by Beth Rotondo
In grief, the heart is traumatized. Everything it knew for sure is thrown up in the air, unanchored, grasping for familiarity. The mind is also traumatized. It looks for answers, for sureness, for the past, for right and wrong. This confusing and tumultuous time is what people who are grieving experience moment by moment, day by day, week by week, month by month. It is exhausting, constantly changing, overwhelming and frightening. This may seem “dramatic” to someone who hasn’t experienced a significant loss. Many people find it strange that the griever is “still” grieving after all this time, and the griever may feel those same feelings. People want to help and there are various ways to do that. One of the simplest and most profound ways is listening. Listening and love… both require a suspension of ourselves, our beliefs, our conclusions, our perceptions, our words. Both create an experience that is beyond definition, beyond words and perceptions. When we listen, truly and deeply listen, we create a union of spirit. We allow someone’s life, someone’s happiness and pain, to enter our spirit, without judgment or agenda. When we suspend our desire to help, change or solve “the problem”, we allow ourselves to listen to words and feelings rather than think of what we can say in response.
Let me give you two samples of a listening conversation. One helpful, the other not so helpful.
Hello, how are you?
What are you doing?
I just went shopping. You should see the sales out there. Why don’t we go tomorrow?
I don’t feel like it.
Why not? You should get out more. You can’t stay in the house all the time. It’s not good for you.
Silence. I’m not sleeping very well.
Why don’t you take something? Are you taking anything?
Why not? Call your doctor and he’ll prescribe something for you. When my Dad died my doctor gave me some pills whenever I wanted them.
I just keep thinking about what happened. I can’t believe it sometimes.
You have to stop thinking about it. It doesn’t do any good. You’re going to make yourself sick.
I’m not sick. I just miss him so terribly. I don’t know what to do.
Keep busy. Volunteer. You know, other people have gotten over this, you will too.
I don’t think I’ll ever get over this.
Yes, you will. You’re strong. I got over my Dad’s death.
But that’s different. He was your Dad. This is my husband.
Death is something we all have to deal with.
But I don’t want to deal with it. I want him back.
Hello, how are you?
You sound a little tired
I’m not sleeping very well
I wake up early and then I can’t fall back asleep.
What are you thinking about?
What happened. I can’t believe it. I can hardly say it.
This must be so hard for you.
It’s unbelievable. I think I’m going to die from the pain. I can hardly stand it.
Where does it hurt?
My shoulders, my stomach, my heart. It feels like one big knot.
Are you eating?
Not really. I can’t stop crying. Sometimes I’m afraid I’m going to get fired from my job. I keep going to the bathroom so people won’t see me.
I’m sorry for you. How bout I come over and bring some soup for you tomorrow.
You don’t have to do that.
I want to. You’re hurting so bad, at least let me do this little thing for you.
OK. You know I can’t tell many people how I really feel. They’ll think I’m crazy or something.
You’re not crazy. Everything feels all wrong and confused now. I’ll be here for you, as long as it takes.
In the first example, although the listener is caring and trying to be helpful, they are giving advice. Notice how the griever defends her/his feelings. The listener is not receiving much information about how the griever feels. The listener wants to solve the problem.
In the second example, there is an openness to understand the experience of the person who is grieving. The listener speaks less, which provides the griever the space to discover his or her own words. They stand together without judgment or agenda. The listener is allowing the griever to feel the feelings. Give sorrow words, as Shakespeare said.
Many times, people in grief do not know what they need. We may want to be taken care of and yet we resent feeling vulnerable. It is a roller-coaster ride. Listening to someone who is grieving can be a roller coaster ride also.
When we enter into a relationship, it is sacred space. When we listen to someone in grief, that space is also sacred. The listener is the invited guest. The wounded heart is tender and fragile. When we listen with respect, we allow the heart to feel understood. It needs reassurance, relief and love. Tread lightly…wounds are deep and words are often misunderstood. The greatest gift we can give someone in grief is to be a witness in their journey toward wholeness. When we accept them as they are, vulnerable, broken, complicated and sometimes difficult, we give them our presence that speaks volumes: You are not alone, there is hope. They then can continue on their own journey towards peace and healing.
About the Author: Beth Rotondo has worked in the Bereavement field for the past 30+ yrs. She became involved in this field because of her own personal losses. Beth worked in Hospice as a volunteer and Bereavement coordinator and facilitator of support groups for Young Widow and Widowers. Beth is the author of two books, Threads of Hope: An offering for Those Who Grieve and The Big Chair: The Story of Grief and Discovery.