It’s hard to know what to do or say when someone you love is grieving, or even how to help others when you are all grieving together. And if you love someone who is knowingly coming to the end of life, it can be even more difficult. In most times of trouble, we try to find solutions, offer aid, solve the problem, but these are not problems that can be solved. What can you do when there is nothing to be done that can change the reality of loss?
Life coach and grief counselor Judith Johnson gives hope and help for these times in her lovely Huffington Post article, “The Power of Bearing Witness.” By “bearing witness,” she means giving one’s presence and attention without judgment. Just witnessing someone’s experience, being there for them, often without saying a word, validates what they’re feeling and who they are in that moment. Johnson gives examples of people who have been there for others during trying times: a terminal illness, and the loss of a child. Just being present, having the courage and love to simply be with someone in a trying time, made all the difference.
We’ve seen this, too. A friend once told us how anxious he was when his mother, who was dying of cancer, asked him to read to her from her favorite book. He worried about every scene he read, wondering if it was too dark or too ordinary, or somehow not just the right thing, because, “It could be the last thing she hears.” Then he realized what his mother really wanted: just for the last thing she heard to be him, her beloved son. It was.
We’ve told you about The Moyer Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to comforting children in severe distress, in our post on resources for dealing with grief. Their web site quotes campers from Camp Erin, their network of summer camps for children grieving the death of a loved one. The best thing about camp, the kids say, is that everyone knows what they are going through, so they are free to be themselves, to fully feel and express whatever is happening for them at any given moment. They can let loose and have fun without fearing that someone will see them as heartless, but they can also cry or grieve or take some quiet time, without having to put on a perky façade.
Perhaps the greatest gift for a grieving person of any age is to allow them to be who they truly are, to laugh, to cry, to feel whatever comes. Just staying with them, bearing witness, and letting them know that their true, authentic feelings are valid and accepted can make all the difference. If you want to help, but you don’t know what to do or what to say, just be there. Your very presence is a powerful comforting force.