Pain in Grief and Loss

The word “better” is often used when people are trying to comfort friends, colleagues or family members who are grieving. I’ve used it myself. “Things will get better”, many have said at one time or another. Someone recently told me that it was a terrible word to use with someone whose loved one had died. She was right. In her book, It’s Ok That You’re Not Ok, Megan Devine describes the way we use words to comfort ourselves, not the person in pain. Grief doesn’t get better, it changes; life is different.

I co-led a bereavement support group very early in my career. I still remember how badly it went. I cringed every week that we met. People showed up hoping that somehow being in the group would make them feel better. It didn’t. One member of the group talked about how her child, who had been driving only a few years, was killed by a drunk driver, also young. She expressed her anger and her hurt openly and honestly. Everyone listened. And the “words of comfort” started. Well-meaning, sincere and very wrong words. Things will get better. Life will be easier. And then it happened. Someone offered words of compassion for the drunk driver. There was a stunned silence. The mother got up from her seat and left. My co-leader offered some words of comfort for everyone in the group, for what they were experiencing in their journey. We closed the session. And nobody came back the following week. I was immensely relieved. We are ill-prepared for meeting grief and loss.

I’ve spoken to many people who are grieving, wrestling with the pain of experiencing the death of a loved one. I’ve experienced grief myself. I’ve been with people when they died. And I’ve learned a lot since those early days. 

I was trained in C.I.S.D., Critical Incident Stress De-Briefing (I’m not anymore). And I was one of the facilitators of a group when a student in the 10th grade at a local high school drowned. This happened in a small town and the news of the drowning traveled quickly. The town became strangely quiet. People smiled sadly at each other. Time didn’t slow down; our ability to process and absorb information slowed down. The other students were bewildered, looking for answers. The parents of the student who had drowned came to the high school to see if his classmates were ok. That seemed so strange to me. But we humans do strange things in our pain. They needed to see the other children, their son’s classmates. I believe they were reaching for connection. Just trying to hear stories about their child. But we didn’t know how to be present to the students and the parents at the same time. The child had just died hours before we met. The pain of the immediate grief was overwhelming. And C.I.S.D. is a particular and successful approach really meant for first responders. We were well-meaning clergy, mental health counselors who did our best with the tools we had. And our culture has lost its ability to show any of us the way. Our culture doesn’t understand.

The full title of Megan Devine’s book is “It’s Ok That You’re Not Okay: Meeting Grief And Loss In A Culture That Doesn’t Understand. She writes: “There isn’t much written on the early parts of grief, that close-to-impact zone where nothing really helps. We’re so terrified of intense grief, and the feelings of helplessness it engenders, most resources don’t speak to it at all.”

When my son was five years old, we moved to a different town. He had a best friend and he had to say good-bye to him. The two boys hugged and said, “See you later, pal!” A few months later, my spouse and I received a message on our voicemail. From the director of the after school program that my son and Billy had been in together. The message started with how sorry she was to leave this devastating message. Billy’s mother had been killed in a car accident after she was leaving a wedding. She went to the wedding alone and had been in a car with another man. Billy’s dad had stayed home with Billy. 

Just a few weeks later, my son had a birthday party and we invited Billy. His Dad was very grateful and drove him across the state so Billy could be there. My spouse, my son, the other kids and Billy were walking towards a pond where the kids could swim safely. Our son and Billy were slightly behind us and a little away from the other kids. We heard and saw our child, our very wise and innocent child, put his arm around Billy’s shoulders and say, “I’m sorry your Mom got dead.”

The simple statement was so powerful. Billy said, “Yeah, it’s really sad and I miss her a lot.” Children are often wiser in their innocence than we adults. The need is for people to be able to tell their story and for others to be comfortable listening and just being present. A much harder task, or, really, a harder way of being than it sounds.

Devine proposes a different model of grief by encouraging us to find new ways to express our pain of grief and loss. She writes, “We can’t wage war on the “problem” of grief without waging war on each other’s hearts. We need to let what is true be true. We need to find ways to share in the shattering experience of loss – in our own lives and in the larger world. Shoving through what hurts will never get any of us what we most want – to feel heard, companioned and seen for who we are, where we are.”

Megan Devine offers a 30-day writing course: is a way for you to write your grief and loss without hearing any platitudes. Your grief and your truth about it is entirely welcome.

There is no perfect way to grieve. There is no perfect way to support someone in their pain of grief and loss. Being present and listening to their story is a good place to start.

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