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Empathetic Presence: Providing Comfort to Someone in Grief

grief grief support non-linear journey Oct 10, 2023
providing comfort to someone in grief

We are often asked how to support a griever, the words to say (or not), and the actions to take (or not). As every griever is unique and on their own non-linear grief journey, there is no one-size-fits-all way to support a griever. However, there are some basics about how to show up that are pretty important and helpful to keep in mind.

A huge often overlooked part of being a 'heart with ears' is determining whether you yourself have the bandwidth to hold that space for someone. If you don't, that's completely fine, and best to be upfront about it. As the old adage says, "You can't pour from an empty cup."

Actions Speak Louder than words - How to be a ‘heart with ears’

Sometimes the best words are no words at all, but simply showing up intentionally. This is not to say to avoid talking about the loss, no, not at all. This is to say that sometimes the best way to support someone is to simply hold space for them. 

But, what does it mean to hold space for someone? And, how do you do that? 

We often use the expression, ‘heart with ears’ coined by the Grief Recovery Institute. We love what it represents to us and how it truly embodies how to show up for someone. However, we realize not everyone may perceive it in the same way. To gauge how ‘heart with ears’ may be defined to others, we did what any technology-advanced grief specialists living in the Bay Area would do - we asked ChatGPT. 

According to ChatGPT: “Heart with ears" is not a commonly used phrase or expression in the English language, so its meaning can be open to interpretation. However, it could be understood as a metaphorical way to describe someone who is an excellent listener, empathetic, and genuinely cares about the feelings and emotions of others. In this context, "heart" symbolizes empathy and compassion, while "ears" represent the ability to listen and understand. So, saying someone has a "heart with ears" means they are emotionally attuned and supportive.

How to be a Heart with Ears

We don’t refer to someone as having a ‘heart with ears’ but TO BE a ‘heart with ears’. 

Being a ‘heart with ears’ means coming from a place of love and kindness, compassion and curiosity. It is being fully present and with the person. Listening fully, making thoughtful eye contact, and focusing on the griever, all sets the stage for healing. When and if appropriate, some physical contact, whether it be holding hands or putting your arm around them. However, sometimes touch can stop the flow of emotions or be jarring, so please use your best discretion before initiating any physical contact. 

Being a heart with ears can be different for different people. Sometimes it can be sitting in silence side by side, or looking at one another. Or it can be listening and only asking questions to help the griever share what is coming up for them. It can be actively listening, repeating back, in your own words to ensure that the person feels heard and validated.

  • Listen without planning your response. (You can also ask if they are looking for a listener or a helper. This can help inform how you hold space for them.)
  • Fully focused and in the moment. (This is not the time to scroll Instagram).
  • Compassionately Curious (Open mind and heart to listen to what is being shared. If it’s obvious the person wants to share but is struggling, you can ask probing questions: what’s coming up for you right now? What are you missing most about your person?)
  • Following the griever's lead (if they seem receptive to physical contact - and that’s available to you - it’s encouraged. Sharing your experience but ONLY when asked. Giving any feedback and advice, again, ONLY when it’s requested).
  • Staying silent while still being energetically there (Eye contact, focused on the individual).
  • Using non-verbal cues to illustrate listening (head nodding, smiling when appropriate, crying, etc.)

How NOT to be a heart with ears

Just as it is important to be conscious of how to hold space, it is equally important to be cognizant of how NOT to hold space. 

Staring off into space daydreaming about your to-do list, or stealing glances at your watch or phone, does not create a supportive space. If your mind is elsewhere, the griever will likely pick up on it and won’t feel emotionally safe to share. 

  • Do not analyze. (Our opinion has no place here).
  • Do not critique. (Their feelings are their own - valid regardless of what we think).
  • Do not emotionally hijack, ambush, or grief dump. (This conversation is not about you, it’s about them. If it’s too much emotionally for you, please try to find a polite way to excuse yourself.)
  • Do not compare. (Everyone experiences grief at 100% All grief is valid. There are no winners in the Grief Olympics. Everyone gets a gold and has lost someone/something. In summary, it pretty much sucks for all of us so no need to compare).
  • Do not try to fix it or offer unsolicited advice. (Only offer suggestions when it’s requested.)
  • Do not offer platitudes. (They stink and are usually factually inaccurate and emotionally barren. (i.e. Time heals all wounds. Uhm, no it does not. Or, there are plenty of fish in the sea. So what? I want my original fish - I don’t want another. You get the idea).
  • Do not try to correct. (There is no correcting someone’s emotional truth. The facts aren't really important, frankly, it's what is emotionally true to them that is most pressing).
  • Do not ask questions just to satisfy your curiosity. Ask questions out of compassion and kindness. (Ask yourself why you're asking the question and go from there).
  • Don’t judge. (Okay, we are all human and this one can be tricky. If you do find judgments coming up - which is normal and happens to all of us - keep it to yourself and try to remain impartial and open. Their grief has nothing to do with you. Your role is to hold space unless otherwise requested). 

If you ever find yourself in an emotionally charged situation and don’t know what to say, come back to the ‘heart with ears’. Come back to what it represents and means. 

Things to keep in mind

We recognize that it is not easy to be a heart with ears. While deceptively simple in theory, it can be challenging when put into practice. 

Sometimes we don’t have the emotional bandwidth due to our own circumstances. And other times something that is being shared can be very triggering to us. This is okay. This too is normal and natural. We recommend telling the person - no emotional hijacking or dumping your grief on them - but share that you want to be there but can’t at the moment. Please try to offer the name of another person, if possible, or anything else that you think you could be supportive for the person. 

It can be hard to listen to someone’s heartbreak and can re-shatter parts of our hearts that we thought we had mended. 

It’s important to know your limits and to try not to take their pain on as your own. (Easier said than done, we know. Every so often, even despite all our training, we can get triggered too and utilize our own tools).

Remember it’s incredibly helpful to let them have safe space to vent and let out their emotions. You don’t need to fix or do anything. You are the keeper of the safe container for them to be heard and witnessed. 

Feeling seen and heard is a powerful part of the healing process.