This post is part of a series for the witness to grief. If you’re supporting a friend or family member in pain, be sure to check in each Wednesday for a new post.
I have a new post up at the Huffington Post today on the five stages of grief. You can find it here. In that post, I focus on how those stages don’t truly help the person in pain. In today’s post at Refuge In Grief, I want to dive more deeply into these stages, and how they don’t help you – as someone witnessing grief in someone you love.
One of the things I found early on in my grief was that people really wanted to understand what I was going through. Some of those people were genuinely interested in what my experience was, and others were what I called “trauma tire-kickers” – wanting a front row seat to the unraveling of a life, requesting intimate details. It often had such a tabloid feel to it. Our current media culture makes it seem like every single personal thought and experience is up for grabs, up for discussion, feedback, and comment. This is especially true in grief.
People want details. They want to understand.
The five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance – seem to be a great tool to help you understand what’s going on for the person you love. After all, if there is a set of clear steps, then you can help them navigate those steps. Those steps give you a roadmap. You can also use them to gauge how well your loved one is actually doing, compared to how they say they’re doing.
In that sense of helplessness you might feel watching someone you love in pain, it’s normal to want something concrete and useful. It’s so totally normal to want something, anything that might help you understand what’s going on. If you can understand it, maybe you can relieve some pain.
The problem is, the five stages of grief don’t help you understand your friend at all. In fact, using them can put more distance between you. When used as your metric for understanding, the stages of grief fall apart because any formula for dealing with grief is going to fall apart. A cookie-cutter approach can never be truly useful, because grief – and love – are entirely unique and individual. When you use the stages of grief to define and understand, you stand outside the experience and yes, judge it.
Even if you don’t mean to judge.
Well, there are those stages, you know? I think you just need to keep moving on through them.
Oh, so now you’re in denial. You need to face reality.
Oh well, good – once you get through that stage, you can move on and accept that he’s gone.
You know, anger is only one of those grief stages – you’re not supposed to stay there.
I think he’s entering the depression stage.
Do you see how none of those statements actually help or give comfort? The stages give you a way to talk about your friend instead of connecting with their real experience.
So what can you do?
Start with your basic impulse: to be of help and to bring comfort. Throw out the stages. If what you truly want is to connect (and I believe you do), you’ll need to practice being uncomfortable, and resist the urge to fix your friend. Keep coming back to what you want most: to be of help, to show your love, to bring comfort if any can be found.
Thank you for trying. We appreciate it.
How about you? What’s it been like for you as you try to care for someone you love when they’re in pain? Tell us in the comments, or send me an email.