I am working on a training for a big company that will be rolled out world wide to more than 32 thousand employees. I am grateful that empathy is not just a topic but an entire module with practice and follow up coaching.
Few of us know how to show up for others any more. There is training for customer services representatives on empathy statements, but we know when we are hearing them. We hear phrases like “I’m sorry to hear that Ms. Bohannan,” with a robotic delivery and see right through them. Still, it is a step above what we demonstrate to each other sometimes.
Of course I am talking about grief and how to handle someone who is grieving. It is hard, I know, because we are afraid to go there. But unless you die young, you will go there. You will love people you desperately love, and you will feel like you cannot possibly survive. And you will wish that others knew how to be just a little empathetic, rather than avoiding you because they don’t know what to say, or leaving your life completely because you are ‘too sad.’ Or offering you one of the all too common, insensitive platitudes.
Please Skip the Platitudes
I mean the following and any and all statements resembling these:
“Everything happens for a reason.”
“Time heals all wounds.”
“Be thankful for the time you had.”
“I know how you feel.”
“You’ll see them again someday.”
These do less than nothing. They invalidate the other person’s feelings. I have heard all of these and more in the blackest depths of grief, when the thought of killing myself was the only thing that gave me any hope. And I can tell you, while I am sure the intentions were good, they actually pushed me further into that recessed pit of isolated despair.
Save Your Opinions
I’m not going to sugar coat this, people need to hear this: This grief doesn’t belong to you, and there is no room for your judgement.
If you have strong ideas about when the griever should “move on” with life, who they should date and when, where they should work, or live, how much they should be sleeping, whether or not they get a dog, what they eat for breakfast, or what color shirt they’re wearing, please keep them to yourself.
They aren’t helpful. At all. Ever.
But I don’t know what to say
First, empathy doesn’t start with ‘at least’, or ‘be positive’, or ‘get it together’ or ‘get over it’… it starts with the silence of listening. When someone close to you reaches out and shares something difficult, she is mostly looking for someone to listen.ere is what I wish I had heard more of:
“I wish I could make it better.”
“Wow, that really sucks.”
“I hate that this happened.”
“Thank you for sharing with me.”
And your person doesn’t know what they need. They can’t think, they just want their person back (or the situation to have never happened, etc.). They have a ton of things that need to be done in the wake of a loss and in general terms of taking care of themselves, but are underwater. There aren’t words to describe the anxiety and simultaneous fatigue that fill all space in your brain for thinking, remembering and reasoning.
What I really needed to hear, and I guess sometimes I still do, were and are things like:
“What do you need right now/today?”
“I’m happy to listen any time.”
“I would like to do _____ for you.”
“How can I help you?”
Memories Do Not ‘Hold Anyone Back’
I won’t even go into the cruel things others have said or even joked about regarding losing Albert and John-Mark. It is truly unbelievable how many people consider partners to be replaceable or disposable and feel free to joke about a partner dying. I can’t imaging they would treat the situation the same if someone lost a sibling or a parent or a child, and yet, while a spouse dying is the second most traumatizing loss for people (after the loss of a child), in my experience, it seems many can’t grasp that they and their absence will always be with the partner left behind.
My dead partners are with me forever. Albert’s family can keep display his belongings in memorandum, his friends can display his photos on their walls, and yet, I’ve seen the sideways glances from friends, just months after Albert passed, when viewing our photo on the refrigerator where it had been since we printed it. Oh I can keep photos of my beloved pets who have passed up for years and people think that is quite sweet. But a dead partner’s photo is somehow ‘holding me back.’
I want to remember them, to talk about them, and keep them in my life. My memories are not ‘holding me back.’ No, others don’t like to see my memories displayed because it makes them uncomfortable.
I wish people could tolerate the discomfort just a little bit better. I wish people asked me about Albert more, I wish people could simply acknowledge that I miss him. I wish people could go there and say, “This must be a tough time right now for you,” on anniversaries or significant dates. It would help so much.
The project I am working on is about becoming self aware enough to put yourself in other’s shoes in a general sense (and in the workplace). It is a hard place to go, connecting with the other person’s frustration or pain and trying to understand why they might be feeling the way they are. But empathizing is a skill that, once learned makes the rest of your life better. It helps you truly connect with others, it makes their lives better, it calms tense situations, it turns relationships around. It saves people.
To truly love your friend through grief, you have to deliberately choose to bear witness to their agony. Don’t turn away when it hurts too much or abandon them when things get weird and uncomfortable at the restaurant table. Keep loving them and love them hard.
Watching someone suffer is hard. But suffering alone is much harder.
You cannot take away anyone’s pain. You cannot even feel it alongside them. But if you stand by your grieving friend inside of the void, you may be the one thing that saves them from oblivion.
PS – grievers shouldn’t have to educate and advocate all the fucking time