Originally published in the Summer + Fall 2019 issue.
When something happens in a friend’s life, it can be challenging to know the right thing to do or say. The loss of a loved one, a job or any major life transition has the potential to elicit feelings of grief. Not only can it feel defeating for the person experiencing grief directly, it can also feel overwhelming and disheartening as an “outsider” hoping to offer support.
Grief is an inevitable part of the human experience. As a young girl, I lost my mother to breast cancer. Since then, I have been no stranger to grief. With practice, my relationship with and response to grief has transformed over the years. I cannot recall in particular anything that was said by loved ones offering support as much as I recall who was there. I will always remember who showed up.
You may not feel equipped to offer anything of value when a loved one is in the deepest throes of grief. However, I’d like to offer the possibility that you already possess something very important — the ability to offer your loving presence. Offering presence to a friend to process grief in his or her own way has the potential to be an incredibly simple, yet powerful gift. Bearing witness to one another’s suffering by holding the experience with empathy, openness and acceptance lies at the core of healing through difficult times.
Leaning into vulnerability by choosing to connect with a friend who is experiencing grief has the potential to deepen friendship and heal the heart chakra. According to “Eastern Body Western Mind” by Anodea Judith, grief is said to be the “demon” of the heart chakra. The heart chakra is said to govern connection in the form of relationships with others and also with the self. Grief tends to pull us into a state of feeling disconnected. Judith shares, “When our heart is heavy with grief, it’s hard to open, even hard to breathe … When grief is denied, we become numb to our feelings and our aliveness. When grief is acknowledged and expressed, however, we find a vital key to opening the heart. Tears are shed, truth expressed and the heart lightens.” Though challenging at times, expressed grief is incredibly healing. A balanced heart chakra is able to give and receive love without condition.
“When our heart is heavy with grief, it’s hard to open, even hard to breathe … When grief is denied, we become numb to our feelings and our aliveness. When grief is acknowledged and expressed, however, we find a vital key to opening the heart.”
Acceptance and empathy create a foundation of safety in any relationship. Sociologist Brené Brown describes empathy as “Feeling with people. Empathy is a choice. It’s a vulnerable choice because in order to connect with [someone], I have to connect with something inside myself that knows that feeling.” As we cultivate the courage to accept and allow our own emotions to arise, we become better able to accept and allow the emotions of others. The art of acceptance involves the practice of allowing emotions the space to unfold naturally. Releasing the need to change a situation may fuel feelings of helplessness at first. If we release the reigns by choosing to be with whatever arises, we allow grief’s full expression.
Psychologist Tara Brach offers her perspective, “What if instead of resisting feelings of fear or grief, we embrace pain with the kindness of a mother holding her child? Rather than judging … we regard [it] with gentleness and care?” Choosing compassionate awareness of grief without judgment releases the expectation that we need to “fix” or be fixed in some way. Acceptance fosters the feeling that emotions are normal and that we are fundamentally “okay” — which is true at our very deepest core.
The presence of loved ones has been essential to my healing process over the years. Of course they couldn’t take away my pain because that’s just the reality of life, but they were there to acknowledge it. What they had to offer was presence and love. And it was enough to allow my little heart to begin to heal. To feel seen and validated through our suffering can offer something that attempting to remove it cannot.
There is not a one-size-fits-all approach for dealing with life’s challenges. Everyone experiences and processes grief in unique ways, none of which are linear or “correct.” However, connection seems to have the potential to shift the experience of grief from feelings of isolation to the soft awareness that one is cared for and truly not alone in his or her suffering.
Offer loving presence as an act of empathy and acceptance rather than the need to change something about the situation or person. Connect in a way that feels authentic. Connection can range from the practice of holding space and generous listening to preparing a meal or checking up on a friend regularly. Reach out. Show up. Connect. And heal.
Photo by Daiga Ellaby.