January 12, 2024

Navigating Grief Together Part 2: Practical Guidance

By Mariah Kelty
Mental Health & Wellbeing

“When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.” -Henri Nouwen in Out of Solitude.

Nouwen, in this quote from Out of Solitude, beautifully illustrates the simple mystery of the helpful friend. Highlighting the attitude and presence of the friend, Nouwen challenges commonly held beliefs and pressure we feel as individuals caring for another person. These are thoughts like, “I have to say the right thing,” or “I need to make them feel better,” or even, “I can help them move on.” Nouwen quietly and carefully beacons the reader towards presence, not substance.

In the last blog, we began to discuss and uncover some of the difficulties people face when walking alongside a loved one who is grieving. In this second part of my series on grief, I would like to use Nouwen as a guide to correct common misconceptions, to show up for friends and family well, and hopefully, relieve some of the pressure for those sitting with someone in grief.

Tolerate Uncertainty

Grief is a complex and multifaceted experience that defies a neat timeline or predictable trajectory. It unfolds differently for each person, influenced by factors such as the nature of the loss, the relationship with the deceased, and the individual’s coping skills, to name a few. Nouwen’s wisdom encourages us to tolerate the ambiguity of grief and recognize our powerlessness to fix or change the situation. Support in this way can look like simply acknowledging that you wish you knew the answers, and you are here with them to sit in the powerlessness and uncertainty with them.

Sit and Stay – Be Present and Willing

Grieving is a process that unfolds over time, and the intensity of emotions can vary. When you have time and space, it is invaluable to simply continue to show up, listen, and be willing to have the hard conversations and sit with your loved on in what they are experiencing through the ebbs and flow of grief. Your presence and willingness to listen is so meaningful.

Don’t Fix; Acknowledge the Pain

In our desire to provide comfort, there is often a temptation to offer solutions or quick fixes to alleviate the pain of grief. However, Nouwen’s wisdom encourages us to tolerate the powerlessness that comes with not having all the answers. Grief requires an acknowledgment of the painful reality of loss, and it can be helpful to shift your focus away from “saying the right thing” and instead, focusing on providing compassionate support. This involves creating a safe space for expression without imposing timelines or expectations on the healing process.

These principles attempt to illustrate the heart of being a true friend during another’s darkest hours. When our minds run to the solution and search for something to do, I would encourage you to take a moment, acknowledge that urge, and lean into the discomfort of not providing a fix, at least at first. Often, people do not remember the words we share with them, and instead, they remember the people who were present– those who showed up, cared about them, sat and hugged them through their sobs, and the ones who said, “I love you, and I am here for you.”

These times are so difficult for both people who are grieving, as well as those caring for and supporting them. If this is you or someone you know, you deserve the space, time, and ability to process and feel all the complexities of grief. 

Written By

Mariah Kelty

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