Grief is one of the most common mental and emotional processes we experience, whether we interpret it that way or not. After almost any transition, there is a period of adjustment that typically involves mourning what we have left behind. This occurs even when we make changes in our lives for the better. Of course, the form of grief we become most familiar with at some point or another is the loss of a loved one. But we also grieve relationships, life directions, possibilities, and hopes.
If you have had the experience of losing a loved one, then you probably recall the acute awareness that there was nothing anyone could say or do at that time that would necessarily make us feel better. Because our feelings seem so big during those times, words seem small and inadequate. What may be a very heartfelt sentiment of solidarity and hopefulness may simply feel like a platitude, and that’s okay.
If we think about the most common cultural expressions of grief, like memorial services or sitting shiva in the Judaic tradition, it is often the physical gathering that is most reassuring. While there may not be anything anyone can say to take the pain and sadness away, there is something healing, heartening, and affirming about knowing that others share in your grief, whether it is in a small or large group setting, or even just one person by your side. This nonverbal expression of support is often most appropriate, and it can be easier than trying to find the right words, which simply may not exist.
For other forms of grief, we know that the only thing we really need to heal is time and space. It can be hard to express this to others without feeling guilt for seeming to push away those who are trying to help out of love and care. But it is possible.
One of the most challenging things about grief is that it looms so large in our lives before it starts to gradually dissipate, a process we seem to have little control over. For that reason, it’s often helpful to be around people and have the focus removed from ourselves and our persistent thoughts about our recent loss and instead placed on others. This allows us to step outside of ourselves, creating some distance between how all-consuming our feelings are and the desire and need to start to move on…some way, somehow.
When we are grieving, there are ways we can ask for what we need using simple phrases like:
- “I just need to be alone right now.”
- “Thank you for just being here, that means a lot.”
- “Can you just sit with me here?”
- “Just knowing you are keeping me in your thoughts means a lot to me.”
- “Will you talk to me about yourself?”
- “Can we talk about something else?”
Likewise, when we know someone is grieving, there are non-invasive ways to offer our support without putting pressure on someone we care about to “feel better” any sooner than they are ready:
- “What can I do for you right now?”
- “Is it okay if I just sit here with you?”
- “I’m here for whatever you need.”
- “I know there’s nothing I can say or do, but I’m here for you.”
Of course, every person is different and so we should all remain open-minded to the ways in which others may experience grief, what it may look like, and what they may need. But often there is something quietly reassuring about simply letting go of the idea that we have to find the right words.