Support, not comfort
Grievers need support, not fixing.
It can be easy to use the terms “comfort” and “support” interchangeably, but they have very different meanings. The definition of each reveals the subtle difference:
- Comfort (verb) - ease or alleviate a person's feelings of grief or distress.
- Support (verb) - to bear or hold up (a load, mass, structure, part, etc.); serve as a foundation for
It’s human nature to want to alleviate someone else’s pain, but grief doesn’t work that way. There is nothing we can do to take away the pain. Instead, we can acknowledge the pain and help to hold them up. Supporters can be part of their foundation as they learn how to carry their grief forward.
“Effective support with somebody you know is going through a grief reaction is the attitude of open listening and accepting whatever they're saying, and not feeling pressure about giving advice or somehow taking that feeling away from them.” Ted Rynearson, M.D.
This video from Refuge in Grief explains the concept of acknowledgement as support in a beautifully straightforward way.
So what do we do about all the pain we see in the world. All the pain we feel in our own lives? And why does it seem like our best efforts to help somebody feel better always backfire? I've been studying intense grief and loss. Baby death, violent crimes, accidents, suicides, and natural disasters and I've learned something really interesting. Cheering people up - telling them to be strong and persevere, helping them move on - it doesn't actually work. It's kind of a puzzle. It seems counterintuitive but the way to help someone feel better is to let them be in pain. This is true for those giant losses and the ordinary everyday ones.
Educator Parker Palmer writes, "The human soul doesn't want to be advised or fixed or saved it simply wants to be witnessed exactly as it is." He's talking about acknowledgment here. Acknowledgment is this really amazing multi-tool. It makes things better even when they can't be made right.
For example, somebody's struggling. Their baby died or there's been a bad accident or their mom got sick and they're just sad. It's way more helpful to join them in their pain than it is to cheer them up, but here's what we tend to do instead. "You have two other children you need to find joy in them." Or, "You know what you need, you just need to go out dancing and shake it off." Or, "I felt really sad once, did you try acupuncture?"
We're not really sure what to do with someone's pain so we do what we've been taught - we look on the bright side. We try to make people feel better. We give them advice. It's not like this is nefarious, I mean we try to cheer people up because we think that's our job. We're not supposed to let people stay sad. The problem is you can't heal somebody's pain by trying to take it away from them.
Now, acknowledgment does something different.
When a giant hole opens up in someone's life it's actually much more supportive to acknowledge that hole and let pain exist. It's actually a radical act to let things hurt. It goes against what we've been taught. In order to really support you I have to acknowledge that things really are as bad as they feel to you. If I try to cheer you up you end up defending yourself and your feelings. If I give you advice you feel misunderstood instead of supported. And I don't get what I want either because I wanted you to feel better.
It's pretty rare that you could actually talk somebody out of their pain. Rarely does the admonishment to look on the bright side actually heal things for someone. It just makes them stop telling you about their pain. It's so tempting to try to make things better. When somebody shares something painful, It's much more helpful to say, "I'm sorry that's happening. Do you want to tell me about it?"
To be able to say, "This hurts." without being talked out of it, that's what helps. Being heard helps. It seems too simple to be of use, but acknowledgment can be the best medicine we have. It makes things better even when they can't be made right.