There’s something about being heartbroken that makes other people deeply uncomfortable.
It’s not just the excess of emotions; often, it’s a feeling of being helpless and unable to make the heartbroken person feel the slightest bit better. So what do we do when we are faced with someone’s grief? Why, we pull out a few shop-worn yet tried and true clichés to hand to them:
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
Time heals all wounds.
Everything happens for a reason.
When the clichés stutter to a halt, we then offer a sizable helping of unsolicited advice and opinions. These are as familiar as the clichés and are cold comfort to hurting hearts.
People offering the clichés, unsolicited advice, and equally unsolicited opinions about our lives are well-meaning. They truly want to help.
However, a few of my friends, when faced with my heartbreak, also come armed with options. I’m grieving—so what do I need? Should they unload their anger at the situation and help me get it out via catharsis? Would humor help? Do I need them to just be present while I get it all out?
These friends are absolutely precious because they come prepared to give me whatever it is I need to get through the process of dealing with heartache—even if what they need is to express anger or vent or give out that unsolicited advice. They’ll put all of that to the side just to help me get through what is always a wrenching experience.
My own recent experience of heartache made me think about how I often respond to others when they are broken.
Do I jump in with my own clichés, advice, and anger, steering the conversation? Or do I come ready with whatever that person needs to move through the experience in the way that works best for them? Sure, we all feel helpless when someone else is devastated, but it’s important that we hand out more than cold comfort when our support is needed.
So what’s better than cold comfort for the hurting?
We can offer to hold space for them. What does this mean? Holding space means that we are simply present for the person hurting. We allow them to grieve however they feel necessary while still being available to help and comfort. Being present with a friend’s experience can look like sitting silently and listening, passing the tissues as needed. It’s being the voice at the other end of the phone saying, “I hear your pain, and I’m present with it.”
Remember: our reaction to their experience isn’t the most important thing. It’s easy to focus on our own reaction to a situation, but what’s important is their grief—not our anger. To help someone else, we have to put our personal feelings aside. I’ve experienced this more times than I can count. I’ve wanted to rage at a friend’s situation when what they needed was for me to listen instead to how much they miss the person who hurt them and how they still want to hold on. In that case, calling the other party names or venting my anger isn’t constructive. What I may need to offer up, instead, is empathy for the experience of missing someone we love, even when that person has wronged us.
Ask what is needed. Depending on the situation, different responses might help. Ask the person who’s hurt what they need—and then provide it. Do they need a distraction? Do they just want to sit and talk? Do they need a little time to themselves to process the situation? We can ask first, and then respect that what they need may not be the way we prefer to help.
Do something practical to help out. Someone who is hurting may be living their lives pretending that everything is okay—when it’s actually quite difficult. We can do something as simple as taking them out to a meal or helping out with childcare. If we see a need, we can pitch in without waiting to be asked.
We can remember that other people’s lives aren’t our own. I love that my closest friends are completely open with their opinions on any given topic, but that they also balance that openness and honesty with always supporting me, even if the decisions I make aren’t the ones that they would make. We do this by supporting a friend who chooses to stay in a relationship we think they should leave, for example. Support doesn’t mean we agree; it means we love someone enough that we’ve got their backs no matter what.
It’s so easy to want to fill the silence with words and to let those words be clichés, advice, and our own opinions. What we’re trying to silence isn’t their heartache, but our own discomfort with it.
Instead, we can take our own experiences of heartache and use them to show up for other people in ways more meaningful than using those tired clichés. We can allow our own discomfort to take a backseat in service to their needs. Knowing this will make us just a little kinder and a bit more careful when handling emotions that are still raw and likely not ready for anything other than our silent presence.
Remember, most of the world will offer cold comfort. But we can try, instead, to offer something a little more useful: sincere compassion, steadfast support, and the willingness to hold space for them.
Author: Crystal Jackson
Image: Jared Eberhardt/Flickr
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Copy Editor: Nicole Cameron
Social Editor: Nicole Cameron