It's OK to not know what to say to a grieving friend, showing up is enough

Young adults overdosing from heroin is not a new phenomenon; it has existed for decades. The recent influx of fentanyl-laced heroin, however, has been leading to a massive increase in the frequency of overdoses. The last two years of my life have been riddled with the deaths of friends.

In January of 2017, my boyfriend’s best friend passed away from an overdose. I remember racking my brain every night to figure out how I could take away his pain — what I could say to make it better, what I could say to ease the grief.

I have read time and again in spiritual or wellness literature about empathy being a process that involves putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes and allowing ourselves to connect with the thing in us that understands their pain. I have constructed lectures around healthy communication and the empathic process, yet when it was my turn to practice empathy, it was incredibly difficult.

I felt powerless over someone else’s pain and like I didn’t have a purpose if I couldn’t make them feel better at that moment. I felt frustrated at not knowing that perfect thing to say.

Then it occurred to me: What if there is nothing we could possibly say to make their pain go away? What if we miss our opportunities for genuine empathy by trying to “fix” someone else’s emotional pain or quicken the grieving process?

“Rarely can a response make something better; what makes something better is connection," says Brene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston who studies empathy.

All I needed to do was show up and listen — and become comfortable with the silence of not being able to fully understand his pain in that moment.

If you love someone who is currently in emotional pain or grieving, it’s natural to want to make their pain go away. But you cannot take that process away from them. And if you could, it would be a disservice to that person and their emotional growth.

We grow through pain. We cultivate resilience through walking directly into the pain and coming out on the other side.

So, what if instead of avoiding someone because you know you can’t “make it better” or “say the right thing,” you simply show up and hold space for their emotional experience?

I’ll never forget when a friend of mine was grieving because his brother had just overdosed and died. I was a few days into a new job at a hospital, the same one where his brother had been on life support.

I reached out to this friend and met him outside while he smoked a cigarette. I stood with him, not saying a word, while he spoke about his brother, cried and eventually stood in silence himself.

The silence contained more emotion and meaning than anything I could have possibly said to him. The reality is that I had not experienced the same amount of pain, and that was OK. I chose to throw away my arsenal of spiritual and positive quotes about “time healing all wounds” and his brother being “in a better place now” and the rest of those things we say just to say in the wake of grief.

I don’t know if his brother is in a better place.

I don’t think his death was “supposed” to happen.

And I know that if I was grieving, those would be the last things I wanted to hear.

It’s OK to not know.

This friend thanked me for reaching out and standing with him outside of the hospital, remarking that many of his friends hadn’t contacted him because they didn’t know what to say.

I understand that now.

Because there is nothing to say.

But we should still show up.

So if you love someone who is grieving, know that you are doing everything you can do by simply being there. By listening, holding space, and allowing yourself to be silent with vulnerability between you.

It will make a difference.

It has made a difference to me.

Hannah Rose is a clinical mental health counselor; her website is www.hannaheliserose.com.

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