I hear many stories of traumatic loss and profound sadness, often so deep that nothing I say could make any real difference. It’s a challenge not to take it on and try somehow to help fix or make it better for them.
I’ve come to understand that the best I can do is to simply offer a safe nonjudgmental space that can bear witness to their pain. To be a caring presence offering unconditional acceptance of their person and sorrow, exactly where they are without trying to fix or change it.
Many tell me how hard it is when people try to give answers, telling them how to grieve; or how disconnected and awkward they feel when others simply turn away from their pain, changing the subject to something more cheerful so they won’t hurt so much. To tolerate that much pain with them is a real gift we can offer at such a difficult time.
That awareness has been so freeing for me. Not only that I don’t do anything to fix, but in leaving space there’s room for movement, their grief shifts and there’s room for something new to be created. Space leaves room for the sacred and divine rather than my agenda, my solutions.
It’s always a risk for me to trust that creative process, but at a very real level it’s letting them know I trust in their ability to heal and find their own way. In that space of safety and care, sadness becomes more bearable, often shifting to something transformative. Bearing witness to that transformation is energizing and restorative for them as well as for me.
In groups, my job is to ensure a safe space, a container to hold the pain. They find strength in being together, realizing that they are not alone and that their crazy-making symptoms of grief don’t necessarily make them crazy. That in itself lowers anxiety. Groups are a safe space to honor their grief, to honor their loved one, to pause and honor this life-defining time in their lives.
I often remind the group not to take anyone else’s grief home. That yes, we share and bear one another’s grief, but that each of us must ultimately carry our own load, and take responsibility for our own healing.
And so it is for me, as facilitator, and for us as caregivers; we don’t take anyone else’s grief home; we are simply companions, offering support and courage because it’s their work to do, not ours.
As they work and space is given, I watch and bear witness to their story changing. I often ask them what’s hard or what’s changing for them.
One gal came to Parent Group one evening. Noticing she had a lighter expression than the deep sadness she usually carried, I wondered if anyone had sensed a shift.
She shared how her sister had insisted she come visit her across the world. She had no energy or motivation as she described herself “being only in her own tunnel” of profound sadness that she could see no way out of since the traumatic loss of her son.
At her sister’s insistence, she took the trip across the world to a completely different space.
Her sister had booked a river cruise where she found herself out in the middle of an open sky, a beautiful river, and a place of extreme beauty in nature.
For the first time since her son’s death, she had a sense of his presence, stirring within her a deep and profound peace that he was OK and that somehow, he was with her.
She sensed a shift deep inside of her like she could go on and live. She heard an inaudible voice say that she can “accept what’s good in life,” and she knew this was good.
Since that experience, she is allowing herself to live outside of her “tunnel of grief.” Feeling lighter inside, her mantra waking up each day is now, “Accept the good that comes to you today.”
It’s stories like this that sustain and nurture me in my work and give me the wherewithal to continue simply offering “space and presence.”
Celeste Miller, MA, LPC, Porter Loring Bereavement Coordinator