One Parent’s Grief

Posted by on Aug 22, 2012 in Loss, Trauma

One Parent’s Grief

“…please: Don’t say it’s not really so bad. Because it is… If you think your task as comforter is to tell me that… all things considered, it’s not so bad, you do not sit with me in my grief but place yourself off in the distance… Over there, you are of no help… I need to hear from you that you are with me in my desperation. To comfort me, you have to come close.”  Nicholas Wolterstorff, Lament for a Son

Yesterday, I was talking with a friend after my yoga class. A woman whom I’d met only a few times approached us and shared that this time of year is most difficult for her because it marks the death of her little boy.

When I hear that someone has lost a child, I feel a dropping, empty sensation in my stomach. Momentary silence follows in which I try to imagine the heartbreak of losing one of my own children to illness or some other tragedy. I know that my imagining can come nowhere near the reality of such grief.

The woman related that, at this time of year, she mentions her son’s death often.  Many times, she regrets the disclosure and realizes that she needs to be more selective about the people with whom she shares. Recently, she was having her blood drawn and mentioned her son to the nurse, who replied, “At least he’s not suffering any more.” The grieving mother bristled and resisted an overwhelming urge to lash out in anger. Instead, she offered the nurse some feedback: “When you find out that someone’s child has died, you should say: ‘I’m so sorry. I cannot imagine your pain.’”

We live in a society of constant activity, productivity. The focus so often is on what is to be done. In the presence of others’ grief, we tend to want to offer solutions, distractions, or words that will make their burden lighter. And while there is a time and a place for these responses, I believe they have the potential to communicate messages we don’t intend: “I know what you must feel/need.” “Your feelings can and should be fixed.” “Your grief makes me uncomfortable so let’s move away from it.” Good intentions and efforts to show care may end up creating greater isolation.

Being with Others in Grief: What You Can Do

  • Be Honest

If you fear saying the wrong thing to someone who is hurting, the best response is honesty: “I don’t know what to say, but I can see that you are in pain, and I care.” Your openness, your willingness to name and face the truth directly, is such a gift to a person who is likely very isolated in her or his grief.

  • Ask Simple, Open-Ended Questions

Simple questions also give a message that you want to be close, that you will not try to jump out of a person’s pain. You can ask, “What are the worst parts for you? What do you wish I could understand?” Again, you do not need to have answers. You are inviting a connection.

  • Accept Periods of Silence

Sometimes, a quiet attentive presence is the most helpful thing you can offer. Silence provides space and communicates respect for the other’s experience. You become a companion, open to whatever comes up in the moment. This kind of silence is very different than an awkward avoidance.

  • Acknowledge Your Inability to Know

Ironically, efforts to empathize by bringing up our own experiences can be more invalidating than admitting that we cannot truly know another’s grief. The woman who was talking about her son’s death wrapped up our conversation with this: “Some day I will write a book. It will be 250 pages, and it will be instruction concerning what to say when someone’s child has died. The entire book will repeat: ‘I’m so sorry. I cannot imagine your pain. I’m so sorry. I cannot imagine your pain. I’m so sorry. I cannot imagine your pain.'”

About Lynn Davies

I am a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor with a Master of Science in Pastoral Counseling from Loyola University in Maryland. I have been in private practice for over fourteen years and have experience working with adults and adolescents, addressing a variety of issues: anxiety, depression, relationship problems, past or current trauma, eating disorders, self-mutilation, bereavement, parenting concerns, boundaries, and self-care.

One Comment

  1. Great blog Lynn! Look forward to reading more insightful posts.

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