One of my former bosses lost his son in a heinous drive by shooting a year ago. Since that time he has been unabashedly honest about his feelings and the intense pain that he has endured in the aftermath of his son’s death. There have been days when he has been angry, others when his sorrow spilled over. While it has been tempting to attempt to help him with age old platitudes he has told us not to make weak attempts to cheer him up, but rather to allow him to express what is unfolding in his mind without filters. He has let us know how important it is not to try to smooth things over by suggesting that bad things happen for a reason. He suggests that instead we simply be present for him regardless of the mood that overtakes him on any given day. Love means hearing and understanding those who are hurting, not attempting to fix them.
I suppose that it is in most of our natures to withdraw from uncomfortable situations. We all too often try to stop the tears of someone who is suffering rather than simply embracing them without comment other than to remind them that we love them. Our inclination is to help in some way that will stop their pain, but often all we are doing is forcing them to deny the very emotions that are so naturally spilling forth. They regain control of themselves for us, but deep down inside they are screaming for someone to just understand how difficult their state of mind actually is. We are not really helping if we do nothing more than stop the free flow of truthfulness that they need to convey.
After my father died my mother would sometimes begin crying and talking about him without warning. Most people had no idea how to react. They sometimes suggested that she get hold of herself, or ask God to help her move forward. Other times they nervously left the scene and then rarely returned again to talk with her. My mama often wondered why everyone was so afraid of speaking about my father with her. She saw her tears as something quite natural and healthy and did not think that she should have to deny them. Like my former boss, she needed to converse with someone who had known my father and loved and understood him as well as she did. Sadly such an open way of speaking of him seemed to be almost taboo.
My friend, Sharon, who recently died had a natural talent for being with souls who were in a state of stress. What everyone loved about her is that she allowed them to be themselves, to express their deepest feelings without needing to hide even their ugliest thoughts. Her eyes sent the message that she was a safe harbor. She listened intently and only spoke after great consideration of what she had heard. There was never judgement or an attempt to force the person to recant or change their mental perceptions. She simply acknowledged the reality of the suffering and pain. She was fully present to hear and love the person before her and to provide them with a safe space.
My mother died the day before a planned retirement celebration for me at my daughter’s home. We scurried to tell everyone that the party was cancelled. At the pre-appointed time I went to my daughter’s home just in case any of those who had been invited had not received the message. My friend, Sharon, arrived at the time when the party would have otherwise taken place. When I told her how sorry I was that she had not heard that the party was cancelled she lovingly admitted that she had indeed received word that there would be no party. She said that she came anyone because she thought that I might need her. She sat on the couch just holding my hand and allowing me to drive the conversation. It was a beautiful and loving thing that she did that I have never forgotten.
I have witnessed other people properly extending their good wishes to people in a state of sadness. Sometimes they send a card or letter with acknowledgement of the person’s difficult situation. Other times they call and simply say that they were thinking of the individual and then let them say whatever they need to say. They ask what they might do to help. People send plants or food or books to demonstrate that they care. Such gestures are lovely and really do send the message that someone cares. What does not work is suggesting trite fixes to quell the tears or deny the feelings. As well meaning as such things are, they sometimes do more damage to the psyche of those who are struggling with the reality of tragedy than not saying anything at all.
We each deal with losses differently. Some take heart in believing that a loved one is in a better place. Others are still too angry and hurt to find solace in such ideas. Some feel that they are learning from tragedy while others find such hard lessons to be unbearable. We need to meet people where they are and we can only do that by listening and observing them. If we follow their lead we will help more than by forcing our own ways on them. In most cases they like to talk about their departed loved ones, so engage with them when they do. Just sitting next to someone and holding his/her hand conveys the most important message that you are present for them and always will be.