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There Is Nothing You Can Say to Heal Someone Else's Grief

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I spoke recently as part of a panel discussion on mental health and faith. I talked about my own journey with depression, my experience as a suicide loss survivor, and how these things shape my concept of God. The session ended, and two or three people lingered to talk. I could see a middle-aged man hovering at the edge of the conversation, waiting. Finally, after everyone else had drifted away, he approached me, the weight of the world in his eyes.

“I have a question,” he said. He fidgeted, looking at the floor. “Something about when you were talking about your brother. When he… you know.”

Killed himself. Yes. Having worked so hard to talk about it myself, I understood his struggle.

He gathered himself, sad eyes locking on mine at last. “What do you say to someone who is going through… what you went through? What can you say to someone… like that?”

That’s a great question.

And the answer is, nothing.

There is nothing you can say to heal someone else’s grief.

Of course, you should say something. Express your sympathy. If you’ve experienced something similar, let them know they have company. If this person places faith in prayer, pray with and for them. Just remember that as you offer comfort, there is nothing you can say that will take their grief away.

We all wish otherwise. Most of us are unwilling to face our own grief, much less allow it to bury someone we care about. We look for a quick fix, a silver bullet, something that will end their suffering. But if it was that easy, I have to think that in the long history of human grief, we would have found the magic words by now.

Instead, when it comes to meeting the grief of someone we care about, we can take two simple steps.

First, we can drop the assumption that grief is a bad thing. It certainly feels painful and awful and damaging, but grief is a necessary part of the healing process, a new stage of consciousness from which we can deepen our understanding of ourselves and our world. It’s only when grief is denied, placed under a Band Aid of good intentions and decorous codependence, and left to fester in shadow that it can do us any real harm.

The second step is to realize that there is nothing we can say to make someone else’s grief go away. Nothing. Grief belongs to the one who is in it, and no one else can take it away.

There is, however, something we can do for one who grieves. We can hold space for them and their grief. This begins with being fully present, opening yourself to their pain and honoring the grieving process. Much of this will happen in silence, which can be uncomfortable at first. But being at the side of one who grieves and holding them in the light of our loving kindness is among the most sacred work any of us can ever do.

And, finally, although there is nothing you can say to a person who grieves, there is something you can ask. You can ask them to tell you their story.

Invite them tell you the story of their loss.

And, holding space as you are, you can listen without judgment or expectation, without injecting your own thoughts or feelings. You can be patient, focusing not on the narrative as it emerges or your reactions to it but on the hunger of the one who is grieving to make sense of it, put it into words, and be truly heard. After all, the story is far less important than the telling. It’s in the telling that deep healing begins. And when they reach a stopping place, be sure to thank them. They have trusted you, they have honored you with their story, and in healing themselves they have shown us that we can heal as well.

Finally, please don’t think grief goes away. It is now part of our story. and, as we listen and tell the stories of what we have lost, we affirm our experience, our hard-won wisdom, and enter a new stage of consciousness. In this way, telling the story of grief teaches us empathy, courage, resilience, and best of all – hope.

What do you say to someone who grieves? You ask them to tell you about it.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255

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Thinkstock photo by Katarzyna Bialasiewicz

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When It’s Not ‘the Most Wonderful Time of the Year’

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Ten years ago, while grieving the sudden loss of my father, I decided to actively avoid the build-up leading to Christmas. Thanksgiving had nearly done me in, and I couldn’t handle an entire month of cheer accompanying another grief milestone.

My plan? Avoid the mall. Or any store that might play Christmas music. Only buy presents for my immediately family. No wrapping — just gift bags. Don’t open any mail that looked like a Christmas card. Don’t decorate. Definitely don’t watch any Christmas movies. And for the love, avoid any and all versions of “The Christmas Shoes” at all costs.

My plan worked for about a day. But then my coworkers started listening to Christmas music at their desks. I started receiving e-mails about holiday parties. The stores below my loft were decked out with tinsel and lights. Everyone else was leaning way in to the magic of the season, and I could hardly breathe. What was once my favorite time of year slowly but surely threatened to destroy me.

My grief and depression didn’t manifest itself as sadness. At least, not all the time. It mostly manifested itself as a blackout rage.

The month of December made me furious. For the first time in my life, it was not “the most wonderful time of the year.” It was a mirror, reflecting everything I’d lost.

Every gift from my secret Santa was a reminder that I had one less person to shop for. Every Christmas card a reminder that my family had a gaping hole that would never be filled. Every party was hours of torture for me, trying to appear festive and light while swimming in darkness. I hated it. Every minute of it.

For many of our friends and family, the holiday season will be the final highlight of a year that included unimaginable joy: a wedding, a birth, a promotion, an exciting new chapter in life. And for just as many, the new chapters might be painful: an illness, a divorce, depression, grief or death.

There are times when “leaning in” to the holidays really can help change your mindset. You fake holiday cheer long enough and eventually you experience the real thing. If that has worked for you, wonderful! I’ve done that, too, and I’ll honestly do quite a bit of that this year.

But for some of us, December might be the most painful month we’ve experienced in an already painful year. It might feel as if there’s nothing worth celebrating, and we’ll feel guilty, feeling like we’re dragging others down. The contrast of joy around us and despair within us will be too confusing. Too bittersweet. Too devastating.

For some of us, this might be the one holiday season in our lives we simply can’t handle. If that’s true for you or someone you love, my message is this: it’s OK to “lean out” this year.

  • You don’t have to decorate your house or put up a tree.
  • You don’t have to send holiday cards.
  • You don’t have to accept any holiday party invitations.
  • You don’t have to buy presents.
  • You don’t have to honor family traditions.
  • You don’t have to be festive and cheerful.
  • You don’t have to succumb to the pressure to make the season magical for everyone else.

Your one job this year is to make it through the season.

Maybe that means December just looks like any other month. Maybe that means you only accept a few holiday invites instead of over-scheduling yourself. Maybe you forgo gift giving and instead volunteer your time. Maybe you reach out to someone else who is hurting, and you quietly acknowledge the season together. Maybe you schedule a vacation and spend the holidays in a new city. If you are religious, maybe this is the year you strip the season down to its origin.

It’s OK to simplify. It’s often crucial to simplify.

This holiday season might just be one painful struggle after another. And it’s OK to acknowledge that and operate accordingly.

It might not be “the most wonderful time of the year,” but you will get through it. And there will be the promise of a new year.

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Lead photo by Thinkstock Images

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The Gift That Helped 2 Families Through Grief

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Elaine was a wonderful person and friend. She always had a smile and encouragement for anyone. We graduated from high school together and lost touch, but we reconnected in the late spring of 2009 via Facebook.

During the course of our catching up, I told her at length about our third son, Sam. He was born with an umbrella condition called heterotaxy, which affected every organ in his body. Several health scares and surgeries later, Elaine mentioned she had picked up knitting and would like to make a hat for Sam.

I was delighted by the idea and loved the fact that she was still the special, generous person she had been in high school. She was thrilled to tell me about the yarn she chose especially for him and give updates about how Sam’s hat was coming along.

Unfortunately, before she finished the hat, our son passed away. It was just eight days before his first birthday. We were devastated. Elaine offered her condolences and asked if we would still like the hat when it was finished. I told her I would love to have the hat.

To my surprise, she hurriedly knitted a prayer shawl for us and sent it along with the hat that was meant for Sam. I treasured both. I can’t even tell you how many times I would wrap myself in Elaine’s prayer shawl while aching deeply for my sweet Sam. It was such a comfort to me during such a difficult time. Even though Elaine wasn’t near, I was still wrapped in her prayers.

 

Just 16 months later, I heard the news that Elaine had unexpectedly passed away in her sleep. I was shocked and deeply saddened. However, I knew immediately that my husband and I would be making arrangements to attend Elaine’s funeral. I made sure to pack the shawl Elaine had sent to me.

At the funeral, I waited in line to talk to Elaine’s mom. With tears in my eyes and the shawl in my hand, I explained to her that Elaine had made the prayer shawl for me after my own son had died, but as much as it comforted me, I thought it might comfort her more. I believe the prayer shawl Elaine had so lovingly knit was actually not meant for me. It was meant for Elaine’s own mother.

Image via Contributor.

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An Ode to the Friendship Special Olympics Brought Me

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When David, our son, who was born with Down syndrome, joined the basketball and track team for Special Olympics I was excited that not only would he be able to play sports but that it could also be an opportunity to meet new friends.

Each season I went with him to practice and events. He loved to run fast, shoot baskets, and the best part was that he did make friends. A high five from a friend made him smile more than any blue ribbon ever could. It was during my time sitting on the bleachers, cheering everyone on, or participating with the team that slowly I realized I was making friends too. All the parents were warm and friendly. And David’s teammates were all wonderful. We all connected, laughed and supported one another. Most of all I enjoyed spending time with Patty, one of the athletes. We had first met when the team would walk together around the circle of the track. We started to seek each out so we could talk and share stories.

I really looked forward to seeing Patty at practices, and as we continued to meet, we established a routine. She would always smile,  then either hug me or simply hold my hand, call me Julia, which I loved (as unknown to her it was my mother’s middle name and what I wished I’d been named), share with me all about her latest goal of saving money for some new clothing item, like a hoodie or dress, and get all excited about buying it, and how she was planning to travel, and  during events, when I had a camera along, ask me to take her picture, and to print it and give to her in a frame.

I guess these might not sound like much, but that’s just it. It wasn’t about what we did or what we said. What mattered to me was how we did it, which was with a lot of kindness to each other and shared mutual respect. Time spent with Patty made me feel lighter, like I was less burdened with things I had been worried about. Talking with her made me feel like who I am is enough. She always helped me appreciate how important it was to simply be present when with someone, to be in the moment.

A few weeks ago Patty was diagnosed with cancer. When I visited her in the hospital, the first thing she did was smile, then call me Julia, and then squeeze my hand. Then she told me how happy she was to see me and that she was planning to be back home soon. The next time I visited, she woke for only a few seconds, just long enough to whisper, “Hi, Julia.” Patty died a few days later.

Weeks have passed, but even as I write this now, thinking about her, I still get a lump in my throat. Basketball season starts soon. I know on that first day of practice when I bring David he will be happy to reunite with all his friends. I also anticipate that I will subconsciously scan the room, looking for Patty and her smile. And I will then be reminded she’s not there. And I will stop and fight back that lump, but I have a feeling I will fail, that more tears will fall, as I again grieve, my heart feeling heavy, wishing one more time I could hear her call me Julia.

two women smiling

I will always appreciate Patty, our time together, and will be reminded to cherish those in life who make you happy.

The question has been asked, “What if the value of your life is counted exclusively in the feelings you produce in others?” Well, if that is the case, then the value of Patty’s life is immeasurable. I miss you, sweet friend.

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What Our Grieving Family Needs From Loved Ones This Holiday Season

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The imminent holiday season has amplified my loss. Christmas carols that once symbolized holiday cheer now sound like nails on a chalkboard. The thought of writing holiday cards now seem like an exhausting task. This year, rather than searching for the perfect comfy blanket for my dad as he watches TV, we ordered a him a grave blanket. Nothing feels right.

My holiday cheer is quickly fading into holiday fear. I am not the same person I was last holiday season. My heart is heavy as I stare at my father’s empty chair and remember what was. I am already finding myself saying no, no, no rather than ho, ho, ho.

Grieving my dad is a colossal emotional storm. Since my dad died in January, there have been highs, lows and valleys. To simply say, “I miss my Dad” is a massive understatement. I did not just lose a father; I lost my best friend, my hero, the person I went to for everything. Not a day goes by that I do not miss him and wish I could hear his voice one more time, hug him one more time or tell him I love him just one more time.

Family holiday gathering at home with person dressed as Santa
Christmas Eve 1983, Dad dressed as Santa

I consider myself fortunate to have spent such an abundant amount of time by my father’s side. I enjoyed his company and valued his advice. Since I was a little girl, my dad would tell me, “You’re my best friend.” So much that when I went for a reading this past September, the first thing the medium said was, “Your dad is telling me you are his best friend.” My dad spent the final week of his life in a hospital next door to my office. Every single morning before work, sometimes as early as 6:30 a.m., I would sneak into my father’s hospital room. Many times I would just stand there and count his breaths as tears rolled down my cheeks.

During one of my final visits, I desperately wanted to crawl into bed next to him and hold on tight. I needed to hug my dad, but there were just so many tubes with no beginning or end. So I held my breath, pushed the tubes aside and tried to squeeze next to my dad. Within seconds my father was awake, machines were hissing at us and I’m not quite sure if he was amused or annoyed. Let’s be realistic, who wants to be abruptly woken up by their grown daughter practically pushing them out of an already uncomfortable hospital bed? Despite all that, he smiled and whispered, “Lisa, honey, what are you doing, please stop before you hurt yourself.” In the middle of beeping machines and endless tubes, we smiled, giggled and then cried. Between tears and the unbearable pain of my heart shattering, I mumbled, “Dad, can I please lay with you?” And what do you think he said? He smiled and said, “Please no, you’re too big, get a chair.”

Father and adult daughter standing in living room on Christmas
Christmas 2015, Lisa and Dad

Together we laughed, and I quickly grabbed a chair and held onto my father’s hand as I cried endless tears. I didn’t want to let go, I didn’t want to forget the powerful, comforting grip my dad had as he guided me throughout my life. I cried harder than I ever cried that morning. Well, I cried until my dad told me to stop getting his hand and sheets wet with my tears. And then I giggled again. That was my dad. Even during a gut-wrenching, heartbreaking moment, he managed to put a smile on my face. He was and always will be my light in the darkness. He was not just my father; he was my best friend.

I will never stop missing my dad.

I am eternally grateful for the people who continue to support me throughout this grief journey. Sometimes words help, and sometimes words are not needed. Sometimes there is a power in silence, in just being there.

Friends… this holiday season, more than ever, please come and sit with our family. Please continue to be there for us, to witness the pain and hold our hands as we navigate our ebb and flow of grief. Sometimes just being there is greatest gift you can give as we grieve a person of significance.

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Learning to Ride the Rising and Falling Waves of Grief

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“Darling, you feel heavy because you are too full of truth. 

Open your mouth more.

Let the truth exist somewhere other than inside your body.”

— Della Hicks-Wilson

I feel “ick” today.

Heavy.

Maybe a bit sad, or tired — I am not sure which. Or hungry. Those three tend to blend together.

My kids, Jayden and Brooklyn are fine; not sleeping, but fine. As fine as two kids with life-limiting conditions can be. In fact, most days, I fear they are doing a better job of living than me. My husband Justin says I am too hard on myself. Perhaps. My daughter Ellie is great, too. Still asking a bunch of questions, like many 4-year-olds do, and playing baby. Specifically, “a baby named Ellie who talks with her eyes. And crawls. And walks. And laughs. And giggles. And sleeps.”

Every day.

Ellie has this book, “In My Heart: A Book of Feelings,” which I feel you must read to your children. In fact, everyone should read it. It talks about how some days, our hearts can feel as heavy as an elephant. Yeah, that’s how I feel — heavy and a bit jacked up.

And I am not exactly sure why. It could be the weather changing, the silence of the house now that the kids are back in school, the lack of sleep, or feeling like I am constantly failing at life. I am not sure — but today is a heavy day.

Yesterday wasn’t. Yesterday was a light day. A busy, productive, house-full-of-people day. A day for laughing. It seems the busier I am, the less heavy I feel. Not that heavy isn’t there; it always is. I just don’t feel it as much.

Anyway, yesterday, I felt good.

Productive. Present. Engaged. Today, two coffees and an expresso in, I am tired. It comes like waves, doesn’t it?

Grief, anxiety, doubt and sadness.

Connection, bravery, resolve and productivity.

Wavering seems normal — the rhythm of life, I suppose. I like that negative feelings come and go, but I’d love for the good ones to be a bit more consistent. The moment after I sense a burst of warrior spirit, or fierce confidence, or “go get ‘em” attitude, it just vanishes. I imagine it’s a lot like surfing. I fight to get out far enough past the break, to the place I can even catch a wave. I wait. Wait for the rise, the invitation. I feel it swell. I participate. I ride the wave until it disappears, until I am sucked under and tossed about, finally finding myself right back where I started: the shore. The place I tried so hard to leave. No matter how hard I try, I can’t stay on top of the wave. I can’t stay light. But no one does.

That seems to be the art of surfing. The rise, the ride and the repeat. I feel that is the art of life. And we hope, at the end of the day, we’ve either moved a bit more down the shore, or at least survived the sea. We hope we can look at our life and say, “It was good.” I waver between feeling strong and feeling weak daily. The moment I believe “I got this,” it’s gone — fear, doubt and panic take its place. It feels like walking in circles. I try so hard to get to a place of peace, acceptance, normalcy — only to realize all I have done is worn deeper the path back to the start. But what is left behind after years of our wandering? A path we’ve walked so many times before — full of memories and reminders. A path for others to travel.

I have heard grief isn’t linear, and I suppose anticipating the grief of losing my children isn’t either. So although we have been here time and time again, it is never exactly the same. Certain things feel eerily familiar, others feel heavy and new. When we keep surfing, keep walking, though, something beautiful can happen. We can get stronger. We can build muscle memory. We can leave bread crumbs. That’s why we keep showing up, because we have learned truth exists in the tension of light and heavy. In the rhythm of the rise and the fall. That is the secret. The sweet spot, the hardest spot, in the center of the tension and the rhythm. It may be exactly where we need to be.

It gets harder.

It gets easier.

It’s both.

That’s the art of life.

Image via Thinkstock.

Follow this journey on Stefanie’s blog.

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