Six ways to be authentically present with someone in Grief

When your heart is ripped open with a loss, grief creates fundamental shifts and changes that can manifest over a long period of time.

These developments ebb and flow as the current of grief is sometimes prominent and sometimes subtle, but the direct impact upon the soul is clear and transparent to the experienced eye.

One year ago, my closest girlfriend of nineteen years died at the age of forty-six after a twenty-two month journey with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML). I was one of her main caretakers, witnessed her slow decline and was fortunate to share the last couple days of her life with her. Through the heart-breaking incident of losing her, I have walked the stark landscape of grief and I feel inspired to share what I’ve learned.

#1: When hit with the reality of grief, you can often lose the ability to make small talk. The things that seemed so important before undergoing a loss fade away in importance to mere trivial matters. When put in perspective between life and death, issues such as scrutinizing your personal appearance can become a non-issue. For example, through witnessing your closest friend’s beautiful young body starved to a skeleton size by a relentless cancer, one has great gratitude for being alive, regardless of one’s shape and size.

This translates to having a rough time relating to people that before the trauma were easy to talk to. The subject matter has changed. If you’ve witnessed the dark depths of death, how can you swim on the surface of life and pretend that the shadowy world that has become your norm does not exist?  It is helpful to surround yourselves with those that have walked through the shadows and understand your reality; otherwise at times you’re left to feel like a stranger in a strange land.

 #2: When one speaks of your beloved who has passed, it can be like an anvil upon the heart and could possibly open up reams of pain that might not be known to the casual conversationalist. Please be gentle around this subject matter if you know someone is traveling through grief as it’s is not a light conversation matter.  This person that died might have been the sun and moon for them and having awareness and compassion around the subject can go a long way.

#3: Be aware that holidays, the anniversary of the death and the birthday of your beloved are all potentially rough days. On my own birthday this year I was surprisingly swept up in a wave of grief when I realized that this was the first birthday in nineteen years that I would not hear from my dear friend. Luckily I had her voice recordings on my answering machine to listen to but nevertheless there is an acute absence felt on these sensitive dates.

#4: Pockets of Grief: Things that might seem small can be potentially huge triggers of grief, for example: a photo, something that reminds you of your lost one and/or a memory. It’s good to be aware that even the slightest reminder can send someone back into the bowels of grief. Even months later when you think you’ve been through the worst of the storm, a small trigger can provoke a hurricane of a reaction. For the healing process, it is optimal to feel the emotions to release them. Tears and emotions such as sadness and anger need to be released to allow the inner momentum to flow on through. Grief rituals are profoundly powerful for this reason as it allows the grief to be let go in a safe, intentional container.

#5: Sometimes we can feel extremely alone in our grief process. Even if you have a strong support system, the gaping wound created when a beloved departs can be inexplicably crippling. When one of the above-mentioned storms hit, you may be faced with the stark reality that your beloved’s physical presence is no longer with you. There is no way you can call, email, text or see them ever again and that realization can be brutally difficult to comprehend.

#6: Although saying certain things such as "what you've experienced is no big deal", "you'll feel better sometime", or "your dearly departed is in a better place" comes from a place of good intentions, please be aware this can be perceived as belittling and a dismissal of the grief process. The best way to be with someone in their grief is to show up with compassion and understanding. Simply saying, "I'm sorry for your loss" and giving an authentic hug speaks volumes more than a statement that makes sense to the head but might not resonate with the heart.

Those of us who are traveling the road of grief might seem ‘fine’ to the outside world but please know there are subtle layers still working their way though. Grief is not linear. Sometimes it is crippling and sometimes the tide is subtly present, but it is always under the surface. A little bit of compassion, understanding and awareness to what the griever is experiencing can contribute greatly to true healing.

If you have been traveling the road of grief, what have been some of your discoveries along the way about being with others? What are your challenges and lessons? I would love to hear!

“Grief that praises life shows the depth of our appreciation for having been given life enough to begin with.”  Martin Prechtel

Tara Coyote runs Wind Horse Sanctuary, a 10-acre ranch in Northern California with her 4 horses. She offers private sessions, workshops and Grief Rituals with her horses.  After being present in the depths of grief for an extensive period of time she finds great pleasure in assisting others through their grief process. For more information please visit www.windhorsesanctuary.com