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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

Originally published: December 5, 2016
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