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.

New Law in Oregon: Your Rights to Bereavement Leave

People who experience the loss of a loved one are often tasked with managing life insurance and legal issues, resolving financial paperwork, planning a funeral, and sorting through their loved one’s belongings. All of this often happens while they are in shock or otherwise facing great emotional distress. This is often a time to seek out help and support from friends, family, or elsewhere. Reasonable and compassionate employers is are happy to be flexible and find a solution that allows people to attend to their grief and practical matters while also honoring work obligations. Many businesses have bereavement policies already in place and this is really helpful for those people who need to take advantage of them.

While most employers are quite willing to be flexible with helping their employees manage major life events, in some cases there are also laws in place to help insure reasonable allowances are made. For example, the Family and Medical Leave Act helps ensure that people will be able to take off time from work to care for a newborn child or to help a family member with medical illness. However, there are relatively few laws in place to help people cope with the demands that can come with bereavement.

A notable exception can be found in the recently amended Family Leave laws of Oregon, which now includes bereavement as a major life event warranting protected leave. Oregon is the first state to enact this kind of law, which applies to businesses with more than 25 employees and which goes into effect in January 2014. According to this new law, people may take up to two weeks of bereavement leave to attend a funeral or memorial service of a family member, make any necessary arrangements, and to grieve. The bereavement leave can be taken up to 60 days after you have learned about the death, and it is also possible to take additional leave if you are faced with the loss of more than one family member.

While people rarely finish grieving in under two weeks, taking a little bit of time off often helps people have the space to bring their full attention and care to the practical and emotional process of grieving.

Good Grief: Before asking how to get over your grief, ask whether you should.

Sometimes people aren’t very understanding of the pain of grief. They can even be downright insensitive at times. One of the common insensitive phrase I’ve heard in my work as someone who specializes in grief is: “You just need to get over it.” That phrase has to be at least in the top-five all-time most unhelpful things to hear after you’ve lost something or someone you love. Yet we’re all likely to receive this “gem of wisdom” at some point, and most of us have probably even said it ourselves, even if only to ourselves. But why is grief something we’re supposed to get over?

There’s something unsettling at the root of much of the advice we hear following loss. Consider the following well-meaning sentiments:

“Time heals all wounds.”

“You have to be strong for your family.”

“Don’t be sad, he’s in a better place.”

“There’s plenty of fish in the sea.”

“Just keep busy.”

What’s common among these generally unhelpful messages about grieving is an underlying judgment about your feelings: “What you feel is bad, so don’t feel what you feel.” We can internalize this expectation, and end up saying things to ourselves like “I should be over this by now.” Not only are such sentiments not especially helpful, but sometimes hearing them even seems to make matters just a little bit worse.  We end up feeling bad for feeling bad. Or we might get angry with others who don’t understand, or isolate ourselves to keep from being punished for feeling what we feel. How unfortunate!

While our mainstream American culture usually affords some latitude for having strong feelings immediately following a loss, we are also expected to quickly “move on” and “put it all behind.” Yet it is incredibly common for people to continue hurting even after it isn’t socially acceptable to do so. If you’ve ever been rubbed the wrong way, felt misunderstood, or felt overlooked when someone has tried to take away the pain you feel following a loss, you’re probably on to something. Top grief researchers agree that learning to fully experience your feelings is a lot healthier than trying to stuff them down or make them go away. If you’re going to be in pain anyways, wouldn’t you rather live in a world where it was ok to feel hurt when you’ve been hurt, rather than adding judgment to the mix?

You have some say in this. Rather than trying to deny the hurt you feel from losing something or someone you love, you can learn to accept more fully the pain that comes with caring. Loss is indeed tragic, but feeling something about that loss is not a bad thing. Feeling strongly just means that you made a connection in life that truly matters, and feeling what you feel is an important part of acknowledging this reality. Grief is good.