In a Sea of Grief, Compassionate Connection Can Be a Lifeboat
Columnist Christie Patient shares ways to support someone who is grieving
Greetings from Griefville. This column comes in three parts.
Part 1: Grief is the worst
Five years ago, I lost my cousin Charlie to lung cancer. He went to the emergency room with what he thought was pneumonia, and six weeks later, he was gone. It was a cold, dark January that lasted about 300 years.
A few months after his death, my mom, Holly, was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. After several years of declining health and uncertain diagnoses, she finally had answers — and a poor prognosis. By the end of the year, she would be in the ICU fighting for her life.
Thanks to a bilateral lung transplant, my mom survived. But I experienced a lot of trauma and loss in a short period of time, and the grief weighed heavy on my heart. Only over the last two years have I finally started to feel like I was having more good days than bad.
And then, I lost a close friend to a car accident at the end of August.
Grief is nasty stuff. Sticky, caustic, volatile, suffocating, disfiguring stuff. A trauma like the one I am experiencing right now releases grief in tsunami fashion. It is so overwhelming that sometimes there are no words. It can feel like drowning.
The grief of living with a progressive chronic illness is more like a drippy faucet in the heart that can’t be fixed. It’s slower and more predictable but composed of the same material. It is constant. If you try to plug the faucet, it’s going to come out sideways eventually or flood your house.
Regular acknowledgment and processing of the grief, both in private and with others, is vital to stay afloat.
Part 2: It can be made worse
In 2020, I wrote a column meant to help people better support someone through a crisis or grief. To summarize, we first need to use our imagination to empathize with the person. From empathy, we are better able to see what might be helpful to say or do.
I talked about how platitudes are not helpful. Platitudes are familiar phrases or sentiments that are intended as quick comfort but feel shallow and dismissive. They often assume a grieving person’s experiences or beliefs, and instead of being comforting, they can be invalidating and isolating.
Part 3: It can be made better, even if only temporarily
Since I devoted so many words to platitudes in my previous column, I’d like to devote more words here to things that might actually help someone who’s grieving. You’re the only one who can judge what’s appropriate in your relationships, so adjust the following to fit.
Don’t assume they want to be left alone. We often hold back so that we are not a nuisance to someone who is grieving. We know they dread the question, “How are you?” So sometimes, instead of finding another way to start a conversation, we say nothing.
We can probe in gentler ways. My best friend recently sent a text that said, “Just thinking about you. What’s the weather like inside your heart today?” It was the perfect way to check in. I knew that I wasn’t alone in that moment, and her question allowed me to connect my internal experience to nature through metaphor.
Ask them if they would like to talk about their loss. Sometimes it can be helpful to voice the specific things we are grieving. In the case of chronic illness, this could look like abilities that we are losing as we get sicker. It could be future plans we’d made or goals we have to give up. It might be time spent in certain places or with people we love. Especially with COVID-19, a lot of us are sacrificing group activities or time spent with our community to prioritize our health.
Affirm their pain. Tell them, “I hear you; I see you.” Remember that you don’t understand their loss. Even if you are grieving the same thing or person, your grief is unique to each of you. Say, “I can’t understand, but I can try to imagine your pain.”
If nothing else? Just be there. To borrow language from my friend, the poet Jess Janz, hold space for “all of the unsayable things/ … speak in the/ language of nearness since/ there aren’t words, always, for things.”
Be brave enough to be present with someone’s pain. It’s OK if you don’t know what to say, you just have to bear witness. You can say, “I am comfortable sitting in silence with you if you don’t want to talk about it. I might not know what to say, either, but I am with you.”
Try these the next time you have a friend in need, or send this to someone who’s supporting you in your grief.
Note: Pulmonary Fibrosis News is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Pulmonary Fibrosis News or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to pulmonary fibrosis.