Do’s and Don’ts Around People Who Are Wounded And Reeling

L’Absinthe by Edgar Degas

I was thumbing through the journal I kept during the hospice years and came across this entry:  [Identifiers have been changed BTW.]

“Gertie was visibly shaken yesterday.  Her mom’s youngest brother, aged 94, died this past weekend and, as she stared down at the coffee table she told me, “I’m afraid she’ll go now, too.  She’s the last one you know.”   Grammy’s appetite has been off and Gertie doesn’t think she’s eating enough to survive.

She’s not.

All the other times when Grammy was going through one of her diminished-appetite spells, Gertie would worry and I would try to gently explain that loss of appetite is natural toward the end.  But she always acknowledged and dismissed the fact simultaneously.

The truth is she’s just not ready to lose her mom and I’m now beginning to suspect she never will be.  Watching her yesterday—the way she stared off into nothingness as she spoke, eyes turned inward, searching and frightened—I wondered how long she’ll survive herself, once her mother is gone.  I even wondered if she’d go first. [Gertie was 83 at the time.]  For such a strong, stubborn, tenacious woman she is remarkably fragile underneath it all.

And quite ill herself.

So yesterday I said nothing.  Didn’t ask her, “Are you ready for this?” Or say, “You know Gertie, she may be getting ready to go now.”  Of course she knows.  Shock is already starting to creep in, an early mist rising to help shield her from the unbearable loss lying just ahead.  Instead I just sat there, as still as I could.  Quiet.  Listening.  Trying to catch and contain as many of her scattering pieces as I could.

I didn’t want to move or breathe or do anything to disturb the tendrils of mist gathering around her.   She is so achingly delicate.”

As I read it all came back to me in a rush; how grieving people (and those who are catastrophically ill or dying) are sacred.  The wounding and shock caused by any kind of profound loss makes a person vulnerable; and a society’s traditional job is to close ranks around them, shielding them until they have a chance to stop reeling and reorient.  To get through the worst of it and find their footing again.

In older times this understanding of the sacredness of those in deep grief was fairly common, but I think we may have grown a little fuzzy about it since then.

Although…I do think most people still feel this sacredness instinctively.  I often see it in the awkward pause that happens after someone confides they’ve lost a loved one, or that they have a catastrophic illness.  The person receiving the news is usually aware that something huge just fell out of the sky right in front of them, but they frequently appear confused as to what they’re supposed to do about it.

So even though I frequently fail to follow these myself (they’re appropriate…not easy) here are a few of the Do’s and Don’ts about how to interact with a person who, through no fault of their own, has become temporarily sacred:

The DO’s:

1)  Do no harm.  The disorientation of the deeply wounded is the emotional equivalent of a compromised immune system.  Even if they try joking about it or brushing it off as embarrassing, remember that their shields have taken a hit and are not functioning properly.  Be gentler, be kinder, be slower, be quieter.

2)  Do acknowledge their wounding.  Go ahead and be silent for a moment, then look at them (really look at them…don’t shuffle your feet and look at anything else but) and say I’m sorry.  Then be quiet again. That’s it. This is the traditional ceremonial acknowledgement of wounding in our culture and, when genuine, it’s enough.  Even if it’s been years since their loss took place, it’s still okay to say this.  You’d be amazed how long some wounds can last.

3)  Do follow their lead.  If they feel like talking about it and you have time, then listen.  (Listening is actually one of the greatest gifts you can give.  People usually need to tell the story of what happened, or is happening, multiple times in order to coax events out of the weird, limbo world of shock and back into practical reality where they can harness and deal with it.)

On the other hand, if they don’t want to talk about it, then it’s okay to let it go.  They don’t have to.

And if, as is often the case, they don’t know what to say and stumble around awkwardly searching for words, then just be quiet and patient while they figure it out.  Let them know you’re fine with awkward. Wounded people are bewildered and need extra time. Giving it to them willingly is like encircling them with a protective charm.

Which leads us to the final Do:

4)  Do be willing to be silent.  Sometimes words just aren’t big enough and, in that case, compassionate silence says everything necessary.

Then there are The DON’Ts:

1)  Don’t give advice unless specifically asked.   Everyone has to find their own way through this one.

2)  Don’t abandon or ignore them.  Even if you feel awkward or uncertain yourself, being willing to stay anyway is worth it’s weight in gold. Wounded people already feel a little disembodied and unconnected.  Ignoring them could make this experience chronic or permanent.

3)  But Don’t rub their noses in it either.  Everyone grapples with grief and loss differently and if they prefer to deal with their emotions privately, then respect their ability to know what they need most.

4)  And finally, Don’t try to save them from their task.  You can’t…and it’s not necessary anyway.  Wounded people are vulnerable, not incompetent.  Believe in them. The journey of illness and loss is hard but it can be strangely deepening, too, and those who navigate it with courage and grace enrich us all.  It’s more than worth our while to give them whatever help they need.

copyright Dia Osborn 2011

8 responses

  1. This is one of your really important posts, Dia. I don’t know anyone who feels comfortable about being in the presence of loss. That awkward pause…

    I particularly appreciate the advice to look directly at the grieving person and to embrace silence, if silence seems to be “there.” I always find myself searching for the proper words of comfort. The ones that come to my mind, are often completely inappropriate: “He/she is in a better place” or some such drivel. I must remind myself that “I’m sorry” is short but probably all that really matters.

    Thanks. You can’t say stuff like this often enough.

    • It’s amazing how uncomfortable silence can feel, isn’t it? And yet so much of the real communication takes place there, if we can only be patient enough. I struggle all the time with the feeling like I need to say something when I really don’t. I’ve been a veritable fountain of drivel at times.

  2. I would add something to the list too dia..

    DONT beat yourself up if you get one of these steps wrong!

    So many people thatbare trying to help at this time so so in perhaps the wrong way…hopefully they will realise their mistakes, but heavens please tell em not to be hard on themselves…

    We all judge things slightly wrong at these times….it’s the way of the world x

    • A great and valuable point John. That fear of making a mistake (and perhaps increasing the pain of someone who’s already suffering enough) is a reason why a lot of people are so afraid of being around them to begin with. It’s far better to try and be supportive and perhaps make a mistake, than it is to abandon someone entirely to go through it alone!

  3. It’s a sign of the times these days with the need to hurry people along with grief and not let it get in the way or inconvienience others with it.

    I’ve experienced this with family members who have lost close relatives and almost seem to cause irritation to some people that they have not ‘got over it’ after a relatively short space of time.

    Reading your sensitive insights into counselling, I can see why you do what you do.x

    • That’s a great insight, Chris. The general reluctance to allow room for grieving does seem to be linked to time and our lack of these days. We’re already packed to the gills and don’t have any margin left over for anything else. It’s cruel to watch it in action though, as it sounds like has happened with some of your family members. The sense of isolation it causes for those already grappling with a deep wound is not good for any of us.

  4. Adding to what Chris said,
    Our society is so untrained in what greif looks, feels and even smells like. Like throwing up, we will do all we can to keep from that experience, yet when we purge the poisons in our gut, we feel better than in a long time. Learning that on the other side of these deep grief’s is pure Bliss, Peace, Love and Happiness is one of the great gifts given in life.
    But like Chris said, we tend to scab over our wounds instead of healing from the inside out. I see this often when I am on the east coast. All I have to do is mention 9-11 and the healing process unfolds. As you mentioned Dia, “telling the story” is a healing mechanism and giving people the scacred space to tell their story is a great gift. Sometimes, the story has to be told enough times, that the healer finally gets tire of telling it…signaling it is done. Like all great gifts, the person giving recieves as much, if not more than the reciepient.
    Great post…thanks for bringing this one for us, and all….

    • Yes, then there are the big group wounds. I think in some ways that’s a little easier as there are others sharing the loss and so no one feels quite as alone. Hopefully. Although there have been a couple times when I found myself sitting next to people on planes who were in New York on 9/11 and you’re right, the stories just keep pouring out again. However long it takes, we need to keep listening.

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