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How We Can Actively Support Someone in Grief

By Harriet Cabelly December 24, 2021 Mindset

We are fixers by nature. If there’s a problem, we naturally want to find a solution. Our society carries that concept to an immediate solution known as pill popping. We’ve become this type of fixer for basically all problems.

Going to a psychiatrist today is an assurance you will leave with a prescription. Even telling a general practitioner doctor you’re upset about something will more than likely have you leaving with a prescription to treat your ‘depression’ or ‘anxiety’.

And while there is an epidemic of these mental health issues going on, there’s also a way over-usage of prescriptions to treat what often is not clinically based, but rather a natural response to a difficult situation.

The Nature of Grief

Grief is one of these difficult and painful situations. Grief is not pathological; it is not a fixable condition. It is a process to go through as it is life’s natural response to a loss that has meaning and significance. Grief is the price we pay for love, for being connected to someone or something of value that we lose. It is the price of life at its core.

We are quite grief illiterate and uncomfortable talking openly about death, sadness, loss. We are not comfortable with discomfort.

Brene Brown writes in her parenting manifesto, “Together we will cry and face fear and grief. I will want to take away your pain, but instead I will sit with you and teach you how to feel it.”

Just as parents are naturally upset at seeing their children struggling or unhappy about something, and they run in to fix it wanting to make it all better (resulting in helicopter parenting), saving their children from the experience of coping with such negative feelings of upset and frustration, we find it very distressing being around sadness and pain, both with ourselves and others.

Take It Away

And so, when we come upon grief, we want to take it away. We try to make the griever feel better because we don’t know what to do with their pain.

But here’s the thing – we can’t talk someone out of their grief, out of their feelings. If we try to, they end up feeling more alone, less understood and in more pain. Here lies the rub: we often say things with the intention of helping and supporting the griever, only to end up being the source of further pain and sense of loneliness.

Unhelpful Phrases

Here are some of the unhelpful platitudes that are often said in the hope of being supportive and encouraging:

‘He is in a better place.’
‘At least she lived a long life, many die young.’
‘Aren’t you ready to move on; it’s been months already.’
‘There’s a reason for everything; we just don’t know it.’
‘I know how you feel.’
‘You’re strong.’

Experience It

Anyone who’s experienced a loss, in this case by death, knows these statements don’t work. We can’t help someone’s pain by trying to take it away from them or by intellectualizing it. We must be there with them in their full state of emotions, neck down.

Parker Palmer says, “The human soul doesn’t want to be advised or fixed or saved. It simply wants to be witnessed, exactly as it is.”

And so, we join the griever in his/her pain. We don’t smooth it over. We sit with them in their pain. We acknowledge how bad it is, how painful it is, how it hurts so deeply.

Supporting Phrases

Here are some helpful statements to say to someone in grief:

‘You are in my thoughts and prayers.’
‘There are no words.’
‘I care and am here to listen.’
‘Possibly the most powerful and hardest – say nothing and just be with the person.”

Healing happens when one feels connected, understood, and feels seen in their full expression of grief.

Has grief impacted your life recently? What has been helpful in terms of support? What has been most unhelpful?

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The Author

Harriet Cabelly is a clinical social worker and positive psychology coach. She is passionate about helping people cope and grow through their critical life-changing circumstances, guiding them towards rebuilding their lives with renewed meaning and purpose. Visit her website, and sign up to get free chapters from her book, Living Well Despite Adversity.

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