Supporting Grief

A few weeks back, one of my coworkers (we'll call him Adam) had a major health scare and was hospitalized for a while. Another of my coworkers (we'll call her Betty) pulled together notes of well-wishing from our team and prepared them in a really thoughtful way, adding “get well soon” messages and images to the document before sending it along. Adam is out of the hospital now, which is a huge relief for everyone.

This week, in a completely unrelated incident, Betty's father passed away after a heart attack. This time around, the task of collecting people's messages of support has fallen to me. And wow, am I bad at this. At Adam's suggestion, I am following the same playbook that Betty used. But it feels highly ironic to be using this format for her, when just weeks ago she was doing this for someone else.

More generally, this has me thinking about how to offer sympathies in a genuine way. Sharing people's joy is easy. Acknowledging people's pain seems harder – not just because the occasions are sad, but because grief manifests in so many unpredictable ways. What kind of support does someone want during this time?

I think a number of the folks who've left messages of support for Betty have it right. Their wishes for her and her family revolve around the notion of having the space to feel. Simply being able to sit with the feelings of grief and loss and not put them aside. I personally get a little uncomfortable with “thoughts and prayers”, but wishing people space to feel seems like a meaningful and universal gesture.

There are people close to me who are in ill health, and I genuinely hope none of my coworkers has to put notes of sympathy together for me and my family any time soon. But the takeaway for me here is pretty clear: pushing through a big loss is not the healthy option. If you are grieving, or suffering any other difficult occasion, seek out the space to feel. It will hurt, but shoving it aside for later can only make things worse.