‘Helping’ someone who is grieving may look different

JULY 30, 2023 6:00 AM

I answered the phone and could tell this friend was unsettled. A relationship and job possibility had both ended for him. Grief had come for a visit, but I didn’t recognize it at first.

As a spiritual director, celebrant and end-of-life doula who facilitates the “Helping Grieving Hearts Heal” program with Koch Funeral Home, a lot of my work is about grief. Consequently, you think I would be able to identify grief right away and take the recommended stance. But when grief comes in forms other than bereavement or loss of a loved one, it isn’t always as obvious.

All change involves loss, and grief is the natural reaction to loss. If I had immediately identified this friend as a griever, my responses would have been different. Instead, I started trying to “fix” things. I asked about the possibility of reconciling the relationship and pursuing other job possibilities.

At the beginning of the different grief education and support gatherings I facilitate, we open by agreeing to ground rules so that everyone feels safe and can share from their hearts. Sometimes we use Parker Palmer’s Courage and Renewal Touchstones which include: “No fixing, saving, advising or correcting each other. This is one of the hardest guidelines for those of us who like to ‘help.’ But it is vital to welcoming the soul, to making space for the inner teacher.” This Touchstone is in addition to others that speak to the importance of confidentiality, welcoming and asking honest open questions.

As was evident by my response to my friend, because I wanted to “help,” it was hard not to do any “fixing, saving, advising or correcting.” When I heed this Touchstone in my work, I’m in awe of what happens. Giving people a safe space to say what they need to say, to move their grief from the inside to the outside, and to be witnessed in a kind and compassionate way, leads to wisdom and healing from within. According to Dr. Lissa Rankin, “Every time you tell your story and someone else who cares bears witness to it, you turn off the body’s stress responses, flipping off toxic stress hormones … and flipping on relaxation responses that release healing hormones … Not only does this turn on the body’s innate self-repair mechanisms and function as preventative medicine — or treatment if you’re sick. It also relaxes your nervous system and helps heal your mind of depression, anxiety, fear, anger and feelings of disconnection.”

Simply witnessing is powerful, it’s “help” that is truly helpful! But we have to trust. Trust has long been an important word for me. It’s been a big part of my spiritual journey – trusting my Higher Power, trusting myself, and trusting me and others to find our answers within. This spiritual perspective of trust, is another piece that can trip us up when it comes to “helping” others.

In David Kessler’s book, “Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief,” he tells the story of losing his son and later being asked by a friend, “Whenever you’re talking about your loss, do you want the spiritual response, human response, or both?” I believe this is a great question. Sometimes grievers want to talk about the spiritual perspective and think about how they might be transformed by their losses. However, many times, they simply want to talk about the human response, the raw pain of losing someone or something they loved. Asking the griever which they prefer is “helpful.”

So even if we might trust the spiritual perspective, grievers might not be experiencing their loss in that way in any given moment and instead just need to be witnessed. Luckily for me, my friend was wise and after I tried to fix and even spoke to the transformation his losses were creating in him, he said to me, “I really just need to be angry right now.”

Thank goodness for his authenticity. It immediately put me back to an understanding perspective. Of course, he’s grieving right now. And I can be most “helpful” by listening, being present and showing compassion. After I took that stance, my friend was able to process his grief to find some answers within and I was reminded to trust this process in another person.

In the end, this way of “helping” may feel hard to do. Nevertheless, I’ve found that it is powerful and healing for both the griever and the listener. Actually, it’s powerful and healing in most interactions, not just with grievers, but that’s a whole other story.

Jackie Naginey Hook, MA, is a spiritual director, celebrant, and end-of-life doula who facilitates the Helping Grieving Hearts Heal program through Koch Funeral Home in State College. This column is coordinated by www.learningtolivewhatsyourstory.org, whose mission is to create educational and conversational opportunities for meaningful intergenerational exchanges on loss, grief, growth and transformation.

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