Matt, I swear if one more person tells me that “I know just how you feel” or “God needed another angel” or that your death was “meant to be,” I won’t be responsible for my bad behavior.
Letters for Grace: One Mother’s Journey
We’ve all been there: stunned by one of life’s seemingly unfair and unpredictable twists and turns . . . in that place where we simply have no words – to comfort, to understand, to heal, or to just make it all go away. Those are the times I’ve discovered I need to take a deep breath, step back, and let gracious stillness speak for me. With no expectation of how I’m going to either fix someone dear to me, or repair a despairing situation, I finally understand that my role is to be a companion, a witness, walking with another in their profound loss.
I knew my friend was feeling too tired and depressed, too angry, too confused to find the energy to put one foot in front of the other, so it was uncomfortable, at first, for both of us. Even though we’re friends, neither of us knows quite what to expect in this situation. He sits quietly, tears beginning to fill his eyes, waiting for me to do or say what he expects I’ve come to say or do, and then leave him alone. I’ve already thought about how I might begin this first, tender conversation, and so I start. Our time together that day is private, but I can share what I didn’t say or do. I think that’s the message I’m meant to give.
It was my own profound loss that finally helped me grasp the fact that irreconcilable change, loss and their accompanying grief leave us in places that are so situational and uniquely personal that they defy business as usual – our most routine and conventional interactions with the bereaved. There was a time when I did not understand what that meant. So, when those I cared about faced unbelievable loss and I wanted to be available to help, to let them know how much their loss touched me, I expressed my sympathy by repeating the same familiar clichés I had memorized over the years. And though not one generous griever ever told me to . . . please, just be still, I expect many wanted to.
I now understand that choosing to interact with those living in profound loss is a commitment to walking, without assumptions, into their sacred space. That truth requires me to stop and think before I speak, and to enter that tender place with no expectations, because what I say and do in this space is elemental, significant, and too often remembered.
It took me a while to accept that someone I knew and cared about, the one I was about to hug and have conversation with, was no longer the same person he or she was the minute before profound loss entered and turned their life upside down. There is absolutely no way to fix, or back out of that irreversible fact. Real life shifted irrevocably for my friend, my neighbor, my loved one, my colleague, and that reality can never return to its former shape.
These past few months I’ve been listening to and talking with a variety of people who wanted to ask me some deeply personal questions about interacting within the landscape of grieving. Those with whom I’ve had some of these conversations shared a common frustration. They talked of their experiences with well-meaning friends and supporters who felt the need to say something of comfort and then hurry along, and to fill any silences with advice and platitudes. Some of the most significant statements I’ve heard are: “I guess they’re so uncomfortable because I’m not the old me;” and “They don’t get that my experience can’t be compared to theirs;” and “Everybody just wants to fix me.”
There is as much grace in knowing how not to respond in the midst of a grief situation as there is in understanding what is most helpful to say and do. Recently my partnering friends at the 3Hopeful Hearts organization sent me to a workshop with Alan Wolfelt, noted grief counselor, author, and director of The Center for Loss and Life Transition in Fort Collins, Colorado. What I encountered at this workshop added new depth to the collected wisdom about grief and grace I had compiled to write one of the essays in my latest book, Finding Grace: journeys of grief, courage and healing. I can characterize this vital addition to my own understanding with one word: Companioning.
To be a companion, a loving witness to the grieving journey of another, is to be grace in a despairing life. Companions:
are a place of safety
are content to accept silence and listen with their minds and hearts
never assume they know what someone wants or needs to hear
stay available without probing for details or offering advice
never presume they obviously understand what another is feeling
allow emotions into conversations without intellectualizing another’s pain
know they have neither the responsibility nor the ability to fix their companion’s grief
Though I, like you, have lived as a griever, these delicate, powerful encounters with others are not about me. As a willing companion, I choose to act in service to another, to allow the mercy, balance and peace of heartfelt stillness speak through me as the gentle, loving presence of grace – intentionally standing by.
About the Author
Jane Nicolet is an Illinois native. Raised by parents in a small Midwestern town near the banks of the Mississippi, she grew up on a diet of sweet corn, church music, the beauty of a slow-moving river and believing one must always finish what she starts. Personally, Nicolet’s pursuits have always included family time, as well as a mix of music, theater, physical activity and ample space for reading and writing. She earned an English Education Bachelor’s and a Master’s in Speech Communication. Professionally, over her 30-plus-year career, Nicolet has facilitated learning opportunities in public secondary school and university settings, as well as for adults in various settings.
Nicolet has published two books, each highlighting the interconnections of grief and grace: Letters for Grace, her memoir, and Finding Grace: journeys of grief, courage and healing. An author, editor and speaker, she presently lives and writes in Fort Collins, Colorado. To contact Jane, please visit her website, www.janenicoletauthor.com. Messages are welcome.