If you want to be helpful
Here are some thoughts I have for those who want to help someone who is grieving a loss. I believe that people who are grieving welcome and need our EMPATHY, COMPASSION and PRESENCE. They usually do not need or want our “UNDERSTANDING”, PITY and ADVICE.
- Empathy as opposed to “understanding”
When I offer my empathy, I am seeking and trying to walk with you and in that way, seeking and trying to understand your feelings and needs. When I tell someone who is bereaved “I understand how you feel” I change the focus to myself and claim to know something only the mourner can truly know. (Grieving is individual and reflects the unique relationship the person had to the one who died/is dying).
- Compassion as opposed to pity
When I offer my compassion, I am allowing your pain to touch me and matter to me. When I offer only pity or sympathy I am feeling sorry for you and am usually distancing myself from you.
- Presence as opposed to advice
When I offer my presence, I let you be who you need to be and I don’t worry about whether I have the right words, or any words for you. (It’s often enough, as someone has put it, to hang around, hug and hush).
When I give advice I’m telling you that I know what you need or that I want to fix you. (Maybe it’s because I’m not aware that grieving is natural and needed for healing. Or maybe it’s because it makes me uncomfortable to see you suffer).
To summarize: Pity, “Understanding” and Advice often backfire when they are used to try to help or console those who are dealing with loss. Instead of helping they sometimes make matters worse: a person may be left feeling criticised or trivialised or analysed or put down or judged. Pity, “Understanding” and Advice do not encourage the person to grieve and mourn as they uniquely need to for their own healing.
On the other hand, Empathy, Compassion and Presence are wonderful gifts. They are gifts that a person may already possess. They are gifts that reveal care, affirmation, acceptance and respect to those who are dealing with loss
Ken Westereng (B.A., M. Div.)
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