Helping People Grieve with Compassion

Comfort has its limits. One of the reasons it can be so difficult to approach someone who is suffering is that it can bring us face to face with our powerlessness to do anything about pain. We wish we could have control, make it all better, and relieve the pain of the people we care about. And yet despite our best efforts, the people we care about continue to experience pain, just for being human.

When it comes to loss, the pain people experience is often in proportion to their love. For many people, denying the pain of their loss is to deny the significance of what they had once found. People aren’t always seeking to sweep away pain, but rather need acknowledgement of the importance of their relationship with the deceased – something they don’t want to slip away.

“You’ll get over it…” It’s the clichés that cause the trouble. To lose

someone you love is to alter your life for ever. You don’t get over it

because “it” is the person you loved. The pain stops, there are new

people, but the gap never closes. How could it? The particularness of someone

who mattered enough to grieve over is not made anodyne

by death. This hole in my heart is in the shape of you and no-one else

can fit it. Why would I want them to?”

― Jeanette Winterson, Written on the Body

When someone is hurting but not looking for comfort, compassion can be found in simple acts of kindness and support. Compassion can come in the form of helpful actions, as when taking over responsibilities for cooking meals, childcare, or tending to the yard for a grieving person who is not ready to engage in these activities. Acting with compassion can also mean being a good listener – someone who is willing to witness pain without passing judgment. Just being fully present without trying to change anything can, paradoxically, make a big difference in how people experience pain. Rather than ridding life of pain, we can bring life to pain – we can wrap it in dignity, understanding, and love.  
Acting with compassion is not always easy, but if you would like to learn how to become more skillful with compassion there are ways of learning. For example, when distressed it can be difficult to make contact with compassionate feelings, but you can practice reconnecting with these feelings through regular self-compassion meditations. Similarly, the skill of being present can be cultivated through practicing mindfulness. You can learn to be more helpful to others by getting help with your communication skills, learning to become more skillful at taking other people’s perspectives, and learning more about the important role of values in people’s lives.

“I realized that it was not that I didn’t want to go on without him.

I did. It was just that I didn’t know why I wanted to go on.”

― Kay Redfield Jamison, Nothing Was the Same

Though it is perfectly wonderful to be comforting when we can and when it is wanted, sometimes comfort isn’t an option or isn’t the way forward. In such cases it can be helpful to remember that there is more to life than the absence of pain – there can be the presence of loving kindness and purpose. Cultivating compassion can be a meaningful way of fully acknowledging the pain of loss while moving deeper still into life.