It may just be perception due to the rise of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, but it seems like the world is experiencing a lot of loss. Terrorism, high profile suicides, and other seemingly hard to explain events have us wondering what’s to come next. In the wake of these events, we are left reeling with questions that may not have answers. How do we support those who have lost what they cherish most: their friends, family or co-workers?
Provide people with the tools they need to process grief in their own way.
Recently, I read a wonderful biography of Johnny Cash, written by Robert Hilburn. While Cash’s career spanned many decades, an interesting thing happened toward the end of his life; he created some of the best and most influential music of his career. This was a challenging time, with his health and the health of his wife, June Carter Cash, deteriorating. Once June passed away, he was emotionally and physically devastated. Some days he was too ill to speak or leave his bed. Often, he could no longer play guitar, but when he could, he was in the recording studio. Cash found the way to deal with the loss and pain he felt was by working and creating music. A who’s who of musicians and producers came in to help make it happen. They realized the importance of those recordings to Cash, and wanted to support him with his mission. Those last recordings are truly an amazing listen. Cash’s gravelly and, at times, unsteady voice lends a sincerity to the words that is unparalleled. Nobody told Johnny Cash to record after his wife died; he did what he what he wanted and needed to do.
A recent example of helping people process grief came in response to the terrorist attack in Manchester at the Ariana Grande concert. In short order, thousands come together for another concert. We saw the government, police, other artists, and the public asking, “what can we do to help you make it happen?” Nobody dictated to the fans or Ms. Grande how they should process their grief; they listened, asked questions, and supported.
Human beings have a great ability to process experiences, often with minimal guidance. The more we push or guide, the more resistance we find. Supporting someone who is grieving is an exercise in providing the support they need to navigate the challenge, without overstepping our role. A key concept in most all forms of psychotherapy is active listening. Note that the key word is listening. Doing this allows the opportunity for a patient to work through problems in their own way, without overt direction or influence from the therapist. If guidance is asked for, it is provided. But we don’t lead with the assumption that the patient doesn’t know what she/he needs.
What about those situations where the person is so affected they can’t process their experience; such as those with an acute exacerbation of a mental health condition become very obviously incapacitated, or turn to maladaptive behaviors to cope (alcohol, drugs or reckless behavior). In those circumstances, we may take a more active role initially, to ensure the safety and stability of the individual. At that point, we need to again empower the individual to find their way forward. The innate ability never leaves, even if it becomes temporarily overshadowed by other issues.
We all have a role in supporting those who are grieving around us. Remain mindful of what that role is, and how we can help people find their own pathway to healing.