7 Steps from Empathy to Accompany Grief
“Everyone has grief,” said my mentor when I was reeling knee-deep in anticipatory grief over my husband’s near-death stroke. Only later did I realize that because we are born into a body that will die, sooner or later we will be left behind. In turn, we will leave behind those who love us, and they will grieve for us. But in that moment all I could hope for was to be heard in my grief.
This need for grieving has been part of our humanity for millions of years, since we evolved from primates and the family of mammals who also grieve. Scientists now know that many creatures grieve, from the smallest mammal to the whale. Though primarily caught in survival, animals still take time to grieve. It’s natural, and we will all have grief at some time in our lives. What’s unnatural is that our modern western 21st century culture has forgotten how to grieve and why we need to for our humanity.
Cultures and civilizations throughout time knew how to grieve. They wisely provided rituals and rites of passage for their people to move through grief, as groups in tribes, villages or societies. Our problem is that we now live in an era of the individual, and we have the freedom to choose what we believe around death but often not a lot of support in how to meet grief. It seems to be a necessary step in our evolution that we have become individuated, yet our close family and friends cannot meet us in this ancient wisdom. We get paralyzed with emotions of depression, denial, or even anger, all of which are stages in the grief process, and end up in the therapist’s office to sort it all out. In addition to the psychological benefit of grieving, some would even say grieving is a necessary awakening to the full meaning and preciousness of life and love.
If you have ever been to the Seven Sacred Pools in the Haleakala National Park on Maui in the Hawaiian islands, there’s a cascade of gorgeous waterfalls with deep pools that flow down a steep ravine to the vast Pacific ocean. Nearby are signs warning people to be aware and alert to any sudden flash floods that can occur within minutes. In a sudden downpour of rain a person can be swept off their feet and plunge to a dangerous fall. People have been swept out to sea and every year a few people do not make it back to land. The ancient Hawaiians called these pools “sacred” or “kapu.” Kapu translates as “forbidden” or “ritually-restricted” but also can mean “sacred” or “consecrated.” If we are not careful and reverent in walking this path, it can be difficult or dangerous. In a similar way, if we do not take the care that is needed in grieving we end up with a cascade of griefs that build up, and threaten to overwhelm us in a sea of emotion.
The grief process has been called a journey along the river of the soul. Each individual has a unique way of expressing and feeling it, some intensively, others more calm and reflective. Some move through all the classic stages and others move in their own process. In meeting a person in mourning, we wish they could wear a scarf or armband or such as in previous cultures so we could know to be sensitive, and how to approach them. So often in the West, we don’t even have a clue if someone is in active mourning or if they have been struggling with some emotion related to an original grief — such as depression, rage, shame, irritability or any number of emotions that are still calling to give us the deeper message of the soul.
So, what’s the best way to talk with someone in grief? As a doctor in holistic medicine for 23 years what I found to be the best “medicine” was actually not to say much at all but to practice “active listening.” This is the first in seven steps of empathetic communication that I later trained in for working with people of all ages. It is truly amazing what can arise out of a person’s heart when we simply listen. Often through these steps an insight or inspiration will emerge later on. Expect to spend at least 30 minutes in a private place suitable for expressing feelings (a home or private place in nature, but not a coffee shop or hang-out). Here are the 7 steps:
- Clear yourself. This is the first step in preparing yourself to be a “safe space” in order to listen. Put aside any thoughts, judgements, and your own good advice so you can be an open “vessel” in which to receive your friend’s grief. Ask them if this is a good time to share how their grieving is. Tell them you would like to take some time to just listen. Assure them that you will keep whatever they say private. These are gestures toward trust, essential in relationships.
- Active Listening. Listen deeply for what their feelings are (usually there will be more than one). Lean forward and occasionally look at their face and eyes. If you get distracted with a thought, ask them to repeat what they said so you can get back to listening.
- Reflecting back. Once they pause and take a deep breath, repeat back their words to them. “What I hear you saying is _____.” A grieving person often wants you to know what their feeling is and that it is felt by everyone in grief (all emotions are found in the grief process). “You’re feeling understandably sad and angry about this!” Share what you feel is their deepest pain. For example, you can ask: Is it the loss of a daily companion, as well as the sadness that’s the hardest thing?”
- Sharing the emotion. Experience inwardly their feeling. You may not have the same exact experience but you can certainly feel their particular emotion. Example: A 4-year-old cannot know the lifetime of grief their grandparent has felt, but he can feel sadness and is even capable of feeling sorrow through his natural in-born capacity for empathy.
5. Look for facial expressions and body language. Does their face and body express a particular feeling? Are they expressing openness or closedness with their arms? Mirror their facial expression with your own, if you feel it would help them feel supported.
6. Reach out and connect. Toward the end, ask: “Can I give you a hug?” Always ask before touching someone if you don’t know a person well. A hand on the shoulder is often all that is needed to communicate understanding and caring.
7. Compassionate Action. Ask: Is there any way I can help the situation? (besides giving the gift of listening). If so, make a practical plan about what else you can do to be there for them. Example: Can I take you out for lunch sometime or bring you a lunch plate soon? Consider completing with,“It has been my gift to be with you in your pain.”
Complete your “circle of trust” by thanking your friend for trusting you and for allowing you to “hold” them in their grief. Afterwards, take a few minutes to “clear” yourself and move on with the day. Notice any feelings or body sensations that may have come up for you. Shake off any stress or difficult reactions and thank the moment for the chance to give someone the wonderful gift of empathy. This is a practice that takes some doing but developing these essential life skills are well-worth the effort.
Rumi wrote an inspirational poem on the gift of sharing grief and its necessary courage –
Your grief for what you’ve lost lifts a mirror
up to where you’re bravely working.
Expecting the worst, you look, and instead,
here’s the joyful face you’ve been wanting to see.
Your hand opens and closes and opens and closes.
If it were always a fist or always stretched open,
you would be paralyzed.
Your deepest presence is in every small
contracting and expanding.
The two as beautifully balanced and coordinated
–from Coleman Barks, The Soul Of Rumi, Harper San Francisco, 2001.
In the end, what we are left with from an experience of active listening and empathy in grief is deeper relationship. For the listener, it allows more practice in the challenge of meeting someone we care about in their grief. For the griever, there is support and encouragement to grieve and perhaps speak about the beauty of their love for the lost one. For both, it is an experience in how grief reminds us of our purpose in living, to come together in caring and find deep meaning in the love that has transformed through death. As Rumi wrote, “Without this great grieving no one can enter spirit.” Ultimately, it is our task to find our truth in death, that on the other side of grief there is immense love that lives on in our hearts.