Holding Space for Grief
Updated: Jan 14, 2020
Last year at the beginning of December we found out that our 15ish year old beagle, Henry, had a nasal tumor. He had communicated to me around August that he wouldn't be around much longer, so I promised him we would make the difficult decision to let him go when he was ready, and that we wouldn't let him suffer. When we found out about the tumor, I knew it wouldn't be long, and we concentrated on giving him as much love as we could during his last few weeks. Losing Henry was so much harder for me than I had expected, and as that grief has re-intensified during this holiday season, I've started to realize why.
I have something called recurrent pregnancy loss. My body can't maintain a pregnancy, and I've had multiple early miscarriages. I share more detail about this and how it affected me, as well as how it brought about the process I call Spiritual Integration in my upcoming book. Henry was sensitive to energy and openly communicative with me. He liked to be in the room when I was working on a client. Sometimes he'd lie right under the massage table, and I always felt that somehow he seemed to understand the sacred space we were creating. He was my snuggle buddy through the grief of all my miscarriages, as well as when we lost my dad. He would come and lie next to me while I was crying, or he'd come lie between my legs after I completed my yoga practice, which was often when my most intense feelings of grief would arise.
It's hard to know how to help someone who is in active grief. What do we say? What can we do? The other day someone I know was asking for advice about how she could support her friend who had just experienced a miscarriage. She was afraid to make a wrong move; what if she sent something that upset her friend? What if she said the wrong thing? The last thing she wanted to do was to make her friend feel worse while trying to show her support.
When we are in grief, people often don't know how to react. They want to show support, but they worry about saying the wrong thing, or they don't know what to say or how to help. There is also a lot of pressure placed on us about how we grieve. Are we doing it right? Has it been too long? Should we be over it or moving on? Are we moving on too quickly, or not showing enough emotion? Will people think we're cold if we're not crying openly after the loss of a loved one?
We live in a death phobic culture, which is fairly inexplicable when you consider that every single one of us has experienced, will experience, or is currently experiencing the loss of a loved one, along with the fact that we ourselves will die at some point. We don't talk much about death, or grief, or how to process loss. But loss is inevitable, and it's deeply personal and profound. We all process loss and experience grief differently, so how can we show our support for someone who is grieving when we can't know exactly what they are going through?
I offer the suggestion of honoring a person's grieving process by holding space for them. What does that mean? In energy work, we hold space for our client by creating a safe environment for them to experience whatever comes up during their session. Holding space can look different depending on the situation. Sometimes holding space involves letting someone experience emotion in silence; sometimes it involves offering support in the form of words or a gentle touch. The important thing about holding space is that the person you are holding it for feels respected, honored, supported and safe.
How can we hold space for someone in grief? I think that silent support is extremely important, but not often offered. We want to quiet the discomfort in ourselves at seeing someone we care about in pain by saying something we hope will make them feel better. But holding space means recognizing our discomfort and putting it aside so that we can be truly present for another person. And sometimes the words we grope for with the intention to ease their suffering can actually make them feel worse. They sense our discomfort and feel obligated to respond in a way that makes us feel better, which can make the person in grief feel even more isolated in their pain.
Holding space for my grief was the gift that Henry gave me. He was simply present. He offered me his warm body and his gentle touch, but he never asked anything of me. I never felt obligated to try to make him feel better because my grief made him uncomfortable. He didn't care that I was crying, that I was a mess on the floor. He simply came and sat with me, and let me be who I was in that moment. He created a safe space for me with his quiet and his presence.
The holidays can be a very difficult time for anyone who has lost someone. They are certainly bittersweet for me. This year my mom, my sisters, and I will talk about how many holidays we've had now without my dad. We'll tell funny stories and share memories of him that make us simultaneously smile and feel his loss that much more acutely. I will think about how different my life would be if any of my pregnancies had progressed. I might picture each of my potential children-- how old they would be now, how excited they would be to experience the holidays. It will be the first time in ten years we won't be able to take our annual "Henry bows" picture, but we will remember how much he enjoyed opening his present and how tolerant he was when we covered him with bows.
This holiday season let's give each other the gift of holding space for grief. Let's not ask our friends or family members to change where they are in their grieving process so that we can feel less uncomfortable. Let's have the courage to silently sit with them in their pain rather than offering empty platitudes. Let's allow the simple gift of our presence to hold the space they need to feel supported. Allowing ourselves to fully experience pain allows us to increase our capacity for joy. And there is always joy to be found, even if it's in the simple recognition that someone loves us enough to sit in silence with us while we grieve.
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