed” to happen. And I know that if I was grieving, those would be the last things I wanted to hear. It’s okay to not know. This friend thanked me for reaching out and standing with him outside of the hospital, remarking that many of his friends hadn’t reached out to him because they didn’t know what to say. I understand that now. Because there is nothing to say. But we should still show up. We can still do our part by holding space. So if you love someone who is grieving, know that you are doing everything you can do by simply being there. By listening, holding space, and allowing yourself to be silent with vulnerability between you. It will make a difference. It has made a difference to me.