They are burying the baby girl they never held. His wife is dying of cancer. She lost her husband in an accident. His brother committed suicide. Her best friend is gone forever and far too soon. No one saw it coming. No one ever does until it's their story. Their lives will never be the same, and our hearts are breaking.
Everyone wants to know: What can I do? How can we help? What's there to say?
We feel compelled to save them from it; to make it all ok. Such beautiful compassion comes seeping through our typically guarded social norms when we witness the deep trauma and desperation of grief's early expressions.
We are all pulled to show up to support and to honor the enormity of their loss that so many times is a deep-felt loss in our own hearts too. We're desperate to help somehow, grasping for the right words that might soothe their pain for today. You can bet we'd swoop in and rescue their grieving souls if we knew the way. The pull of our humanity to be present and offer comfort is matched equally with complete confusion and hesitation about what might be both appropriate and useful to someone deep in grief. If that weren't enough to cause us to take pause, just beyond our second guessing lies the voice of self-preservation and the enormity of our own suffering we've been keeping at bay, just compartmentalized enough to access when it's appropriate and adequately stuffed to allow us to function. We realize showing up inside the intimacy of someone else's raw grief may force us to FEEL so much more than we're prepared or interested in doing. Where our heart was nudging us toward communion, there instead appears disconnect in the name of playing it safe. Inside this emotional equation of loss and expressions of love, we get mixed up in the difference between pity and compassion, which generates invisibility precisely where we're trying to truly see.
As a veteran, military spouse and former birth professional, I have stared deep into the belly of grief with many a client and friend. I have witnessed the scorching emptiness and horror it brings without fail in my own journey as a military widow too. An insatiable student of the human experience, I watch from the inside looking out at our culture doing its beautiful best to support me in the aftermath of my late husband's fatal aviation accident. I am so grateful for the sheer volume of loving acts of kindness we were (and continue to be) shown, but would be dishonest to withhold that many of the gestures and words (that I know came from a place of love) landed with more pain, insecurity, confusion and a sense of judgment in my already seemingly abysmal existence within the throes of grief. Watching the world crumble around me as everyone turned themselves inside out trying to support me, I learned something seemingly obvious, yet invaluable about our culture and myself too: we are petrified of death and grief and what it all means about who we are and how very little control we have over anything from our tiny vantage point on this beautiful spinning planet in a vast universe.
From deep down in our souls, we long to ease the pain of grief in others without understanding what that really means or how to do it. How many times did I hear dear friends and complete strangers alike whisper the words, "I don't know what to say...I just want you to be ok."
So we dress in all black. We arrive in droves to show support with our presence, whispering requisite, echoing words that feel somehow empty yet necessary as they pass our lips and glide as silently and cautiously as possible around those in mourning, doing our very best not to let them see us cry or say something that may cause them to shed more tears. Careful. Ever so carefully. We don’t speak for fear of reminding them, although words won't come anyway. We don’t share or show our sadness for fear of placing on them the burden of witnessing our sorrow. We keep our composure and save our tears for a private moment because the grieving family already feels enough pain, they don’t need to see ours too.
We set about doing because that's easier than being or feeling or holding; whipping up comfort food as remedy with a loving smile. We tell then "I'm praying for you" and offer condolences in the form of flowers or donations or carefully worded, just-superficial-enough notes (to avoid, of course, making them feel worse by saying too much) or our own spiritual insights to explain why this was the way of things. We do this all in the name of somehow drawing them from their all-encompassing emotional entrapment and making things ok. The time-tested, canned (and sometimes contradicting, see below) phrases we all know and repeatedly go to are wrapped in safe, alluring threads of Dear-Abby-approved-appropriateness. Yet so often, these "go to" words arrive like daggers of disconnect leaving the recipient reeling and isolated from within a shroud of invisibility because your certainty makes no sense to them inside their place of deep pain.
They're in a better place.
This is part of "God's plan."
Time heals all wounds.
They were doing what they loved.
Please don't cry. Don't hold it in.
Be strong. Take your time to grieve.
There is a reason for everything.
They wouldn't want you to be sad.
Get some fresh air! Stay in bed!
Get some exercise! Get some sleep!
And then, once we follow the requisite recipe our culture has created for how to show up, we give them space until it all goes away (it will eventually, right?) because we don’t know what else to do and truly, this feels most prudent, respectful and appropriate. We follow these rigid social rules because we have no idea what else to do to make it all ok. At the core of that need to make it ok for them lies our own fear of death and what it would look like to walk in their shoes. We need to know that if (when) we one day find ourselves grieving a lost beloved, that we too will somehow be ok.
Can I get a witness? If we're honest, we've all been in that strangely incapacitating space of wanting and desiring to help someone we care about on their journey through grief, yet never quite knowing for sure what to do or how to say it while keeping everyone's heart in tact. We've all said or written something to a grieving loved one that in hindsight was so evidently awkward and potentially painfully disconnected we could cry. We've all shown up too much and smothered as we try to save. We've all kept a wider than necessary distance because what's there to do anyway, and it's too much for our hearts to hold. I believe it all comes from a place of love and wanting, but not knowing how or when or what to do.
Don't get me wrong, I LOVE how people feel pulled to show up when others are in the deepest manifestations of pain the human heart can hold and I am NOT here to ask you to stop. EVER. What I long to do instead, is to bring some clarity and consciousness about the ways we show up and offer ourselves in service to their journey into and through grief. What we need to be clear on with ourselves before we show up or say a word is the real answer to an important question: "How do I fit into this person's story?" Before you show up, carefully read from a place of honest introspection the insightful article entitled "How Not to Say the Wrong Thing," about the rings of grief and your appropriate and allowable role you have within them.
What I'm offering is a conscious perspective to the doing so we may more fully show up in someone's grief journey simply by BEING.
Before my late husband's funeral, the Chaplain asked me what words he might offer those attending who were seeking the safe and right thing to say to my broken heart. With clarity and simplicity and very little thought needed, my response was this:
"I love you and I am here for you."
That's literally all I needed to hear. And, every time, it feels right.
"I love you and I am here for you."
Of course, the universality of grief only goes so far and I know for certain that what felt most safe and nurturing and loving to me won't always be exactly what someone else needs to hear. Sometimes any words at all are too many to receive. But if you close your eyes and consider the times of deepest pain in your life and imagine receiving the words, "I love you and I am here for you," and notice how it feels in your body, what do you sense?
Peace. Nurturing. Safety. Connection. Solidarity. Support. Trust. Calm. Love.
The exact feelings those in deep grief most need, crave and seek.
"I love you and I am here for you."
Say it, and then wait. Allow there to be quiet. Know it's enough.
Smile with your eyes. Send them love with your whole being.
Let go of the need in you to fix or save or help them. Say it, mean it and live it.
"I love you and I am here for you."
Hold them if their body language invites it. Give them space if you sense that's what they need, no matter how much YOU need to hug them. Social norms be damned, turn on your intuition and sense where they are and what they most need.
"I love you and I am here for you."
And mean it.
And, to mean it, you must then show up and continue to do so in ways that are appropriate to your relationship to the person you're supporting. It might be five minutes a day. It might be a text one day, a written note the next, a delivery of banana bread the following Tuesday and a quick stop by to clean the bathroom the next afternoon with a sincere and unwavering commitment to walk their dog the next three days. It's staying up all night with someone sorting through pictures to create a slideshow for the visitation. It's being willing to dance and laugh and cry at the very same moment because that is where your dear friend is at in this very moment. And so much more.
Show up with your face and your eyeballs and your helping hands in proximity to their hurting heart if geography allows, and get creative if it doesn't. Tend to their most basic human needs without asking them what they need (and being humble of heart if you get it wrong). It's nearly impossibly to know what you need when you're devastated by loss but there is such sweet relief when someone dear to you can intuitively discern your needs and meet them before they become a burden.
I get messages weekly, sometimes daily asking how to show up and there is a top ten list of *fears* that plays on repeat and is keeping people from taking meaningful action (calling, texting, writing, sending notes/cards/flowers, showing up). Here they are with my response to these trending, and totally legit concerns coming from our center of self-preservation: fear.
1) I don't want to bother them.
There is relief in seeing your people show up. Go into it without any expectation and from a place of love and service. You may walk in, hug your friend or family member, take out the trash and leave. That's showing up. You may never even see the person you're showing up for face-to-face. That's still showing up. Don't expect to be entertained, don't expect deep conversation, and don't show up empty handed (bring something along to contribute like a freezable meal, flowers, a book for their kids, a treat for their dog, a hand written note for them to read later, a photo to leave behind - get creative). Don't sit around in their parlor as though your presence is required for a certain period of time for the visit to "count". Unless they ask you to stick around - make it brief.
2) Don't they need their space?
They absolutely need their space. They also need to know they are loved and supported by a tribe that will show up. Applying all the notes from item one above, consider that they also need to know they are loved. One of the deepest fears I hear from those deep in grief is that after the initial community shock and outpouring of support, their pain will be forgotten and they will be abandoned and alone in their despair. The more their community rallies around them, the safer they feel knowing they will always be supported.
3) I'm not sure what to say.
"I love you and I am here for you." See above. Any conversation beyond that will be guided by the person you are showing up for, if any conversation ensues at all. You are not there to be their therapist, their chaplain or their saving grace. If you don't know what to say, try listening. With your ears and your intuition. Life, emotions, and social interactions are incredibly overwhelming in the early days and weeks (and sometimes months even!) of grief. Know that by showing up from the start and letting them lead will make you a safe person to go to for conversation and exploration of their experience later when their hearts and minds are ready to go there.
4) I don't want to make it worse.
Showing up with a hug and a casserole has never made worse the deepest pain of someone's heart. Sending a text to say, "I love you and I am here for you" will never make it worse. Mowing someone's lawn will never break their heart more than it's been broken by grief. Trust yourself. Let your intuition and your loving heart guide you.
5) I'm terrified I'll cry in front of them.
Literally hundreds of people cried in front of me, or with me in the weeks after my late husband's accident. I'm not a statistician, but I'd estimate that upwards of eighty percent of them APOLOGIZED for their tears. I'm talking about profuse, sometimes deeply embarassed apologies. What I told them was this: "Thank you for crying with me." Their tears, their vulnerability, their meeting me where I was in deep sadness and pain, made me feel seen and met. There was no superficiality, no canned lines attempting to soothe. They brought their heart and their pain to my side and together we hugged and sobbed and without words said, "I can't believe this has happened. I am so sad."
6) I'm afraid it will be awkward.
It will be awkward if you make it so. Yes, we have a cultural epidemic of disconnect from our own mortality. Yes, we are typically emotionally illiterate when it comes to grief. Yes, we rarely show up with someone we love in an unguarded, completely vulnerable, heart-wide-open way. If you feel awkward going into it, sit with that experience for a bit and try to understand what it is that feels awkward. Perhaps journal about what you're afraid of experiencing. And then, march to your friend's side because, all your fears aside, they need you. Now. If you go into their sacred grieving space having examined your own discomfort, with a wide-open heart of service, and the intention of being for them what they need you to be, there will be no awkwardness. This is true emotional intimacy and it is what those deep in grief most need.
7) What if I lose it and they end up comforting me?
See number five above and review. This actually happened in my personal story countless times and my widow friends have shared similar stories. I was always so touched by the intense pain that was expressed over the loss of who my late husband was to them. He wasn't just mine; he was so many things to so many people. I never knew about some of the roles he played in people's lives until he was gone. I was tremendously appreciative of the ways people shared with me how much he meant to them, how he affected them, how he changed them and how much they missed him. And yes, I, his widow, comforted many a family member and friend. I let them cry into my shoulder as I wrapped my arms around them and felt their pain meet mine. Was that easy? Never. Was that intense? Absolutely. It also made me feel seen where so often I felt invisible. Their vulnerability felt like deep connection. It felt good to know he was so deeply missed by so many. It made me feel, for one split second, a tiny ounce of empowerment to know that I could still show up for others in my deepest pain.
8) It will be so painful to be in the house where I have so many memories.
This is absolute truth and so crucial to your grief process. It's important to remember that right beside your desire to show up and provide comfort to your loved one, is YOUR very own grief. You have a real human emotional experience to navigate too. That house is full of memories and the visualization may initially bring pain. It may always bring pain. It will also absolutely bring you more fully into experiencing your grief and processing your pain and accepting that this tragic loss is real. If you're not ready, don't force it. If you go and it's too much too soon, don't go back for a while. Don't go back ever if that is what your heart needs. But don't disappear, they still need you. Communicate the pain of the experience to them and make sure they know it has nothing to do WITH THEM. Let them know you're still there for them and get creative about ways to show up that don't involve going to their home. Eventually they will be desperate to go for walks with the sun on their face, and someone they feel safe with by their side. Eventually their whole day will be made by the invitation to meet your for coffee. Eventually they will be so elated that you are showing up because they know without a doubt that THEY are still here. It's easy to feel forgotten when people are just tiring to protect you (or themselves) in the pain of grief. Make sure they know you're ready when they are.
9) There are so many people there already.
People do tend to gather around the epicenter of pain. I was recently invited into the home of a woman whose husband had died in an aviation crash just over 24 hours earlier. When I walked in, her home was filled with people who loved her. They were everywhere. They brought their broken hearts to her side to be of service in any way she needed. And there she was sitting among this mass of silence, hurting humans. The pain in that beautiful gathering of humanity was palpable. Suffocating, even. I invited her to go outside with me to chat. The people who came to be with her weren't wrong, you see. This is what we do in our culture. Our people come to our side. What I want you to understand is that you can be the breath of fresh air to usher in new light and new love to their space. You walk in with pastries and a loving hug and suddenly everyone is smiling and thanking you through their tears. Not faking their way through obligatory thanks, but deeply grateful that you brought your heart to theirs. Your loving kindness and warm embrace can be a game changer on a dark day. You can also model behavior to mobilize those who are already there. Some will feel permission to get up from their place on the couch in the room full of sadness and bustle around the kitchen and whip up a meal for everyone present. Others will feel relief to say their goodbyes alongside you and take their leave, having been unsure of when or if it was ok to go before you showed the way.
10) What would I do anyway...and how long should I stay?
Do what you're good at and stay until it's time to go. You will know. Don't overthink it, just pay attention. This is where intuition comes into the equation again. Are you an amazing cook? Do that and show up with food so good even the most brokenhearted soul with no appetite can't refuse at least a bite or two. Are you an amazing musician? Do that, perhaps you take them a special cd with a note or offer your musical talents for the services if they'd like. Are you a dog whisperer? Do that and take their dog to the dog park, offer to come by every evening for a long dog walk. Are you an impressive organizer? Do that and create a chart where people can record the loving acts of kindness that will come rolling in to include names and addresses whenever included. You have NO idea how daunting this task can be and how heavily desire to thank others later for their kindness can feel to those grieving. Are you the most impressive homemaker ever? Do that and clean their kitchen until it sparkles and don't forget to take out the trash. Are you an amazing, empathetic listener? Do that. Are you a financial wizard or legal expert or event planner? Do that. They are deeply in need of all those services as they navigate wills and explore life insurance policies and tend to estates and plan memorial services. And on the question of how long to stay, the shorter the better unless asked to stick around. Don't underestimate the value of a very brief, heartfelt, helping-hands visit.
When the commanding officer of my late husband's squadron came to my door to tell me of the crash, I lost the ability to know what I needed. I was living in Japan on a military base with my family an ocean away, and my six-week-old baby and her three older siblings in my kitchen ready to eat lunch when they showed up at my house. After he told me the news of the crash, the next question was: "Who would you like us to call?" My answer was simple. I wanted them to call my husband, the man who had crashed on the other side of the planet, so I could tell him what had happened and feel seen and held and safe and ask him, "What do I do?" After a few minutes when I finally remembered the names of those I could call on, I asked them to get ahold of my angel neighbor just a few doors down. She showed up for me and held my world and my grief, and her own breaking heart too, on her shoulders all week, single handedly orchestrating the most selfless, generous, intuitively guided week of caring for me and my kids I could ever fathom. She mobilized my tribe to meet our every need while protecting the raw tenderness of my condition by only asking of me what was absolutely necessary day by day in the enormity of "the process" of burying your beloved. I can remember my angel neighbor saying to me with such tenderness and compassion, "The only thing you have to do today is eat this smoothie we made you, meet with someone to sign one form, review the chaplain's plan for the memorial service, and maybe take a shower." The needs of we five were vast and my tribe of sisters showed up huge. They literally organized a watch bill, ensuring there were at least two friends in my home around the clock to manage the scene, and tend to whatever came up. Just recalling the soft and safe place to grieve they created for me the first week after my loss brings tears streaming down my face and such peace and gratitude in my heart. The way they showed up for me and with me was the only reason I survived.
Grieving hearts don't need to be saved, you see? They have their own healing work to do, that often it doesn't truly begin until the person they're grieving is buried and everyone goes back to work. That healing work takes TIME. That healing work happens with so much more grace when loving hearts rally around them with support and stick around. Grieving hearts need you simply to show up and love them as they find their way. What they need is someone to meet their most basic needs in life and let them know they are seen, love and supported.
Showing up doesn't necessarily mean around the clock and it doesn't mean the same thing for everyone in a circle of support. So much of this is guided by your relationship to that person and that relationship doesn't necessarily have to do with your blood relationship to them. Consider your day-to-day presence in their life pre-tragedy (funny how time takes on a before the crash and after the crash). Are you the first person they call when devastation strikes? Show up big. Haven't spoken since high school graduation? More subtle acts of love and support will suffice and be just as touching. When people grieve, they need THEIR people by their side. When people grieve, they are bombarded by love. It's touching. It's beautiful. It's also incredibly overwhelming. If you aren't part of someone's intimate tribe, or family or their dear and beloved friend, there are important ways to show up behind the scenes. So many unsung, heroic and invaluable things happen and continue to need to happen, and you can be part of that and believe me, THAT is showing up too. They need you.
Simply show up and bring yourself wholly to their hearts in service. In the days leading up to the memorials, ceremonies, services and burials, show up. In the weeks just after the funeral, they need you. In the months beyond, when "real life" begins demanding they participate again and the pain of loss rears up in new and unexpected ways, be there. In all the years of living that come after the loss, show up.
"I love you and I am here for you." Today. Tomorrow. Always.
Grief is a deeply embodied natural response to the human condition of loving and loss. It's not a condition anyone needs rescued from. Grieving hearts just need to know there are people who love us and have our back, come what may. From within grief, the only thing that is certain is absolute uncertainty of what's to come. To know you are loved by a tribe who is, and continues to be there for you provides comfort like you wouldn't believe. So, show up, love them hard, and let them grieve.
In gratitude, Sarah
Let's create a community of conversation in the comments! What was the most powerfully touching way someone showed up for you in your early days of grief? Please tell us about it in the comments! Did something in this post resonate with you? Please leave a comment! Is there something you'd like to add? Please leave a comment! Is there a specific topic, question, or challenge you're facing that you'd like to read a blog post about?
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