When someone close to us is experiencing grief, our instinctive desire is to comfort them. However, providing the right kind of support without doing or saying the wrong thing can feel like negotiating a minefield of inner conflict and confusion. What do I say, what shall I do? Shall I call or text? Do I talk about their child or loved one who’s been injured or has passed? Do I send flowers or a fruit basket? Shall I tell them about my experience with grief or my research into neuroplasticity? We’re not that close anymore, do they even want to hear from me?
I wonder, can you fully understand empathy without having experienced some sort of personal trauma? Is empathy reserved only for the heartbroken or highly-trained? I don’t think so. But it certainly takes personal bravery to harness your inner vulnerability and sit beside us in our cold, dark chasm of grief under our drizzling cloud of sadness and be there. Just be. Just sit. Just listen.
I have sat deep in my own dark chasm. I have felt the torrential pouring of a grief so extraordinary I knew I would drown as I gasped for air and my body shivered from shock, exhaustion and terrifying helplessness.
My personal puddle of grief is visited more infrequently these days. By no means has it dried up and I know it never will but, as time passes, I thankfully find myself spending more time out in the open, face to the sun and my arms open to our present and our future.
But there it waits, my little puddle of grief and empathy.
I’ve read possibly hundreds of articles about what it is that allows you to be a positive and supportive force in someone’s life who is in trauma. There are endless lists available advising us to say this, don’t say that, do this, don’t do that. I have found two ideas that I have connected with and that guide me when someone I know is in the centre of a personal trauma.
In the Ring Theory published in the LA Times, Susan Silk, a clinical psychologist, explains how we should provide only comfort and support to those who are closer to the person at the centre of the trauma than we are and to dump any feelings of frustration or fear out to people who are further away from the trauma than us.
Comfort IN, dump OUT.
And my personal favourite is this animated video depicting the insightful Brene Brown’s explanation of empathy. This is also the inspiration for my visualisation of my puddle of grief in the dark chasm.
I believe that in order to be of real comfort and support to someone in trauma, we need to sit next to them in their puddle, hold their hand and be there with them. Later on, we can tell our partner or a friend who is further removed from the trauma than us about how cold that puddle was or how scared we feel. Only then can we dump OUT.
Having personally experienced intense personal trauma and the aftermath of grief, I have also been on the receiving end of support and people’s personal conflict with how to provide this to us. I have felt the confusing obligation to comfort others as they dumped in to J and I.
But I am also fortunate to have a number of people in my circle of support who aren’t afraid to connect with their vulnerability, to find their personal puddle of grief and to then come and sit with me in my dark chasm. And they aren’t afraid to stay there for as long as I need them to. They persist with their care and support without any expectation of acknowledgement from me.
They are my pillars who have allowed me to slowly look beyond my personal grief and cautiously tip toe back into the world. They are also my enduring comfort when I need to retreat back into my chasm.
Hopefully, after all I have experienced and learnt, I will be brave enough to pay it forward. Brave enough to connect with my puddle of grief and with my arm around you, my friend, retreat into your chasm and be with you. Just be. Just sit. Just listen.