There’s so much hurt, bitterness, fear and anxiety all around. Too much fighting on social media, in the halls of Senate, in homes, offices, organizations. Pain is simply everywhere we look. And sometimes we don’t have to look hard.
In the Good Grief workshops that I run for individuals and families who have lost a loved one, I am often asked, “How do you do it?”
For a few days each week, I “hold the space” so that other people can process their pain. It’s not an easy job. I am grateful to have other people who likewise “hold the space” for me.
The only way one can heal from any loss is if the person has a safe place or a safe person to mourn the loss with. I always encourage my participants to lean into their pain. “What?!” I see their incredulous and puzzled faces. In the beginning, they are hesitant, but as the hours fly by, and the tears begin to flow, and the stories pour out, it becomes easier to lean in.
It’s really simple, this concept of leaning in. The person who does not feel their pain, anger or fear, cultivates a wound inside that grows and festers. It often manifests in rage, emotional outbursts, depression or some other form of illness. Leaning in, of course, is not for the faint-hearted. It takes courage, strength and being in a place where others hold the space for you.
Lend your courage
Holding space requires that you lend your courage and strength to the other. It requires creating a safe environment where people can speak about pain or loss so they can mourn and heal. It is difficult spiritual and emotional work that is a necessary part of the loss journey.
On the journey, we companion and walk alongside one another without judging or trying to “fix” them, or worse, determining a specific outcome. When we hold space for other people, we open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgement and control.
I am always grateful that I have friends and family members in my life who hold the space for me. I would not be able to do what I do if there weren’t other people in my life I can show my heart to, and not be afraid of being judged.
Here are five ways we can hold the space for others:
Trust your intuition. I always encourage my Good Grief participants to listen to their inner compass. In a period of mourning, your heart already knows what it needs. For as long as it is not self-destructive or harmful to others, then go ahead and do it.
For example, if your friend or loved one needs an extra hour or so of sleep, allow them to. Grief work can be draining. Mourning can take a lot out of you, so listen to your body. If they feel like taking a quiet walk, let them go. Movement is always very helpful.
Keep it simple. Break up what needs to be done in smaller components so that the person is not overwhelmed. Grief and mourning can immobilize, so keep the instructions simple. Bullet points or simple checklists will be appreciated. Too much information leaves people feeling inadequate.
Let people make their own decisions. Be a companion and guide, but let them decide on their own. Being able to decide in spite of the pain can be empowering to the individual. A sense of autonomy needs to be maintained. Support, but do not control.
There’s safety in failure. In a time of grief, or any major life transition, people are bound to make mistakes. A person who holds the space for someone will withhold judgment (not an easy thing, I tell you!), and instead encourage the person to look inside themselves and try out new things. The joy that comes from the triumph of establishing new routines and discovering new skills results in a resilience that will help them move toward healing. It also needs to be emphasized that when the learning does not go as planned, that failure is part of the journey we all take on the road to healing.
Humility, thoughtfulness and kindness, always. One who holds the space knows how to behave in a manner that demonstrates humility, thoughtfulness, kindness and respect for the other. A person who feels safe enough will be more open to falling apart, knowing that there will be someone there to catch them. The cracks on the surface will be visible to everyone, and as the old Gershwin song goes, “The crack is where the light gets in.”
It’s not easy to become a space holder. One cannot be overly emotional, and you need to be brave enough to look into your own abyss, draw from it, and trust the people you are holding the space for. The one who bravely holds the space for the other has been herself or himself in that same situation—she or he has once upon a time fallen apart in the presence of someone else who held the space with courage and kindness, enabling her to heal.
I’m opening my last Good Grief workshops for the year. Good Grief is a series of five sessions using lecture, sharing and writing where people who have lost a loved one can mourn and process their pain in a safe, small group. Classes begin on Sept. 24 and 28. E-mail email@example.com.