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How to accompany someone who is grieving? 
Started by moderator | modératrice
12 Mar 2013, 12:01 AM

Today, a colleague wrote a magnificent blog post that I wanted to share with you. Shelley Hermer is a social worker. She also volunteers at Camp Kerry,  a weekend retreat for parents and children grieving the death of a loved one.
By Shelley Hermer

Although many tenets expressed below can be generalized across age and situation, this was written with adults in mind, adults who are grieving the death of a spouse or a child.  As I began to write this, I became rather uncomfortable that somehow I would offend someone when trying to discuss the intricacies of bearing witness to the grief of others. Then I realized, it is precisely this discomfort that is the problem.

Although I have practice in my occupation holding people’s pain during occasions of stress and crisis, there have been many times early in my career that I stumbled as I reached, or more precisely groped, for the very thing people sometimes need: the ability to wait, to stand beside and to stay in their moment.

Over time, and as grief and witnessing grief became a greater part of my personal life, I started paying close attention to responses and reactions, and I worked hard at putting aside my own self-preservation needs of saying the right thing or wasting energy trying to hold back tears.  My observations of myself and others were thus:  to not take time to bear witness, to not open up enough to hold the space, results in leaving those we love most feeling even more alone.

We might clumsily attempt to connect by sharing our previous unrelated losses, seeking to comfort by erroneously stating that we “understand”,  all the while failing to allow for the particularly subjective nature of grief.  We also may offer (without being asked) our own advice, philosophy, religious beliefs, and supposition of how the circumstances could be worse.  Moreover, we might ask how someone “is”, hoping that they are doing better, but partly because  it is hard for us to bear watching them.  If we only knew, as I hear retrospectively, how often the bereaved fake “fine” in order to protect loved ones from their private horrors, as well as to protect themselves from further injury as we fumble along.

Grief is arguably the quintessential universal human condition. As witnesses, we tend to exhaust ourselves in our attempts to juggle our own empathy, our sense of survivor guilt, our self-protection, our fear of ignorance. While we may feel desperate to help, we may end up either paralyzed or alienating those who need us.

Possibly if we think of grief as physical injury and incapacity, we would do better.  If we walk beside someone and they become weak or hurt, we don’t think twice about what to do.  We catch them, steady them, encourage them, support some of their weight, match their pace, and make way on the path. We stop for breaks and check before going on. We do what they can’t do alone at the time.

I have learned that regardless of the duration, being on a journey with others who are in great pain does require stepping forward, being a bit brave and summoning strength.  And it often means setting down your own pack and going back for it later, because you may not be able to bear both for very long.  Besides, whatever was in it of any real value will be waiting for you right where you left it.

What about you?
What behaviors did you experience when people tried to accompany you as you grieve? Did they put down their back pack to help you carry yours for a time or did they bring their extra baggage or did you each carry your loads together? What do you wish people would do?
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Reply by marstin
19 Mar 2013, 4:10 PM


While reading what Shelley Hermer wrote, I had to go back to the line 'While we may end up either paralyzed or alienating those who need us' and think to myself that this is how we as survivors feel not just those who are trying to help us. For myself, I often feel paralyzed. Although I know that I have so much to do I have difficulty moving forward. I don't know how many times I have heard people say 'let me know if there is anything that I can do to help' when the last thing that I can do is 'ask' for help. What I really want is for people who know what I'm up against to just come and help carry that load. I would ask then that they help me clear my house out, help me with the mountains of paperwork that are written in some foreign language and NEVER put down my partner for what they believe were his shortcomings. Take me away from it all by asking me out for coffee or lunch and just listening for probably the hundredth time of how weak I'm feeling. I would also ask that they not offer help that they can't follow through on. This brings not only disappointment but a lack of trust. The word 'respect' has become a big one for me. Respect my decisions, my feelings and my needs. So many times through this process I have felt so alone and have so many different things that I have to figure out on my own. With my situation of having to deal with two huge losses plus losing my home, I am so frightened. I have so many roles to play and would love to have someone help me figure out how to prioritize things. How can I grieve when I have to meet deadlines on paperwork, ready two houses for sale, figure out where to go after the sale and how to finance it all... all by myself. I find myself going back to being paralyzed once again. As silly as it may sound, try to be psychic and watch for my signals of desperation and ask, always ask, if you can help carry that load. Many of us don't really know exactly what it is that we need but if you have strengths in certain areas, offer to help in those areas. We may just take you up on the offer but seldom will 'ask' for that help. We are broken so please be our crutch and down the road when you are in need of support you will find us there waiting to hold your hand and help you heal.
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Reply by moderator | modératrice
19 Mar 2013, 4:30 PM

Simply a brilliant reply Marstin (Tracie)!! 
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Reply by Plum1
19 Mar 2013, 8:13 PM

Dear Marstin,

I also thank you for your very honest and courageous reply to Colleen about how to help a grieving person. It gives me very concrete guidance as I reach out to a member of my family who has recently lost her son (in his 30s) and her mother. Both had been ill for many years, and, as she says, she has not been able to relax for 15 years. I have been with her at family gatherings, but have not, until the last months, dared to be more intimate with her.

i dared to offer her a listening ear after the death of her son, and to offer the gift of a Reiki treatment. At first she said she was not ready to be with anyone. When I dared to call again, she accepted and we spent a couple of hours together. I was surprised that she opened up so readily.

I visited her mother, and so had this special connection with her. When her mother had to be taken to hospital, and I knew that she was beginning to face the closure of the family home, I offered to help in any way I could, having been through that experinece of closing house with my uncle and my parents. As you say, Marstin, I felt it was something in which I could be of concrete help. Since the death of her mother, I am intending to stay in touch, offering what I can. She is also a cancer survivor and is still going through the many, often difficult, follow-ups. In the midst of the paper-work of settling the estate, she is going to the oncologist and for an MRI. She has admitted to being exhausted. She has forgotten how to take time to care for herself. So once again, I offered a Reiki treatment, and also offered to help in any way I can with the house.  She suggested that she might benefit from Reiki after the MRI. And while she says she will call on me for the house when she feels ready, I will keep gently reminding her that I am available.

As we grow in this new relationship, she seems to feel comfortable telling me of her varied feeelings, and I am glad to hear this. She may never call me up on her own, but I intend to keep checking in.

Do you or others have any further suggestions?

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Reply by eKIM
20 Mar 2013, 3:59 AM

Wow, Shelly and Marstin.  Thank you so, so much for your wonderful postings.  You two should write a book called Bearing Witness to Grief for Dummies.  I’m not being facetious, here. 

As a hospice resident support volunteer, I often feel like a dummy.  I have been volunteering for 3 years now and I truly feel as though it will be a 10 year apprenticeship, just to achieve basic competency.  And forever after I will be learning.

Your two postings are like the two sides of a coin, expressed from the caregiver and the one who suffers.  You both offer such great insight that will be invaluable to all those who read them.  Thank you so much.

Most volunteers have no professional training in palliative care or assisting the grieving person other than the 30 hour course we take before becoming a volunteer.  The saving grace for a volunteer, is the power of compassion and the big heart that they bring to their acts of service, to comfort those who suffer.

Shelly, I found it so refreshing, to hear your candor in expressing the angst that you have felt at certain times during the “learning curve” part of your career.  Your insightful analysis breaks it down into simple, understandable components that are so helpful to others.  This sentiment, coming from a professional, helps put into perspective the anxiety and fear of failure that a hospice volunteer feels from time to time.

It can be awkward for a volunteer (especially a new one) when they find themselves trying to relate to a resident or a family member of a resident.  We are guided by two motives, a) to do no harm, and b) bring comfort and peace.  To complicate matters, every resident is different – and they can change daily.  Also every family member and family dynamic is different.

I will use your comments, Shelley as a study guide and use your guidance as a fundamental part of my ongoing training.  Thank you so much.

And Marstin, thank you so much for being so honest with your feelings and laying such great information for “we who cannot not know what you feel”.  It must be doubly sad for you, when those who you want and expect to help you, fail to help you at all, and then to see those who want to help, stumble because they have no clue how to help effectively.

In certain situations it is very difficult to understand what a grieving person is thinking and what their needs are.  Probably this is true because I have not walked in their shoes.  But I dearly do want to understand and help as much as I can.  What you have written will help me become a better volunteer.

As a volunteer, when we are “one on one” with a grieving person, we are not the most qualified person who could be there.  But often, we are the only one there – and that has to count for something.  You have clarified many things for me that will point me in the right direction when engaging with a new person.  Wow, your information is so valuable.

I will read, and re-read your comments, Marstin and like Shelley’s comments, make them an integral part of my on-going training.  Thank you so much for your insight and your wonderful teachings.

I hope to see more of your wonderful writings in the future, Shelley and Marstin.  You have no idea how much your insight is needed and how many people you will help in the future.

-        eKim

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Reply by Digger
20 Mar 2013, 3:03 PM

The grief process is certainly intense, this was and is true in my case. It has been just over six months since I lost my ex-wife and the mother of our son. I did not realize that the relationship with her would continue and that my attempt to find completion is a big part of what I am experiencing now as grief.

Other men who have gone through this know and not many words need to be exchanged. Men seem to grieve in different ways than woman do, although I have needed the support of both in my journey. The silence of another who knows and feels is important. I would call this ‘presence’ and it is so import in the dying and the grieving. Holding a space to fully engage the experience is a gift that few offer.

I don’t know if carrying some else’s backpack helps, ultimately I am going to have to pick it up. I want to engage the feelings now, even if they make you uncomfortable. I want you to help me do that, not with sympathy or attempts to fix.

I know how unattended grief can surface many years later. As painful as it looks from the outside, this is the road I must traverse. Walking beside me is enough.


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Reply by eKIM
20 Mar 2013, 8:31 PM

Thank you, Dale for sharing your story.

The amazing thing about Virtual Hospice is the way it all comes together. 

    • You share your story
    • You get compassionate response(s)
    • The responders become better in their outreach when you further respond to them.
    • Countless others who read these posts –whether or not they comment – find solace in the stories of others.
    • The anonymity for those who submit, and those who respond, allows nicely for the most honest of expression.
If you choose to, Dale, could you expand on several points that you made in your post?  For example, when you said:

    • “The silence of another who knows and feels is important. I would call this ‘presence’ and it is so import in the dying and the grieving. Holding a space to fully engage the experience is a gift that few offer.”   I believe that the art of “holding a space” is offered by so few because people (including me) do not know how, or when to offer.   I think that when asked directly, if they would like to commune silently, the one grieving, may not give a clear answer – for a variety of reasons.  How does one know when to a) share a conversation, b) listen to their story, or c) “hold a space” by sharing “presence” through silence?
    •  “I did not realize that the relationship with her would continue”  Can you describe the dynamics of that?
    • “my attempt to find completion is a big part of what I am experiencing now as grief.”  Were you referring to the nebulous concept of “closure”?  How would you define “completion”, Dale?
    • Men seem to grieve in different ways than woman do”  In what ways can you describe this?  Personally, I have a much better frame of reference with the grieving process of women – perhaps it’s because many men have difficulty expressing themselves when it comes to something so personal as their grief journey.

If you choose to respond, Dale, could you answer each one of the points separately?  It would perhaps, make it easier for you – you could do it over an extended timeframe.  Also it would be easier for people to read in small chunks.  Some people, under stress have a difficult time with long essays.

When you say, “I don’t know if carrying some else’s backpack helps, ultimately I am going to have to pick it up. I want to engage the feelings now, even if they make you uncomfortable. I want you to help me do that, not with sympathy or attempts to fix.” rest assured that all of us here at Virtual Hospice, are willing “listeners” who encourage you to engage your feelings now (as you say you want to).     I promise that your words will never make us uncomfortable, Dale. 

eKim (one who offers to “walk beside” you for a spell)

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Reply by Digger
21 Mar 2013, 2:42 PM

I think Shelley got the essence of supporting someone through grief by bearing witness and holding the space. Most people want more skills in the two areas Shelley mentioned - bearing witness and holding space. Perhaps a discussion thread focused on these is needed.

Kim asks, How does one know when to a) share a conversation, b) listen to their story, or c) “hold a space” by sharing “presence” through silence?

I had to learn these skills. In these days of inane social media, likes and smilies, presence and silence are becoming rare. People who spend part of every day in silence or meditation or some quiet activity are generally good at supporting the dying and the grieving. Both are inner journeys and why much of the training in this area emphasizes inner work.

Unless we explore the inner journey we are on it is difficult to assist another in exploring the one they are on. You can sense this quality right away in someone else. Dying people are especially attuned to this. Grief, in my view, is an opportunity to go deeply within. Difficult, challenging and at times lonely but worth the effort because we are then able to hold the space for another to do the same.


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Reply by JennJilks
22 Mar 2013, 7:22 PM

I think it important to distinguish between grief, bereavement and mourning.

Hospice volunteers are trained in sitting beside.
Grief counsellors, in Ontario, are there for those who mourn.
Many hospice groups offer individual and group therapy, as well as Expressive Arts Therapy
What the grief counselor needs to remember are the stages of grief are more than steps up to progress.
Grief is a process, whilst mourning will help us with rituals.
Mourning rituals, issues, such as passing on the loved one's clothing, is something good friends can help with. The thing is to phone, offer specific help, offer meals, as those bearing grief are often frozen. Another image, is to imagine those who grieve who sink into a pit. The ladder to help us get out are our friends and family who will help us.

Grief styles transcend gender.
The most important thing a friend can do is to reflect back the feelings of one who grieves. You cannot be arrogant enough to tell them that you know how they feel. You must listen.ladder of grief

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Reply by eKIM
22 Mar 2013, 10:41 PM

JennJilks, was your post cut off accidently?  I was reading it with great interest when it seemed to end with: "You must list."  If there was more, could you re-post?  
Thanks  - eKim
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