Think about the last time you saw someone crying.
When I say crying I mean completely losing their shit.
Snot dripping out of their nose, wailing inconsolably. Red, raw, chest-shuddering sobs entirely uncontrollable and uncontainable.
Maybe you’ve never seen someone this way.
If not, just for a moment imagine someone in your life coming to you in this state.
Now, just for another moment be completely honest with yourself as you check how you actually react in the face of such intense emotion.
Do you want to console them? Embrace them? Run away?
Chances are you’re feeling uncomfortable, and you’re not alone.
Generally speaking, Western culture does not teach us how to be comfortable with strong emotion.
(Unless you’re Italian and you’re taught to feel everything at full volume)
Even at funerals people try to contain their tears, hiccupping them inside their chest and swallowing them back down their throat.
When we see someone crying, often our first instinct is to do something to make it stop. Mother’s shush their grazed children, friends wrap their arms around heartbroken besties, colleagues hand a tissue over a frozen awkward smile.
Since death and transition are really unavoidable in our lives, grief is something that touches every one of us whether we like to think about it or not. I’ve had friends go through really traumatic losses and I’ve had my own losses that, at the time, tore my heart out of my chest and rocked me deep down to my core.
Through each experience I have become more and more comfortable sitting with grief, both my own and others. As a deeply empathic person, sometimes there is little difference.
What I have learned along the way is this:
1. Handling grief is all about compassion and empathy.
Whether you’re having compassion and practicing empathy towards yourself or someone else is irrelevant, the important thing to remember is to be gentle and understanding.
We often forgot that everyone processes things at different speeds and along different pathways. Grief is not bound by some linear timeline, it’s like a wave that is stirred up by the conditions of the atmosphere of our lives and can change at any given moment.
We can feel happy one minute and the next be standing in a pool of our own tears.
There is no right or wrong way of doing grief, nor is there a designated length of time to get over something. It takes as long as it takes for each individual depending on their own inner resources and how deeply they felt the loss. Truly allowing yourself or someone else to experience that grief however and whenever it shows up will allow that grief to naturally come up and dissipate in its own time.
2. You need to recognise that you can’t fix the situation.
Generally speaking as humans we want to feel useful. We don’t like to believe that there is nothing we can do for someone who we love when they are hurting. We want to make them feel better because it hurts us to see them in pain.
So we tell them what we think they want to hear.
It’s going to be okay. They’ll get through this. They’re better of this way. Time heals all wounds. Cheer up. Chin up Buttercup. There are plenty more fish in the sea…
And yes, all of these things are probably true.
But by encouraging them to focus on the future, you’re actually unconsciously telling them to stop hurting now. Even something as innocuous as offering a tissue can send an unconscious signal to someone that they should stop crying.
If you’re going through the grief yourself, notice if you’re trying to keep incredibly busy to avoid actually feeling the immensity of what you’re feeling. That’s not to say that you have to drop everything and wallow in a puddle of self-pity. There is a time and a place for everything.
Recognise however, the difference between remaining busy because if you stop you know you’ll just fall apart and allowing yourself to let go in between busy periods.
3. Sometimes not saying or doing anything is the best salve.
We learn a lot about ourselves when we remain still in anything. When we fight all our urges to “do something” for someone who is deep in emotion, it is a deeply magical experience for both parties.
More often than not the best thing you can offer someone is your pure and simple presence. You don’t have to say anything, or do anything; you can even admit you don’t know what to say or do.
So long as you sit there with them (not necessarily touching them at all) through their process with your heart wide open.
When you do this you may find yourself crying as well. It doesn’t mean you’re also sad now. This is just compassion.
My heart feels your heart and meets it where it is.
When we meet someone here, in the heart of compassion, allowing them to experience their emotion without our attempt to make it something more comfortable for us, we invite an incredibly sacred bond. We silently communicate to them acknowledgement, understanding and validation of their experience just as it is. Without making it wrong or right.
Without judging it in any way, shape or form.
And we do the same for ourselves when we sit silently in our own grief. When we let the racking sobs take over and give in to the depths of our pain. When we allow ourselves to truly sit in this pain without trying to fix or change it we are reminded of how much love we felt for the person we have lost. What a blessing it was to have them in our lives.
In the words of Winnie the Pooh through A.A. Milne, “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”
We honour the love by acknowledging the pain and we honor ourselves by allowing it to move through us.
In the face of grief we have the opportunity to deeply explore the power of human connection. It is in the heart of these adversities, these losses and difficult transitions, that we discover the purest of gifts—that love and presence alone truly can make all the difference.
Author: Sarah Kolkka
Editor: Renee Jahnke
Image: Javier Kohen-Flickr