Listening is tough - especially when the listening involves a tragedy or an emotional situation that is not fun to hear about.
In fact, listening can be a painful thing to do, especially if you're wired to be an empathetic, caring person. When someone experiences a loss, and you allow them to pour their heart out to you, it can be emotional for you as the listener too.
But as difficult as it may be, listening is probably the most important thing you can do to help someone who is grieving. It's more important than saying the right things. Allowing your hurting friend to communicate - to just be with the pain - is important. Even if they ramble on and repeat themselves over and over again, your listening is an important part of healing.
We all need validation
I want you to think about something that's very important to you. Better yet - think about a conversation (or, perhaps an argument...) you had recently with a friend or family member (a spouse, perhaps...) Did you think of one? Good. Keep that in mind while I share an experience I've had along these lines...
It was a long day at work, and I'd been working hard all day. I didn't have time to take any sort of break, and the day just flew right by. Unintentionally, I seemed to forget about the fact that I'm married, and I didn't do a great job communicating with my wife throughout the day. In fact, I don't think I called or texted her even once. I was incommunicado.
Surely she would understand though, right? I was working super hard all day and just forgot to communicate. So later on when she gently explained to me that her feelings were hurt, I took the high road, swallowed my pride, and admitted I was wrong for being a horrible communicator. Actually, that's not at all what happened. Instead, I got upset and proceeded to explain to her just how hard I worked, and how... well, you know how the rest of the story goes...
Here's the point - while my wife was opening up and expressing to me how I had hurt her feelings, I was essentially communicating to her that those feelings didn't matter, given how hard I work. The issue was no longer about my gross failure to communicate - no, it was much deeper than that. In expressing her feelings to me, she was seeking something extremely important - something that we all crave.
Validation is where the true power and importance of listening comes in.
Go back to the situation or conversation I asked you to think about earlier. Have you ever come away from a similar situation feeling invalidated? I'll bet you have - and you've probably felt invalidated on more than one occassion.
When someone has experienced a significant loss, listening and acknowledging their pain is critical. Failing to do so is the equivalent of invalidating their loss, and their emotional response to that loss.
What sort of things should you expect? How can you ensure you are an empathetic listener, and ensure you provide validation for your friend?
Be prepared for a wide range of emotions. Anger, confusion, even placing blame are all natural reactions after a loss. Even feelings of despair and acute depression are normal after a loss. Don't be offended or shocked if their emotions seem irrational or extreme - just listen. I remember being furious with God for taking my son away while sparing others. I was angry with God and even wrote Him a letter explaining why it wasn't fair. While I don't feel the same today as I did then, it was extremely helpful to be able to express these emotions.
Don't assume that your friend doesn't want to talk about what happened. When my son passed away, I felt as if people just assumed I didn't want to talk about him. Even today, if I bring up the topic, it seems to make others uncomfortable, and eager to shift toward another topic. Here's the ting though - often times just talking about the loss is comforting. Listening as your friend talks about their loved one can be comforting, and conveys to your friend that you valued their loved one too.
Don't disappear on your friend. Once the funeral or memorial is over and the initial shock subsides, most people go on about their lives and feel a need to give the griever their "space." Don't be the friend that fades away and gives them their space. Instead, be available and willing to support your friend. Do the opposite of giving them space - check up on them often. This will convey very clearly that you care about them.
Love is active. Don't wait until asked to love your friend. Take the first step - listen and acknowledge the pain associated with the loss, and in doing so, provide your friend with the validation they so desperately need.
I would love to hear how it goes for you - leave a comment below if you'd like to share your experience with me.