True Stories in Helping Others in Their Grief

Originally posted on my Substack

A middle school teacher friend of mine told me the following story about something that happened to her years ago. One of her students suffered a terrible tragedy when his father died from cancer. Her heart was filled with a deep desire to help this student.

But she didn’t know what to do.  (How often has this happened to you?) 

She was afraid to further pick at the wound by asking questions – or by saying she knew how he felt (she didn’t) – or by offering advice – or by acting like nothing had happened.  She really didn’t know how to support the student without causing further harm.

Should she share a story from her own life to try to connect with the student?

It is very common and natural to wonder about these questions.

Meanwhile, this child continued to suffer.  His grades declined, and this previously cheerful child receded in to himself, losing desire to engage with anyone.  Yet the teachers and other adults deeply desired to help him.

Some time later this teacher became involved in a bike race to raise money for cancer, since she herself was a cancer survivor.  Almost on a whim, one day in class she called this student up to her desk. She told him about her upcoming bike race and confided in him that she was dedicating her race to him and to his dad.  He was deeply touched by her generosity and kindness.

This small, simple expression of care made a huge difference in the life of this young person. His performance in school started making marked improvements right away.  He became more engaged in class.  His grades started improving back to where he was before.  And he started finding joy in life again.

What made a difference?

Grief is a tricky thing.  Our society has taught us so many things that aren’t helpful.  Sometimes we say things that we think will help - but they can actually cause harm.  For instance, my friend could have said something like: “I had cancer and almost died, so I know how you feel.” -or- “My dad died from cancer, too, so I know how you feel.”  

Such comments would likely have been given only with the goal of building a connection.  The problem is that we never really know how someone feels, even if we’ve had a very similar experience.  And saying something like that often evokes defensiveness.  “You don’t know how I feel!  Just leave me alone!”

Instead, my friend merely offered a heart-felt expression of care and love.  She didn’t analyze, try to fix, or compare losses.  Instead, she offered a caring heart. Something as simple as a sincere, heartfelt expression of compassion and acknowledgement of the pain, confusion, and difficulty can be enough.

What experiences have you had where you or someone else responded to your or another’s loss in a wonderfully helpful way?

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