My friend leaned lightly against me as we stood on the stage of the college auditorium in front of about 600 people. My hand rested gently on her back. I was there to be her voice in case she was unable to read the eulogy she had written for her 18-year-old daughter, whose body lay in a coffin just below us.
In the nearly two years since that dark day, I have been feeling my way through our relationship, learning how to be in my friend’s irrevocably changed life. Beyond serving as back up in case she couldn’t read (which she did, beautifully), fixing dinner occasionally, and reaching out if I haven’t heard from her for a while, I am painfully aware of how little I can do for her or her husband. My continued impulse to want to fix a situation that is unfixable leaves me at a loss. I walk on shaky ground, guided only by the desire to be her friend, which I felt the minute we met when our kids were little.
Connection Is Fundamental to Wholeness
“In the Lakota/Sioux tradition, a person who is grieving is considered most "wakan," most holy. There's a sense that when someone is struck by the sudden lightning of loss, he or she stands on the threshold of the spirit world,” she writes.
We also somehow know that our presence is fundamental to their healing and, if a neighbor, friend, or relative is grieving, we show up at the wake, funeral, or during Shiva. We send flowers and drop off casseroles. But outside of those enshrined traditions and scheduled moments, it can be difficult to know how to be—and who to be—with someone who seems defenseless. Their emotional nakedness can bring us face-to-face with our own fears, anxieties, and sense of helplessness.
Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, a clinical psychologist and senior research professor in South Africa, defines trauma as “experiences that are overwhelming to the individual on whom it is inflicted.” Trauma, she explained, “shutters the assumptions that we have of our environment, what we know and trust to be true....It stops us in our tracks.”
This sense of emotional dislocation is not just the result of significant abuse or tragedy; it can result from small “t” traumas—such as divorce or financial challenges—which can also leave us feeling helpless, frightened, overwhelmed, or unsafe.
So what can we do when someone we care about is suffering? Ironically, sometimes we hesitate and second guess our instinctive empathy, the thing that "bonds us as human beings," Gobodo-Madikizela said. “Why should we think about whether our empathy is right or wrong? Why not just be empathetic and compassionate?" she asked.
Explore Your Own Response First
Sometimes, however, our own discomfort when facing others in pain is confusing and makes it difficult to know how to respond. Michael Bernard Beckwith, founder and spiritual director of the Agape International Spiritual Center, suggests that when we're able to acknowledge our own discomfort, we can be of more genuine use to someone in need.
“Then you’re better able to access the love, compassion, and intuition that is active in you," he said. "Put aside any ideas of fixing the person. You’re not going to do anything more important than be there with them and listen patiently—which is a lost art in our high tech, low touch society.”
Another crucial step toward being with someone enveloped in trauma is to suspend judgment by adopting an attitude of realistic (or right) view, as defined by the Buddha as part of the Noble Eightfold Path. According to psychiatrist Mark Epstein, it is critical to understand that “trauma, in any of its forms, is not a failure or a mistake. It is not something to be ashamed of, not a sign of weakness, and not a reflection of inner failing. It is simply a fact of life.”
How to Show Up
Helping a person in need navigate fundamental aspects of life—eating, resting, or even protecting them from unwanted interactions with others—can help them feel safer and provide a comforting sense of security and structure. But, as author David Treleaven explains, it is also important to "establish a basic understanding of another person’s world—including the social conditions they are shaped and impacted by."
"While traumatic events can happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time, social context will always be a component," he writes in Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness. "To establish safety people need to feel trust in those guiding them—a visceral sense that they’ll be seen, cared for, and understood for the complex people they are."
Physician and healer Rachel Naomi Remen has written extensively not only of what her patients learn about themselves during times of great darkness, but what she has learned, time and again, about what they need from her.
“I suspect that the most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen," she writes in Kitchen Table Wisdom. "Perhaps the most important thing we can give each other is our attention. Especially if it’s given from the heart….A loving silence often has more power to heal and to connect than the most well-intentioned words.”
One of the most beautiful ways we can engage with someone who's grieving, according to psychic medium Laura Lynne Jackson, is to invite a conversation with them about their loved one. Ask them to share their memories, their stories. And then just listen.