I had the opportunity to attend a seminar last winter on the topic of death, grief, and loss, as well as how to support those grieving.  The workshop, facilitated by Dr. Alan Wolfelt, focused on our perceived notions of death and supporting the bereaved.

Death, and the topic of death, is relatively avoided in society.  The ways we try to escape the inevitable are apparent in all aspects of our culture.   We certainly don’t like to talk about it.  When we age, many people do not do so gracefully.  They fight it.  Yet death is as natural as birth.  Just as an example, we avoid the idea of death so much that we’ve come up with new ways of defining it.  Passed away.  Expired.  Gone to the light.  It’s not a mystery that because we avoid the topic of death as much as we do, we have little understanding as how to cope with the intense grief of those immersed in it.

In terms of helping someone else who is grieving, have you ever used one of these phrases?

“He/she’s in a better place now.”

“They would want you to be strong for them.”

“They’re probably feeling better now.”

“I know they’re looking down on you and smiling.”

My guess is that we’ll all heard these comforting lines before, been the recipient, or have used these condolences ourselves.  It’s ok.  Don’t feel bad.  Most of us have probably said these things with good intent.   However, for the person suffering the loss, the pain is not easily assuaged by simple words.

So what is there to do if what we think is helping really isn’t? The workshop suggested following an idea that less is more.  Silence is ok.  Not knowing is ok.

According to Dr. Wolfelt, here are his tenants of Companioning the bereaved:

Tenant One:  Companioning is about being present to another person’s pain: it is not about taking away the pain.

Tenant Two: Companioning is about going to the wilderness of the soul with another human being; it is not about thinking you are responsible for finding the way out.

Tenant Three: Companioning is about honoring the spirit; it is not about focusing on the intellect.

Tenant Four: Companioning is about listening with the heart; it is not about analyzing with the head.

Tenant Five:  Companioning is about bearing witness to the struggle with others; it is not about judging or directing these struggles.

Tenant Six:  Companioning is about walking alongside; it is not about leading or being led.

Tenant Seven:  Companioning is about discovering the gifts of sacred silence; it does not mean filing up every moment with words.

Tenant Eight: Companioning is about being still; it is not about frantic movement forward.

Tenant Nine: Companioning is about respecting disorder and confusion; it is not about order and logic.

Tenant Ten:  Companioning is about learning from others; it is not about teaching them.

Tenant Eleven:  Companioning is about compassionate curiosity; it is not about expertise.

(Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D., C.T. http://www.centerforloss.com)

It’s certainly something to think about.  Confronting the reality of death is not easy for anyone.  It can be extremely stressful for all affected.  When helping a grieving friend or family member, we are also confronted with our own feelings.  Do our responses reflect our understanding of their pain, or do our responses reflect our discomfort with our own emotions?  How are we, if at all, understanding our own impending death when dealing with the death of another?