Grief

There Should Be No Judgment in Grief

Art of the Brick Exhibit, Franklin Institute, @nathansawaya

Our family and close friends have been through a lot of grief in the past few years. I could list those we lost, but this post is not about them. It’s about the survivors.

There are so many ways people grieve. It’s impossible to know how you will behave, what you will think, how you will recover — until it happens to you. My mother lost her husband. An aunt lost her brother. A friend lost his son, another lost her father, another her husband. Each is its own completely different kind of loss.

My mother seeks support from others who have experienced a similar loss, while my friend whose husband died in a tragic accident seeks support from people unrelated to her loss. My mother might benefit from a widow’s support group, sharing in the loss. My friend would find zero comfort in that environment. she would not want to share her grief with someone mirroring it.

There should be no judgment in grief.

We need to recognize each other in grief and be intensely aware of our needs and those of our friends and family. The children’s book, Tear Soup, is one of the best books I’ve read about those differences in needs after loss.

Dogs are much better listeners than we are.

Listening is the key to helping in grief.

I wasn’t listening to my dear friend when her father died. I heard her, but I wasn’t listening. My father died just over a year prior to when she lost her father. Our conversation was via text; I understood that she didn’t want to talk. When I read her text that she drove 10 hours to say goodbye to her father and missed him by 10 minutes, my first thought was of my own experience, not hers.

Sounds pretty ideal to me.

What I meant was that I was grateful she missed those last gasps. It is awful to watch someone you love so deeply gasp for air. I meant that she had the opportunity to kiss him and witness his soul leaving his body, but missed the worst part. And she was there for her family when they needed her. What she heard was: “Sounds pretty ideal to me.”

I wasn’t going to go when my father was dying last year. A dream compelled me to go, so I was on a plane and there with him about 14 days before he passed. It was awful. I don’t regret being there, but I’m also not glad I went. The words I used for my friend were for me, not for her.

I’m grateful that my friend loves me enough to ask me what I meant. She knew my intentions were good, my listening & communication skills at that moment — not so much. We are still very close because she cared enough to ask and not dismiss my thoughtlessness, and me, from her life. Beyond being grateful to her for using her words, I’m grateful for yet another learning opportunity.

Here are some lessons I’ve learned as I’ve experienced my own grief, and the grief in people I love:

  1. Grief cannot be qualified or quantified. It cannot be measured. Each person grieves differently and judgment by others about how one person grieves is not only ridiculous, it’s counter-productive. Never ever start a sentence with “At least.” Never ever ask when she’ll get over it.
  2. The most important and powerful thing you can do for someone who grieves is to listen & observe. Does she want you to be a problem solver and share ideas for expression and distraction? Watch her body language. Does she want to be hugged, or is she feeling prickly?
  3. Don’t ask “is there something I can do to help?”
    Read #2. Does laundry need to be done? Is the refrigerator empty? Has she eaten today? Then ask very specific questions. “I’d like to do a couple of loads of laundry to help you catch up. Is that okay?” “You are out of milk, eggs, cheese, coffee, ice cream and wine. I’m going to the store later, may I pick up a few things for you? Let’s make a list.” “You haven’t eaten, I know it’s hard, but some protein will help. I’d like to make you some scrambled eggs — or is there something else you might eat?” Sometimes just putting food in front of someone, food you know they generally eat, will encourage her to eat. Don’t worry about giving it to the dog if she doesn’t eat it. Try.
  4. Brief distractions can be great tools. Plan a walk or vigorous hike, bring a dog. Find a creative outlet for your friend; sign up to take a class together, like ceramics, painting, cooking, or fly fishing.
  5. About three weeks after a funeral, family and friends tend to disappear, moving on with their own responsibilities and lives. That is the time when your friend will need support in a completely different way. See lesson four for ideas. Call, check in, invite her to a movie. People disappear because they don’t want to consider the unpredictability of life, the idea that this could be their own situation. They don’t want to live in that grief. Don’t disappear.

These lessons can be applied to any interaction with others. You cannot know what a customer has experienced in the days, months, years prior to your interaction. Don’t judge; listen and observe to understand better what your customer wants and needs, and be specific about what problems you can or cannot solve. And sometimes… a brief distraction can derail an angry customer: “Can I get you a cup of coffee?”

Sarah Elkins is a professional coach and consultant, helping people and businesses improve their communication through the art of storytelling. She’s also the President of Elkins Consulting, the company making a splash with small, face-to-face, affordable interactive conferences called No Longer Virtual.

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Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com on June 11, 2015.