How do you really help someone effectively who has experienced a loss, perhaps the death of a loved one or a loss due to relationship that has terminated or health that has been compromised ? Americans don't do a good job of handling loss. We are a "forever young" society and the idea that somehow life will end at some point is usually something many people will try to avoid. If you doubt this, consider the success of filmmaker Woody Allen, the filmmaker who has devoted a lot of celluloid to this matter.
On March 4 2016 I attended an enlightening conference entitled "Pilgrimage Through Loss" that was held at Austin Theological Seminary Austin, TX. One of the Keynote Speakers Dr. Linda Lawrence Hunt of Whitworth University Spokane, WA reflected upon when her Krista 25-year-old married daughter Krista was killed in 1998 while volunteering in Bolivia:
"People would say things to me like God needed another angel or God gives us no more than we can handle."
Linda Hunt said "When I heard that, I just wanted to strangle them."
I can certainly emphasize with Dr. Hunt's feelings. We tend to get very uncomfortable when other people are in emotional pain and are experiencing loss. There can be the temptation to rush in and say things, platitudes, in the attempt to make it better, perhaps in the attempt to make us feel better as listeners.
Maybe, what would be more appropriate is to just be willing to be present with the person who is experiencing loss, to be silent and to not covey statements that might be construed as insensitive or callous.
Grief can express itself differently in different cultures. Here in the United States, a person can experience the death of a family member. There can be lots of activity regarding visitation of surviving family members, a viewing for the deceased, a funeral or memorial service, a following reception, and after that there may be little or no further contact with the bereaved person. However, in Okinawa, Japan someone may die in a village and the rest of the members of that community will take it upon themselves to visit and sit with the person who is grieving for several hours. Here the experience of grief becomes shared by the community. This phenomena of support can go on for thirty days for the family that is affected.
There is no normal cycle of grieving. When people experience loss, how it will be expressed will have to do with characteristics like culture, religion, ethnicity, etc. As Renee Davis LCSW of Round Rock, Texas would say:
"What is Normal? It is just a setting on the dryer."
Those who want to help people who experience grief, including helping professionals, need to listen intentionally. There is no right thing to say about loss, it is about listening and helping the person to arrive to a better place.
Rev. Dr. James Ellor of Baylor University School Of Social Work has noted:
"Death is a projective process (Irving Yalom) According to Ecclesiastes, the conception of life was described as being a puff of wind. The choice becomes how do we use our time, past, present, future and not enough. Death stacks up on us as we grow older, losses become tougher to work with. A worthy question to ask someone who is experiencing loss is what's changed in your life since the last time you got through a similar experience?"
Each one of us is a unique human being. We have different histories, interests, goals and dreams. People don't grieve the same way. Some people don't grieve at all.
As humans, we need to be open and respectful of the spaces and the feelings that surround all of us. Those who grieve don't want easy to clean up answers, and at the same time those who grieve do not wish to be ignored.
May we balance the desire to help with the need to listen this day and always.
May it be so.