Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Goldilocks. She walked into this empty house and looked up at the table where three bowls of porridge were cooling. She tried the first one, “Ouch!” She said, “This is one is far too hot!” She tried the second bowl, “Ewww, this one is far too cold.” She decided to give the third one a try, “Ahhhh…this one is just right.”
It’s been a couple of years since my wife and I lost our son. He was our third child, born straight into the hands of God. Since then, we’ve experienced a multitude of different responses from people; responses that ranged from too hot, too cold, and oh just right.
Here’s the thing we need a community to help us in our grief journey, and that’s sometimes really difficult. It’s difficult because our culture doesn’t know how to enter into the grief or suffering of another person. It’s not their fault either, where in society do we learn how to enter into the grief of another? As a result, we end up with the Goldilocks’ effect some come on too hot, others too cold, and then there are those who do it oh-so-right.
So with this guest post, I hope to prepare folks who are grieving with whom they might encounter during this time, and help to give some advice to people who are looking to journey alongside those who are grieving.
Let me say upfront fellow griever, all of these people have good intents. However, those intents don’t always create experiences that are helpful. During these times, it’s essential for you to listen to yourself and your body, you are not responsible for other’s intent. You can only speak out of how it makes you feel, and if it’s not helpful, then it’s not helpful. Don’t feel bad about that; you already have a lot you’re dealing with.
“Oh my goodness, I can’t believe you are going through all of this, I’m so sorry, I can’t imagine what it feels like…it must be so hard, so painful, so difficult to even get up in the morning. I know when my friend lost….” Their face is flush, tears flow down their cheeks, and they gasp for air as they try desperately not to spiral out of control. They approach like a hurricane with their energy swirling you off your feet. As they try to comfort you, you (the griever) begin to reassure them so that they don’t entirely go off the edge in a full-on breakdown. Just as the porridge was too hot, so is their approach, and soon you are left to blow on them to cool them down to room temperature.
Then comes the porridge that’s too cold. It’s so cold in fact that they seemingly operate on the premise of “less is more.” So they do the least amount of comforting possible, and they may even avoid you altogether. It’s as if they were to talk with you, they might catch this terrible disease of grief, and the thought of that is unbearable for them. Their lack of acknowledgement makes you want to scream out in the middle of the street, “I’m right here! I exist, and so does my pain!”
Then there are those who are juuuuuuuuuust right. It has nothing to do with what they say or anything in particular that they do, but there’s just something about their presence that is comforting. It’s not because you’ve known them for a while, or because they are a stranger, these folks come in all shapes and sizes. They sit there with you, cry with you, help you clean the house or make a meal. Even though it’s uncomfortable for them, they aren’t in a rush to leave, and yet they’re ready to leave whenever you are prepared for them to go. They are the courageous that will sit and listen to your stories even though those stories cannot be unheard.
These are the three types of people you will likely experience in your grief journey. They all mean well, but it doesn’t always feel that way. Be true to yourself; it sucks that you’re in this place. You don’t deserve it. Here’s the thing that most people don’t realize: People want you to feel better, but when you’re in the grips of grief, that’s not what you need at this time. They are trying to love you, but in reality, it feels as if they are trying to pull you away from the love you just lost. Do what you need to at this time. You are ridiculously worthy of love, and there is a God that loves you very much.
I want to thank you for your willingness and courage to journey alongside someone that is going through a difficult time. It’s not an easy task because it’s awkward, uncomfortable, and everyone grieves differently. You’re stepping into some uncharted territory, and I want to offer a few pieces of wisdom from someone that has been on the grieving end and messed up plenty of time on the comforting end.
One of the best things that you can do is to show up. That might be through text messages, sending flowers, making a meal, heck maybe it’s even taking their kids for an hour so that your friend can have a hot second to themselves. Everyone grieves differently, and it’s important to realize that and honour that. When you say you’re going to show up, make sure that you do. Reliability is so crucial at this time. If you say you are going to text them every other day to check in on them, make sure those messages get sent.
Be all in. When you are there, nothing else matters. There is nothing else on your to-do lists that trumps where you are right now. Put your phone on silent, or better yet, turn it off. Being present is difficult because that involves listening to the stories: stories of hurt, of joy, and suffering. Listen with your whole body. You should be exhausted by the time you leave. Don’t share your own stories or advice (unless they ask for it), put all of your focus on them. This has nothing to do with you and everything to do with you. Enter into their pain, risk being changed from this experience, and be supportive.
This one is probably the most difficult but the most significant difference between those who are too hot or cold and those who are just right. It has nothing to do with the words you say, though you can say things like, “I’m sorry for your loss…this really sucks.” Sometimes, the best thing you can say is, “I have no clue what to say right now, but I’m right here for you.” When you show up and are fully present, it can quickly lead to feeling uncomfortable. That’s okay. Feel it, acknowledge it, then let it go. Show up, be present, and sit in that uncomfortable feeling of not knowing what to say, because realistically, there’s nothing you can say that will take this pain away. What their pain needs right now is someone to sit down beside it and say, “this sucks. I see you; I see your pain, and oh man…this really sucks.” Just be.
Jason Dykstra is a dad of four (three living), husband to one, and helper to many. Jason is a conflict management and leadership development specialist and has been chronicling his family’s journey over at They Call Me Dad. You can find him on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, or Youtube to chat more or you can download his free eBook – Things They Don’t Tell You About Grief. He also has a podcast called Thriving Leaders.