by Katherine Hatch, LICSW
In our society, we don’t always know how to simply be. We are much better at doing. The ability to be with pain instead of trying to fix it or dismiss it is one of the most healing ways to support someone who is grieving. During my years in home-based hospice work, sitting with the families of people who have just died, to counseling people through their immense grief at the Wendt Center, I have learned there is no fancy therapeutic technique more powerful than offering a moment of shared disbelief, grief, or loss for words.
Let’s just say it—being present with someone who is suffering is often scary. Watching someone else in emotional agony reminds us of our own vulnerability and fragility. Even if just for a moment, confronting the pain of others requires us to confront both the pain in our past and our anxieties about pain in the future. This inclination, to connect the interaction to our own pain, is natural.
In fact, we have a word for it at the Wendt Center: Empathy.
Empathy. I’m experiencing my pain and at the same time you are experiencing your pain. Where we struggle with empathy is in looking for an immediate exit from the interaction. This breaks the empathetic connection too early. For empathy to be felt by another, we must remain in the feeling and the discomfort for a bit longer–in that place of not trying to fix and not trying to do. Empathy is not pity. And it is not an attempt to make anything better. Empathy is being in that moment of the nameless swirl of emotions that intense grief brings forth.
Here are some ways we can get better about being with others in an empathetic way:
- Listen more. Say less. Offering honest, earnest, and simple words is usually the best way to be with pain. A simple “I’m so sorry” that is heartfelt and not rushed can be good. Additionally, “I’m at a loss for words. This is so much. I’m just going to sit here with you in this moment if that’s ok.”
- Avoid offering up “I understand.” No one truly understands another person’s experience of pain.
- Try to ask yourself before you speak, “Is what I’m about to say more about soothing my own discomfort in this interaction or more about offering support?”
- Remind yourself you are not in charge of fixing this pain. You cannot. The pain of grief is not fixable–we cannot bring a person back to life or erase an event from history. Think of being a companion first instead of a problem solver.
- Take care of yourself before and after the interaction. This might mean replenishing with exercise, connecting to your loved ones, watching some mindless TV, and/or limiting intake of the media.
- Give yourself grace–you might not say the right thing. As long as an interaction is fueled by empathy, those who are grieving will feel and remember that.