By: Eric Betts
We are living in a time of unprecedented grief and death due to the coronavirus pandemic. We cannot underestimate the toll that these incomprehensible numbers of sickness and death have upon our collective psyche. It is reported that 800,000 people have lost their lives in the United States due to COVID-19. It has been projected that more than one-million people will have passed away by the middle of 2022. Everyone knows someone who has passed away due the prevalence of this horrible virus. Millions have lost several family members in the course of a pandemic that has lasted nearly two years. Much advice is given concerning ways to protect yourself from the virus in order to stay healthy. On the other hand, very little is given about how to live in an atmosphere full of grief and sadness. The question may be asked, “How do I encourage others who grieve, when I am constantly grieving?” Although, this is extremely difficult, it is possible to both grieve and to be present for those who are grieving. Understand that it is not as important for you to encourage others as it is for you to be relatable to others. If you are grieving, you are better qualified to be a great listener to those who grieve. You will have a greater level of empathy and possess a more comforting presence than those who are not presently grieving.
Many make the mistake of assuming that what grieving persons need most is to be cheered up or distracted from their sense of loss. What is often not understood by those who seek to comfort bereaved friends is that the grieving one needs to get to the bottom of their sense of loss rather than forgetting about it. Additionally, it is often the case that friends avoid their grieving loved ones due to not being able to find the right encouraging words. It should be realized that while encouragement has its place, it is often given when it is least appropriate. Encouraging colloquialisms which are designed to get people to cheer up seldom helps. Such statements including, “Look on the bright side; they are no longer suffering,” or “They are now in a better place,” does not eliminate the painful desire to have the person back immediately in their lives. The grieving one should not unwittingly be made to feel that there is something wrong with feeling sad or feeling the need to cry. In a noble effort to encourage, the encouraging words expressed can come across as lacking empathy. Expressions such as, “Hang in there,” “Keep your head up,” or “You have so much to be thankful for,” can seem encouraging in the moment but is not comforting for those who need to grieve. It sometimes gives the impression that it is abnormal to shed tears or feel unbearably hurt by the loss. To wish that a person not grieve is often due to the observer’s awkwardness in viewing such pain, more than consideration for the hurting one.
Human beings are physiologically designed to grieve. Therefore, we have tear ducts. Crying, sadness, and even anger are each a part of healing from the hurt of the loss. You should not feel ashamed or apologetic that you are grieving and shedding tears. Those you have loved are worth every single tear you will ever shed for them upon their death. Grieving is healthy, whereas stifling or holding back grief is unhealthy.
Another aspect of grief is feeling guilt for having intermittent happy or joyful moments. Also, there are those who feel a sense of guilt if they are not grieving at the same level as other friends who have lost loved ones. Grieving is not always a constant twenty-four-hour state of mind. It is important to understand that people grieve in different ways. Some grieve over many weeks while others may grieve during certain quiet moments throughout their year. A book you may read, a house you may see, or a song you hear, may remind you of your loved one and allow you a moment to grieve. In most cases, it is more helpful to allow those who have suffered loss to grieve instead of taking their minds off what they are going through. Those who are grieving should not be embarrassed or made to feel as though they are abnormal because they grieve too much or too often. It is the “Why-don’t-you-get-over-it-now-it’s-been-two-years” mindset that is abnormal and unfeeling. While the exact words are not expressed, body language can often come across this way.
If you desire to be a comforter to those who grieve, you should support them and simply help them to take whatever time they need to grieve. The most important thing is to be present rather than give advice. Some questions from grieving friends are not actually questions, but they are simply expressing their feelings. The friend of the grieving one should understand this. Additionally, one may assume that a person is not grieving because there are not any visible signs. They can smile on the outside while hurting on the inside. Don’t assume they are okay because they appear to be strong. Be thoughtful enough to check up on the bereaved friend regularly after the funeral. Learn how to be an ear. The less you say is better. Find ways to show you care. Grief also happens due to divorce, the loss of a job, being turned down for a position, or in the case of the pandemic, lost time. This is important to remember when friends around you suffer major losses. In any case, make them feel that they are not strange because they grieve, but that you are there to support them as long as it takes.
By: Eric Betts
Assistant Director, Curtis Coleman Center for Religious Studies and Ethics at Athens State University