Almost all of us have experienced a conversation that goes something like this–once the initial pleasantries have been dealt with. We pick up this conversation somewhere in the middle.
You: My mother died two years ago.
Other: Oh, I’m sorry. What did she die of?
You: Heart disease.
Other: Yeah, mine died of Parkinson’s. It was horrible. You know, she kept getting worse and it was hard to watch. Was your mom ill for a long time?
You: She was 66 when it was diagnosed. A faulty valve. She needed surgery to…
Other: My father-in-law had bypass surgery. He had, like, four blockages. It took them about eight hours to get it all cleared up. But he lived life like that. Didn’t care. He ate everything fried and sugary. Guess we all saw it coming. So…your mom. Was it a heart attack?
You: Yeah. She had the surgery but it didn’t go too well. She continued to weaken, never got over it. Hospice came in…
Other: My sister-in-law’s dad was on hospice. Ask me about it. I’ve lived everything there is to experience. Now, he was such a sweet soul that when he died, it was so hard on us. I’ve had five people die on me in the last to years–my…
Blah, blah, blabbity-blah…it goes on and on and on. A litany of oh-my-grief-is-so-much-worse-than-yours.
Grief does not have to be competitive. Someone who has experienced five deaths a year does not receive the “Star Griever” award. Someone who is managing their grief better than you doesn’t get the “Over It So Soon” award.
Pain is pain. You have yours, and I have mine. Your emotional terrain and baggage are so different from the stuff I’m carrying. So many factors play into how you and I grieve.
How then, must we “be” when someone tells us their grief story?
1) Listen deeply. Zip your lips. Open your eyes and heart wide. Be interested. Nod. No words are necessary.
2) Hold their hand. Sometimes, a gentle caring touch speaks volumes. Trust the power of touch. If the person is sobbing as she’s narrating her story of loss, a soothing back rub can be comforting.
3) Hold space. When you allow someone to vent, you allow them the opportunity to heal. Yes, this seems counterintuitive to what we’ve been taught: “doing” equals “results.” All you need to be is a safety net. Catch the other as she’s falling through the dark hole of despair.
Do not buy into the myth that your telling “your story of grief which is worse than theirs” will help them feel better. The only thing you’ll successfully do with that approach is drive them away.
Share experiences of how people in your life responded/reacted to your grief story.