“When you sing with a group of people, you learn how to subsume yourself into a group consciousness because a capella singing is all about the immersion of the self into the community. That’s one of the great feelings – to stop being me for a little while and to become us. That way lies empathy, the great social virtue.”
What is a community? The definition of the word is a group of people who have a common characteristic, history, interest, location. It comes from the latin, communis or communitas. It implies unity or uniting.
There is a community that is beneath the radar in our society that we all have an opportunity to do a better job of serving. This is the community of people who are grieving a significant loss in their lives. Many of these people are suffering in silence and their burdens heavy, yet invisible to most of us. These are the ones who say, “I’m fine,” when you ask how they are, because they have the sense that you don’t really want to know how they are. They cry their tears of sorrow and anguish into their pillow at night because they are convinced they need to hide their sadness from the world.
The bereaved, the abandoned, the betrayed, the sad and lonely, they are a segment of our human family that most of us feel extremely uncomfortable to be with. They are the red-haired step-children of a society that is obsessed with accumulation and the pursuit of happiness. Because of this, the common attitudes towards the grieving cause more harm than we could ever know – until we experience this for ourselves. Many of my clients share with me how demoralizing it is to feel ostracized by their friends and families, to be misunderstood, marginalized, patronized, even betrayed and abandoned in their greatest time of need. That’s why grief support groups can be so helpful because this is a place where everyone “gets it” about the experiences, feelings, and thoughts of grief and mourners have a chance to feel normal in that setting.
I am going to speak up for the grievers now. I don’t think that it’s OK that the grieving feel a need to segregate themselves in order to protect themselves from the slings and arrows of thoughtless behavior. I am going to champion the grieving, to bring out into the open their plight, and propose a radical shift in our way of being with a person who is experiencing grief.
Here are big four really, really unhelpful attitudes and behaviors that grieving people encounter every day from others who:
- Rationalize away their pain by saying things like, “Bill is in a better place now.” “You were blessed to have had your child for as long as you did.” “Don’t feel bad, she had a long, full life.” What this does is take away their right to their own inner experience and their feelings.
- Withdraw of support and friendship: Just because people don’t know what to say, they may find themselves avoiding and withdrawing. This only reinforces the feeling of abandonment that the grieving person is already experiencing.
- Use the “suck it up and move on” support approach. People may think they are doing their grieving family/friends a favor by forcing them out of “denial” and into the real world, but all it does is make them feel worse. Even if it’s been years since their loss and people think they should have “gotten over it” by now…the tough love approach doesn't work.
- Similar to #1, using cliché’s can be really annoying to a grieving person. “Time heals all wounds,” is a classic. “You need to be strong for the children.” “Better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all.” Ick. Really.
What I want to say next is that it is perfectly understandable when these things happen because our society does not generally teach us how to be supportive and accepting of our own negative emotions. So, it makes sense that we feel unsure how to handle the strong emotions of others. We will tend to avoid the subject altogether. We want to maintain the illusion of separation, to make it clear that this tragedy, this difficulty, this grief is happening to them, not to us.
On the other hand, I have a vision that we could all learn to support others through grief, to learn the territory of grief without having to experience devastating loss ourselves. And, chances are that everyone will experience the grief of loss in their lives at some point or another.
When I read the quote by Brian Eno above, it strikes me that his message carries over to my work, which is supporting people who are grieving to rebuild their life after their great loss. If I can see my work as singing a song of tenderness and healing (and doing my best to be in tune with their song of grief), it calls me forward to inspire and unite my community to join in service to the healing and transformation of all sorrow and suffering into peace and acceptance.
So, we’ve explored attitudes and behaviors that are not helpful. If it is our intention to be helpful and supportive to those in our community who are in pain, what are some skills that we might use instead?
Show up. Just be there. When you don’t know what to say, it’s really OK to say that. “I just don’t even know what to say to you about this,” is better than any of the big, bad 4 above. It’s honest at least. Ask how they are feeling and be willing to just listen to what they tell you without trying to fix it.
Grief is not a problem to be solved. For most people, grief is a journey through hell. Dr. Alan Wolfelt, a pioneer in the field of grief and mourning, talks about “companioning” the grieving, which means being with another and being present to their pain without an agenda of fixing it or them. He talks about listening with the heart, walking alongside and not in front. Also he shares about the power of silence and respect for the dignity of the mourning person and their process. It’s a state of being more than doing, where you create a safe place for the other person, something that they desperately need when they are facing one of the most difficult experiences of their lives.
I hope that a big take-away is that it doesn’t have to be challenging or uncomfortable to be with someone who is hurting. The first step is to recognize that they just need your presence, your silence even, for you to simply open your heart to yourself and them.
Think of it as singing your song of love to a grieving person, immersing yourself in their community, singing in harmony with their song of struggle and pain. Join the choir with the rest of the human family. And, if you are grieving and don’t know how to ask people for what you need, you can ask them to simply be your companion as you walk through this journey and to be willing to sing alongside you.
Love and Blessings on Your Journey,