We are all just walking each other home. ~ Ram Dass
After my brother died, everyone seemed to avoid being with me.
Sure, I got plenty of text messages, cards, flowers, hugs, and “I’m so sorry”s. A few people called, and some came round with food. And I appreciated every single one of these things.
But, years later, I finally understand why I didn’t get the one thing I really needed when I was grieving: a witness.
Someone to just be with me. To sit there and let me cry without wanting to escape. To listen to me talk about him, and his death itself, without trying to distract or lead me to a happier, more comfortable space.
I needed someone to simply allow me to grieve, and to be there for me—fully there for me—as I did. To let me turn over and play with that smooth, heavy stone in my heart, again and again, until I could really understand it and figure out how to live with it, because it never does go away.
Sure, there were plenty of caring people around me doing caring things for me, but it was all in an effort to soothe my grief.
This is a normal human impulse—we all do it. When faced with someone who is grieving, we subconsciously distract, divert from, or try to ease the pain of it by saying things like, “he’s in a better place,” or “at least he’s not suffering anymore,” or “time will heal,” or “think of all the happy memories you have.”
While well-intentioned, these responses do nothing to acknowledge, affirm, or witness our grief. And all of them come out of our own knee-jerk reactions to grief: avoidance and an impulse to repair.
Avoidance of grief comes easily to us in the West, as a culture that doesn’t generally talk about death. In fact, we avoid the hell out of it, so have almost no idea how to cope with the reality of death, and the grief it brings.
So, our impulse is to make it better, to fix it, to dress it up in a way that seems more bearable, and avert our collective gaze toward something more cheerful.
We are death phobic. We simply don’t know how to answer the question, “Who am I in the face of grief, death, and dying?”
The thing is, how we react to someone else’s loss and grief comes directly out of our own response to this question. And if we are ever going to learn how to give each other what we all really need when we are grieving, we have to figure out our answer.
And whether or not we ourselves have experienced the death of a loved one, or we know anyone who has, this is still a relevant question. Here’s why:
We are all grieving.
Right now. Always.
You are grieving. I am grieving. We all live in a state of grief. Only the intensity and the circumstances vary.
We cannot move through a single day in this experience of being human without experiencing change and loss—it’s the very essence of the bitter-sweetness of being alive. But, because our nature is to seek comfort, safety, and permanence, we grieve: silently, or out loud, knowingly, or unknowingly, but we all do it.
If you’re a parent, just watching your children grow up is a kind of grief. The baby you hold in your arms one day is gone the next. And yes, it is joyful and beautiful, but it also painful. Because it all points back to the impermanence of life, and we’re still figuring out just how to live in peace with that.
If you’re a child, just seeing your parents grow old is a kind of grief. If you are a friend, or a teacher, or a student, or a partner…every day you witness and experience different permutations of grief. The loss of relationships, the loss of dreams, the loss of today…and ultimately, of course, the loss of ourselves. Because, whether we speak about it or not, we all know we’re going to experience death and dying.
And if we can truly face, witness, and accept our own reaction to that, then we can start to be a deeply present and listening witness for others in their grief.
We can stop feeling that impulse to say something, to make it better, to help a grieving person out of their grief, to hand them the Kleenex box, and remind them of all the happy times.
We can start being fully present enough to witness, and to honor, the ultimate and most liberating truth of life: death.
“…death is not waiting for us at the end of a long road. death is always with us, in the marrow of every passing moment. She is the secret teacher hiding in plain sight, helping us to discover what matters most.” ~ Frank Ostaseski
It’s six months of experiential training, incorporating a radical and honoring approach to being with grief, death, and dying: a deep dive into the place where our own grief, beliefs, and experiences intersect with our desire to support others in grief.
The deep exploration of this interior space liberates us from the weight of our own fears about death and grief and thus transforms our relationship with ourselves, our loved ones, or clients.
Because, while our own grief remains unacknowledged, unwelcomed, unexamined, we cannot see, feel, hear, or touch the pain of another person. Acknowledging, welcoming, dropping into what arises in the face of grief and death is the beginning of bearing witness.
“If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
~ Lilla Watson