Grief Literacy: Compassionate Communities
Caring Connections is joining many other grief support programs across the globe to increase grief literacy—that is—a shared understanding on how best to respond to persons experiencing grief and loss in ways that bring comfort and do not bring harm.
Grief Literacy is a goal within the larger compassionate communities movement. Recognizing that our society is fragmented, and the varying norms and traditions to support one another in times of suffering are unclear, increasing grief knowledge would “enable the general public and professionals to identify grief more readily, to seek out relevant information and to adopt appropriate supports and thereby be proactive in avoiding complications from the grieving process such as depression” (Clark 2003). In addition to formal care offered by organizations such as Caring Connections, and by grief counselors and palliative and hospice care professionals, the Grief Literacy Movement seeks to equip all citizens to support one another in times of loss and bereavement.
Many grieving persons struggle with people in their lives who are insensitive to their experience. Most frequently, they describe people who don’t “show up” to share support, perhaps due to uncertainty or awkwardness. Other times, grievers endure well-meaning persons who say or do things that are unintentionally hurtful or filled with expectations of how they “should” be grieving. Still others—a minority—are demanding or unkind to those in grief, conveying a “get over it” attitude that disenfranchises the griever’s sorrow.
Compassion means “to suffer together.” Among emotion researchers, it is defined as the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another's suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering. Compassion is not the same as empathy or altruism, though the concepts are related. Compassion suggests a willingness to take action to relieve suffering.
The most important thing one can do to support a person who is suffering or has experienced a loss is to show up and be present. One should do this in ways that are consistent with the strength of one’s relationship with the griever, but even a small effort to communicate support will be appreciated.
It’s natural to feel awkward, so just acknowledge that; “I don’t know what to say, but I want you to know that I care about what you are going through.” “I am so sorry about this.” If you don’t have the “right words,” it’s your cue to listen more...and there are actually no “right words” so prepare to bring a listening heart.
When people reflect back on a time of loss, they frequently express gratitude to those who were “there” for them in time of sorrow. It important to note that grieving people don’t say, “She had all the answers for me,” or “he gave me great advice.” Often, the grieving person remembers no spoken words at all, just a faithful presence of a friend when others were unavailable. Many grieving persons recall this experience as a friend being willing to journey with them through their loss or remain a companion to them when the griever had little to offer in return. The author James E. Miller describes this as being “prepared to wait with them in that dark place.”
Grieving people need compassionate listeners as they experience the myriad of confusing feelings and thoughts. The most effective listeners offer their time and attention in a quiet place. They allow the telling and retelling of experiences. They attend to the jumble of feelings without judgment. They are comfortable with expressions of tears, anger and frustration. They dare to cry and laugh. They are generous with time and acceptance.
In a society such as ours that values quick fixes, it can be challenging to remain present in the face of a long season of sadness, yet that may be what is most essential. Suffering people often feel “abandoned”, and the presence of a caring person can mitigate that sensation. Suffering people often feel hopeless, and the faithful attention of a patient friend is a profound source of hope. This gift of listening can require enormous emotional stamina. As the compassionate listener allows this relationship of trust to develop, he or she must be aware of their own limits of time and energy, and honestly address this with the grieving person. It is an important principle of caring to not become the “only” support in another’s life. But in our hurried world, the gift of unpressured and judgment free attention may be the most significant contribution in the grieving person’s journey of mourning.
Tangible supports may also have great value, but double check with the griever on what will actually be helpful. “May I bring a meal over?” “Would it help if I raked the yard/took the kids to a movie/walked your dog/went for a walk with you?” Such supports have greater impact in the weeks or months after the loss, a time when grievers feel that life is going on for everyone but them.
"Compassion constitutes a radical form of criticism, for it announces that the hurt is to be taken seriously, that the hurt is not to be accepted as normal and natural but is an abnormal and unacceptable condition for humanness.”
- Walter Brueggemann
The most distressing situation that grievers report is being told what they should feel or do, or how they should be grieving. Advice giving is almost always unhelpful, unless specifically requested by the griever. As Amy Dickerson has said, “Unsolicited advice is always self-serving.” Comments such as, “you’re so strong,” “you have/need more faith,” other platitudes, and urging a griever to be grateful are also unhelpful.
Take care in offering spiritual suggestions—many persons of strong faithful conviction are understandably angry at God or the universe. Other people may not have a faith tradition. Premature spiritual guidance may only provoke frustration, guilt or anger.
Humans have an amazing capacity to grieve. We grieve in our bodies, in our emotions, in our thoughts, in our spirits and in our relationships. Given sufficient time, helpful social supports and a variety of effective coping skills, most persons capably navigate grief—however painful. Yet we recognize that many people will benefit from additional care.
This figure illustrates the continuum of support that is appropriate for evaluating the needs of those experiencing loss:
There is no substitute for the caring support of those closest to us. Many times, however, those experiencing loss benefit from the support of a well-trained and caring professional. There are a variety of professionals who have the training to fulfill this need, among them grief counselors, therapists, clergy, social workers, psychiatrists, psychologists, and nurses with advanced psychiatric training. Some grievers have better experiences in individual counseling, while others do better with group. Sometimes a combination of approaches is useful.
In grief and loss support groups, members not only have the benefit of a skilled facilitator, but the opportunity to learn from the experiences and stories of others who have lost a close friend or family member. While mourning and bereavement are normal life experiences, many people find their grief process is smoother and more edifying when supported by group or individual care. Helping professionals in this area are deeply committed to providing support in this life transition, bringing their skills and own experiences of loss to create empathy for the grieving. The many benefits of grief support include normalizing the grief experience, reviewing memories of the person who died in a safe setting, improving one’s coping skills, and bringing the memory of the those who have died into one’s future life. It can be a wonderful and challenging opportunity for grievers to share their stories.
While grief support can be beneficial for many, it is essential that person experiencing severely unresolved grief, feelings of depression, hopelessness and worthlessness, unrelenting insomnia, thoughts of suicide, or tendencies to overuse alcohol and medications, obtain professional support. Similarly, those who have experienced traumatic or multiple losses, or those without sufficient social supports have exceptional needs that grief counselors can address. We at Caring Connections: A Hope and Comfort in Grief Program are committed to providing this support. In addition to providing a wide variety of support groups conducted by experienced facilitators, we are committed to assisting in referrals to counselors and providing educational resource materials.
Thomas Friedman has stated that, “the more people are anchored in communities where they feel connected, protected and respected, the more people are ready to reach out and experiment. The less they feel connected, protected and respected, the more they’ll want to build walls to protect themselves from change.” In a healthy community, community members, that is, the citizens of that community are:
Connected: They live lives within a safety net of care that supports healthy inter-relationships and is characterized by trust and equips citizens to navigate the wider world.
Respected: They are they are listened to, cared for, cared about, and encouraged to share their own gifts and talents with each other and with the larger world. They are honored for being who they are—just that is enough—not for what they do or have.
Protected: The young, the old, the suffering are shielded from harm, are nurtured, and resourced when harm happens.
When suffering happens, when harm happens to any member of the community, the community responds with nurture and resources. We consider “nurture” to be doing and saying helpful and supportive things. We consider resourcing to be directing someone to formal supports when needed, or providing basic comforts in the short term, as well in the longer term.
"When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives means the most us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving much advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a gentle and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares."
- Henri Nouwen
The Compassionate Communities Movement “challenges the convention that the purview of death and dying should be only within clinical and institutional contexts and instead positions it as everyone’s responsibility. In so doing, this movement is working to shift the conversations about, and location of, death into community spaces.” A compassionate community has:
The capacity to access, process, and use knowledge regarding the experience of loss,
The knowledge to facilitate understanding and reflection, skills to enable action, and values to inspire compassion and care.
Support for the interdependence of individuals within socio-cultural contexts.
Knowledge, skills and effort are necessary for us to grow in our individual and collective compassion. To that end, Grief Literacy is not an intervention, per se; rather, it is a paradigm shift that addresses explicitly the social contexts influencing how we grieve. (Breen, et al., 2020).
"We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It's easy to say “It's not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.” Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes. "