Dealing with emotions, especially grief, is a difficult topic and one that many want to avoid.
Yet we want to be able to help support those around us who are going through difficult emotions.
These last many months have made all of us vulnerable. COVID-19 has brought about a collective sense of grief from multiple losses – losses of our old way of living, a sense of stability, loss of loved ones, jobs, and plans. And then there is the anxiety of the unknown.
In a fascinating article called “Overcoming your fear of emotions”, Nancy Colier talks the importance of acknowledging all of our feelings, even the ones we don’t like.1
But why would we want to help others acknowledge these feelings?
“When we uplift others, we are ourselves uplifted“
I recently finished reading a book called “I am a girl from Africa” written by Elizabeth Nyamayaro.2
This inspirational journey begins with the author as a child, starving and near death during a drought, when a United Nations worker saved her life by offering her a bowl of warm porridge.
Elizabeth writes about a central definitive African value and philosophy that guides her – that when we lift others up, we are uplifted too (pg. 248).
As the story unfolds, she later becomes a senior advisor at the United Nations and for two decades has been helping others, just as she herself was once helped.
We too will be uplifted when we encourage others to share their stories.
The consequences of unexpressed emotions
According to Dr. Northrup, a specialist in women’s health, many illnesses are quite simply the end result of emotions that have been unacknowledged and unexperienced for years.
She states that unexpressed emotions tend to ‘stay’ in the body like small ticking time bombs—like illnesses in incubation.
Dr. Edward Creagan, an oncologist at the Mayo Clinic, talks about the importance of expressing our strong emotions, such as grief.2
According to Dr. Creagan unresolved grief can surface years later as headaches, relationship issues, intestinal problems, mental health difficulties, eating disorders, and chemical dependency.3
Expressing our emotions? A terrifying prospect
But if opening up and talking about emotions, or encouraging others to do that sounds terrifying to you, you are not alone.
We have all been hurt—and had emotional upsets in our lives that makes us feel vulnerable. There are no exceptions, it happens to everyone. And the result for some is to put up walls.
The so-called “easy” emotions such as joy or amazement are not usually as complicated. Grief is harder to express for most.
A gentle approach
Pema Chödrön is an American Buddhist nun who has written several books on this topic. Her book called “The Places that Scare You” explores the fact that being emotionally supportive takes great bravery and kindness.4
She suggests that we try a gentle approach to dismantling the walls we put up to protect ourselves. And others.
Her key message is that we don’t need to tear down all the walls at once, or as she puts it…“go at them with a sledgehammer”. One step at a time and a gentle approach is the most effective.
When we are trying to help others, it can be challenging to know what to say next. Especially when the emotions are sadness, around the topic of dying, or when someone is angry or in distress.
Everyone needs opportunities to talk about their feelings and I have often seen in my own work how desperate people are to share sadness or grief. Just because these are the so-called taboo topics, we often assume that no one wants to talk about it, but they do.
Residents in senior living, for example, often don’t want to burden their families by sharing what is going on for them, and tend to hold it all in.
3 simple ways to support someone who is grieving
For it is in giving that we receive. — St. Francis of Assisi.
What can we say to comfort someone who is grieving? Here are three suggestions:5
- Acknowledge that they are sad and express your concern. Don’t let your concerns about saying the wrong thing, stop you. Try something like: “I see that you are sad—what you are going through must be so hard.” Avoid saying “I understand” as that sometimes backfires.
- Offer support and be genuine. Try saying something like this:
“I’m here to listen. I don’t know what to say, but I want you to know I care.”
- Encourage sharing but never force it. Start with a small easy step: Ask: “Do you feel like talking about it?”
Your comfort and support can make all the difference.
Learning to “Stay”
Staying emotionally present though, can be a challenge. In chapter 4, Chödrön writes about learning to stay.5 Learning how to stay means staying present emotionally even while those we are supporting are grieving.
We may have some tears ourselves. It happens to me often, but we need to take care not to make it about us.
It can be very difficult to witness other people’s emotions. It can make us want to run for the hills. Pema writes: “We should never underestimate our inclination to bolt when we are feeling uncomfortable.”
Being alive means that we won’t always feel good. Life is messy. Staying is an ability to be steadfast with ourselves and with others when emotions come up. It can be as simple as taking a deep breath and saying nothing.
We don’t run, we stay present with all of it. Easier said than done, but worth doing.
2 Northrup, C. (1998). Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom. New York, NY: Bantam Books.
3 Creagan, E. T. Grief: A Mayo Clinic Doctor Confronts Painful Emotions. MayoClinic.com. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/grief/HQ00771. Accessed January 13, 2020.
4 Chödrön, P. (2002). The places that scare you. Boulder, CO: Shambhala Publications.