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Grief-struck: It's not our job to talk survivors out of feeling bad

Tammy Swift, columnist

A dear friend recently experienced a death in her family.

Like so many of us, I struggled with how to comfort her. As a good codependent, wasn't it my responsibility to somehow "fix" this and "make" it all better?

But then I thought of the words of John W. James and Russell Friedman. These men founded The Grief Recovery Institute, and wrote the seminal book on loss and grieving, "The Grief Recovery Handbook: The Action Program for Moving Beyond Death, Divorce, and Other Losses."

Although I've learned hundreds of things from this excellent book, I was truly changed by one of the book's primary points: It doesn't help to give logical answers to emotional problems.

Logical answers help if you're counseling a friend on a new job, a home purchase or some other pragmatic matter.

But this reaction isn't so effective if someone's problem is rooted in pain or high emotion. We can think we're helping by saying, 'Well, at least he isn't suffering anymore,' when someone loses a mother to cancer. That's logical and it's true, but it isn't all that helpful. All the survivor can think of is how she will never see her mother again and that she would give anything to spend a few more minutes with her once again.

This isn't to say that we are wrong for trying to comfort. It's a beautiful and noble thing to reach out from our own little cocoons and attempt to ease someone else's suffering. Empathy, compassion and kindness are what make us human, and they bond and connect us.

But in our efforts to alleviate suffering, we may accidentally exacerbate it. We may try to "reason" people out of feeling bad when they have every right to feel bad. Their suffering and loss may be frightening to us, because their loss brings up our own fears and memories of people lost. Our society has never done a very good job of acknowledging grief, so we have been taught the best way to handle it is to minimize or mend it: "This is God's will," or "At least you have your other child."

Or, if you're like me, you have no idea what to say. The English language can be sadly inadequate in describing intensely emotional experiences, and so we grasp for something — anything — to fill that uncomfortable silence: "He's in a better place." "Time heals all wounds." "At least you're young enough. You can get married again."

One thing I'm slowly learning is that people need to grieve — and grieving, done right, is a messy, emotional, human thing. It's not my job to talk people out of feeling bad - simply because it makes me feel uncomfortable - or to try to fix it, rationalize it, label it, quantify it or wrap it in a pretty, shiny package.

It's not my job to tiptoe around and pretend like the person who died never existed. All I can do is acknowledge that it must hurt, that I care and that I am there if needed.

In fact, the most helpful advice I've ever heard about what to say to a person in mourning was remarkably, beautifully simple: "Your mother sounds wonderful. Tell me about her."

Sometimes, it's not what we say. It's how we listen.

Readers can reach columnist Tammy Swift at tswiftsletten@gmail.com.

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