In my years on this big blue marble, I have found it most difficult to be a comfort to those grieving a tremendous loss.
I’ve experienced great sadness over the loss of dear friends, family members and I’ve been witness to those experiencing losses far greater than I can fathom.
In high school, a classmate was killed by a drunk driver and I couldn’t wrap my head around it. So I said what most say in their deepest sadness– “I’m sorry for your loss.”
It seemed a thin sentiment, because at the time, I couldn’t sense how profoundly losing someone you love can leave a chasm of emptiness and suffocating pain. And that grief would be ever present.
As the years went on and I journeyed through life, I had my share of grief personally. But before that, I experienced the helplessness of watching a friend process the loss of a beloved parent.
Nothing prepares a friend to be a support for that. Your heart breaks for them as they go through the five stages. It’s a dangerous time for some because they can lose their why.
No, that last statement wasn’t a word choice mistake. I really did mean why and not way. Although losing your why leads to losing your way in life.
You see, our why is our inner sense of purpose. What is our reason for being here? How is it we are here in this path we walk? That’s actually an opening to a song by the Moody Blues. (ref.: A Question of Balance) Though I digress… just check it out sometime. It’s a beautifully thoughtful song.
Sometimes the upending loss can make one question: “What’s the point of even being here? Why go on?”
They can begin a path of self destruction to deaden their pain or support their reasoning when they reach that depth of grief.
As a friend to someone who reaches that point, you can be their support best through carefully listening as they process this pain and help them find their path back towards their purpose by patiently employing a gentle Socratic method of questioning to lead them back to their whys.
Everyone has whys. They push them aside or forget about them in the noise that is the grief and sadness.
I learned most about this from the writings of Viktor Frankl– a holocaust survivor who was intent on studying those who survived the concentration camps and how they carried on. His findings further developed approaches to helping people contemplating suicide find their inner purpose. (ref.: Man’s Search For Meaning)
I can tell you I lost my whys a couple of times throughout my life. On 9/11 for example, I sat there for hours at my desk realizing nothing mattered. You were my why in that moment.
Later, I lost my whys when I realized I was grieving over love lost and paralyzed with fear after the heart attack and turned to self medication in the form of alcohol and danced ever so close to succumbing to the disease. You saw that and it really took a lot to bring me back. But I had to find my whys again. It was a little harder because you were older and my reasoning was stronger that you’re best off without me.
Through counseling and will, I was able to ask myself the questions to get me back to a personal sense of purpose.
Questions which really helped me comfort and guide when I was needed:
- Who is left behind who still needs your care and love?
- What impacts have you had on others so far?
- What have you wanted to do that you haven’t already?
- What do you think the person you’ve lost would advise you to do in this moment?
- If it was reversed and they were here and you weren’t how would you hope that they cope?
- What brings you happiness, joy and/or peace?
- What are the ways to bring meaning of the lost one’s impact on you in your daily life?
Notice that none of these are yes/no sorts of questions. Always keep them open and encourage the sorting out of their feelings and thoughts.
Most importantly, be there for them and assure them of your love and support through it all.