This post was last updated on March 5th, 2019
This is for the friends. The co-workers. The lovers. The family.
This is for you. I promise this is not a “10 things to never do or say” article. I’m not going to attack you. Instead, I’m inviting you to consider the power and the secret weapon of empathy — the only real gift you can give to a grieving mother.
You have a bereaved mother in your life. And you have exhausted your phrases, and have no idea how to help. Or maybe you’ve kept your distance because you don’t know what to do or say. But the bottom line is you want nothing more in the world than to make her feel better.
Maybe you’re doing great, but if you’re like most of the civilized world, you are more comfortable wearing your underwear in public than being around someone that is grieving hard and heavy. As a whole, we fear the unknown, and for most of us that include losing someone, we can’t imagine living without.
It’s okay that you feel a little lost helping this mother. But before you suggest that she seek counseling – not because you’re tired of hearing her talk about it, but because you don’t feel like talking to you is getting her anywhere – consider that she is talking to you for a reason. For the record, I’m all for counselors. I had one for a while, and it served its purpose… but that’s not the point of this article.
Here’s the kicker, if she’s talking to you, she’s exactly where she wants to be, and most likely needs to be.
She picked you.
She needs you.
She doesn’t need to be fixed, because no words, gifts, amount of time, or money can fix this one.
If she’s talking to you, there is a very, very good reason. She trusts you.
And while it doesn’t look like she’s getting any help by talking to you about it, she is. She is getting to mention their name, and that is the most precious thing you can give her right now. The liberty, a fantastic excuse to say his or her name. Again and again and again.
She needs one person on this earth never to get exhausted by her talking about the baby, the child, the adult child she never thought she’d have to live without. It’s an unnatural order of things, and she’ll spend the rest of her life trying to find the ground beneath her.
The secret of empathy is just when you feel like you’ve done nothing, and you’re somehow exhausted anyway — you’ve done it right. Empathy will come at a cost. It will shake you out of your shoes and force your toes into hers. It will require you to do more than imagine her life, her pain, her loss, and the magnitude of it all.
You will wear it like a heavy trench coat that is sopping wet. It will bring you to the verge of tears. And that’s where you’ll want to stop. But empathy steps outside of the bounds of compassion and sympathy.
Empathy will make you feel like you’ve done nothing but enable her to continue in sadness.
Empathy will turn off your need to fix her broken world and sit in it with her a while.
Empathy is invisible to a passerby, but to a grieving mother, it is the only thing that puts color back into her world.
The power of empathy will give her the freedom to love a child she barely knew.
The power of empathy runs deep. You will feel like you’ve done nothing because physically speaking you’ve most likely done little but hold her hand, or sit quietly and listen. But really, you’ve moved mountains.
I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. – Maya Angelou
Franchesca Cox is the founder of Still Standing Magazine. She is currently seeking her Master’s in Occupational Therapy, a yogi and author of Celebrating Pregnancy Again and Facets of Grief, a creative workbook for grieving mothers. Learn more about her heartwork on her website.