It’s an experience most can relate to, especially if we are of a certain age. The call comes, or the text or the email, and we find ourselves on the way to the home of a friend or loved one who has just suffered a loss, or to a visitation or a funeral. Then comes an almost universal anxiety and the haunting questions: When I approach the grieving person, what should I say? What should I do?
Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that there is a widespread hunger for answers to those questions. Grief therapist Patrick O’Malley has been reminded of that again and again in the year since he published, “Getting Grief Right: Finding Your Story of Love in the Sorrow of Loss.” (It was my great privilege to serve as his co-author.)
Our target audience, of course, was the bereaved themselves. A major goal of the book was to help liberate them from still pervasive social expectations that grief should conform to a model and timetable. The pain of loss is difficult enough without feeling somehow that you are behind on your grieving, that you are getting your grief wrong.
Instead, we write, grief is like a fingerprint, which comes and goes with an intensity, or lack thereof, based on many factors, including manner of death, personality type and the nature of the relationship with the person who died. No person’s grief is the same.
This is one of the book’s most important lessons: We grieve because we loved.
“Since the book has been published, there has been a theme among readers I’ve heard from,” Patrick told me a few days ago. “They feel connected to their pain rather than ashamed of it and, as a result, connected to their loved one. So many people have told me that they thought there was something wrong with them because how long their grief seemed to be taking and how intense it was.
“We help grieving people to get off the clock,” he said. “Whether it’s steps or stages or whatever, there is still something embedded in the cultural mythology that says time makes it better. But what if I’m not better? Well, you’re not on a clock.”
But it was the reaction to the second half of the book that Patrick has found equally gratifying.
“I knew there was hunger among those who were grieving, a hunger to get out from under the pressure,” Patrick said. “What is more surprising is the hunger among people who want to get better at being a friend.”
One of the chapters, “Help For the Helper,” provides answers to the haunting questions I referenced above. In “Getting Grief Right,” Patrick offers helpful list of “don’ts” — don’t fall back on clichés; don’t compare one loss to another, don’t try to spin a tragedy.
“Some people have told me about how embarrassed they were that they did or said all those things that we talk about, that aren’t necessarily helpful and are often very hurtful to a person who is grieving,” Patrick said.
The book offers many other suggestions about how to proactively support a bereaved person in meaningful ways. By far the most important is this: Just be present. It’s not the job of a friend or loved one to take away the pain of loss, but to enter into it with a brave and open heart.
“I think it’s challenging for people to hear that, because it seems passive,” Patrick said. “But I keep telling people that here, doing less is more. As a result, I’ve heard from people who have gotten past the clichés and the confusion of not knowing what to do. It’s not about learning to help a grieving person, it’s about learning to be with him or her.
“People are relieved to know they didn’t need to figure out the right thing to say,” he said. “It takes away the anxiety to learn that what they are called to do is be attentive and be present. Others have said they learned how to ask a simple question like, ‘Tell me more about your dad.’ It gives them something to do or say without feeling they need to be perfect or get it just right.”
And, so often, the result is more than just comfort for the bereaved.
“In so many cases, the intimacy in this has just been remarkable,” Patrick said. “People who thought they were close before feel so much closer to each other now.”