To "listen" another's soul into a condition of disclosure and discovery may be almost the greatest service that any human being ever performs for another. -- Douglas Steere (1986)
When I was three years old, my grandmother bought me a small watering can. After breakfast, we went to her garden. She taught me not to get water on the leaves, but to direct the spout of my little can toward the roots. We talked as we worked, completely content in each other’s company. To this day I keep a garden and find joy in spending time there. It’s just one of the gifts I received from mi abuelita, Sarah Villalobos, who died on December 26th, 2017 at the age of 95.
As I have wandered through the weeks since her death, somewhat confused by how the world could continue without her in it, people offered words of condolence. While I appreciate their compassionate intentions, the words often didn’t help. For example, the statements, “she had a good death” and “she is no longer suffering” were absolutely correct, but did not speak to my broken heart. Grandma was the embodiment of unconditional love and safe harbor for me throughout my life. My grief persists, regardless of how “good” I know it was for her to go
This experience made me realize it isn’t easy to know what deeds or words to provide to people when they are in the midst of grief. To learn more about what is helpful, I asked Carl Magruder, a Hospice and Palliative Care Chaplain with ResolutionCare, what his advice would be for people wanting to be supportive, kind and helpful to someone who just experienced a significant loss. These are the words he offered:
Transcend your desire to make it better. The spiritual paradox of creating a space for grief is to utterly transcend your own desire to make it better, “fix” anything or change the way the grieving person is feeling. Grief is a normal, healthy response to loss.1 Just as life and death are two sides of the same coin, so are love and grief. Let it be. There is magic in your presence, accompaniment, acceptance, and bearing witness to another’s grief. Breathe it through.
Be Curious, and Listen. Because grief is so individual, it is best to listen carefully to the heart of the grieving person, rather than to strive to “say the right thing.”. Ask gentle, open-ended questions, and wait patiently for responses. “What did she love?” “What did she teach you, either by doing it well, or not so well?” “What do you wish you had said to her?” “What would be helpful for you now?” The deep, non-judging listening allows the heart to express what it has to express (including guilt, anger, regret, relief), and silent accompaniment can be more precious than words in a time when words are inadequate and emotions may be oscillating (Bonanno et al., 2008).
Make the magic of touch available. Sometimes a bereaved person is surrounded by a babble of well-intentioned words of condolence, and then a wise person enters the room and puts her arms around him without saying a word, and this is the needed thing. The grieving person may start crying, and the holding doesn’t change--it’s all o.k. If you’re not sure that a hug would be welcome, offering your hand, palm up, to be taken or not, and to be let go by the person who is grieving when they are ready, can be helpful. When we hold another person’s hand, our breathing slows, cortisol levels drop, and we feel safe, just as our chimpanzee cousins do (De Waal, 2009; Sumioka et al., 2013).
Provide practical support. There are usually ways to offer practical support. When you offer help, give specific examples: “I can go to the mortuary with you,” or “May I bring you a frozen lasagna?” It can be good to ask a person on the periphery of the grief what is needed. Right after Mica’s grandma died, a good friend who lives far away, sent a care package of nutritious snacks (artisan cheese and meats), flowers, and tea. This gesture nurtured body and spirit. Practical support can also include putting “Visit with [bereaved person]” on your calendar six months from now, when grief may actually have deepened.
Reflecting on the chaplain’s advice, I recognized these words and gestures convey a common message: “It’s safe for you to feel what you are feeling. I will accompany you.” And in this way, the kindest thing we can do for ourselves and others is allow pain of loss to be felt, and release ourselves from the reflex to try to stop it.
Co-Author, Carl Magruder, MA, MDiv, BCC, is the Director of Spiritual Support Services at ResolutionCare. Carl supports all systems of belief, from Atheist to Zoroastrian. His work recognizes that when physical health issues arise, spiritual well-being is a determinative aspect of our human existence and quality of life. He is trained as an interfaith chaplain with a Master’s of Divinity degree from Pacific School of Religion, and is board certified with the Spiritual Care Association. Read more of his writing here.
Footnote. 1Complicated or traumatic grief may exist in situations where violence, suicide, death of a child, or a highly dysfunctional relationship with the deceased exist, but grief itself is not a pathology.
Bonanno, G. A., Goorin, L. & Coifman, K. G. (2008). Sadness and Grief. In M. Lewis, J.M. Haviland-Jones, and L. F. Barrett (Eds.), Handbook of Emotions (pp. 797-810). NY: Guilford Press.
De Waal, F. (2009). The Age of Empathy. NY: Three Rivers Press.
Steere, D. V. (1986). Gleanings: A Random Harvest. Nashville, TN: Upper Room.
Sumioka, H., Nakae, A., Kanai, R. & Ishiguro, H. Huggable communication medium decreases cortisol levels. Scientific Reports, 3 (3033), 1- 6 . DOI: 10.1038/srep03034