February 6, 2023

while also taking care of yourself

Think about a person in your life who is grieving - someone they love died, or is seriously ill and the risk of death is high.  Notice how you feel in your own body and the thoughts you have as you think about this situation.  Take a breath as you read because talking about death, dying and/or grief are emotionally heavy topics that we usually try not to think about.  

Bundle of flowers on wooden backgroud

Photo by micheile dot com on Unsplash

What you can do when a friend is grieving

When you have a friend that is grieving, it can be really hard to know what to say or do. As humans, we want to be helpful and supportive but it can be challenging to know when to step in and when to provide space. Your friend is probably going through one of the most difficult and painful parts of their life and might be sharing that grief publicly in social media channels or privately with you during visits, phone calls or texts. It can be difficult to watch a friend going through a challenging time.

How to support your friend that is grieving

Clearly, your feelings are not as intense as your friends. Thinking about how their grief is affecting you does not minimize their pain or de-prioritize it at all. In the book, The Grieving Brain, Mary-Frances O’Connor explains that “when a friend is grieving, if affects those that care for them - often deeply.” This intense emotional response is so common that it even has a name - grief adjacent. Being grief adjacent means that you are not directly impacted by the loss (it’s not your spouse, child, parent, etc), but that you are there next to the person that is grieving and because of the closeness of that relationship, you can deeply understand how they are feeling. Watching your friend grieving hurts your heart.

What Happens For You When You Witness A Friend Grieving

Three things happen for you as the witness when your friend is grieving a loss: 

  1. Cognitive perspective taking - you can imagine how your friend is feeling by putting yourself in their shoes. When your friend is grieving the loss of a parent, you think about what it would be like to lose your mother or father and you have empathy for what that might be like for them.
  2. Emotional empathy - Witnessing your friend’s grief while also imagining how you would feel if that were happening to you creates an authentic reaction in your body. Have you ever read a social media post from a grieving friend and started crying? That’s emotional empathy!
  3. Compassion: Now that you have thought about your friend and experienced some of the feelings that your friend might be feeling, you want to help them. You care about your friend and want them to feel better - you might be motivated to do something. This is when people bake casseroles or organize GoFundMe accounts or send flowers (among many other things).

Mary-Frances O’Connor explains in The Grieving Brain:

Compassion for a grieving friend “will not fill the hole” but it will “place supports around the hole.”

When Adjacent Grief Gets Overwhelming

When our compassionate emotional empathy is finely tuned and we want to do something to help our friend but can’t actually do anything, that can be overwhelming. That helpless feeling can become intolerable. You might even secretly wish that your friend would stop talking about their grief or just tone it down. And then you feel guilty for thinking those thoughts.  But grief is overwhelming - even being grief adjacent can be overwhelming and sometimes it pushes us out of of window of tolerance.

The window of tolerance is the term for describing how our nervous system responds to stress. When you are within your window of tolerance, you are able to respond with compassion to your friend - you respond with empathy and you can provide the supports that your grieving friend needs. But when your feelings related to the adjacent grief become too overwhelming, you are then outside of your window of tolerance. You either become hyper-aroused (the fight or flight response) or hypo-aroused (the freeze response). Perhaps you snap at your friend, or find ways to rush them off the phone “I’ve got to run…” Or maybe you just tune them out and ignore their messages or scroll past some of the social media posts.

Advice from an expert

Monica Lee, a Missouri-based social worker with Integrity Home Care and Hospice shares how she is able to take care of herself despite being a  daily witness to the grief of others.  She says, "It has been imperative for me to focus on life, meaning and purpose in that time of anticipatory grief; for the patient, bereaved and myself." 

Ms. Lee goes on to say that she had to make an intentional habit of finding a healthy outlet for those feelings.  She recommends spending time reading, writing, walking, biking, watching movies, engaging in prayer or church services, or spending time with your own family.  By engaging in these activities, you are actually better able to stay present and support your friend. 

How to Remain Supportive of your Grieving Friend

Understand that your grief response is also normal. If there are times that you are outside of your window of tolerance, that does not make you a bad person.  Notice how you are feeling and give yourself some compassion - it's hard to stay fully present when our friends our going through something really hard.  

What to do next? 

  • Create mindful attention. Tune back in to your emotional response. Notice that your overwhelming feelings are a result of your ability to empathize with your friend and that is evidence of your human-ness. It’s okay to take care of yourself!
  • Re-engage support by returning their call, bringing over dinner, sending another card - by re-opening the space to hold your friend tenderly in their grief and let them grieve in their way. Give them a place to cry, to be scared or to be angry. Understand that there’s no “right way” to grieve and reassure your friend that you are there for them.  Remember that your grieving friend appreciates your support, even when they are not in a place to say thank you or acknowledge it in ways that might usually do.  (Cut them some slack!) 
  • Stay present in the discomfort.  Brene Brown talks about how overwhelming it can be to witness hurt and pain in other people. In Atlas of the Heart, she shares what she refers to as “A Lesson from my mom” which says:
Don’t look away. Don’t look down. Don’t pretend not to see hurt. Look people in the eye. Even when their pain is overwhelming. And when you’re hurting and in pain, find people who can look you in the eye.”

Grief is a normal part of life - it is evidence of how much we care.  We can not escape it and we can not rescue our friends from their pain either.  What we can do is hold space for their feelings, and offer support and kindness on a regular basis, while also taking care of ourselves in the process. 

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About the Author

Jen Taylor, LCSW-C, RPT-S is an EMDR Approved Consultant and Certified Journal to the Self Instructor.  She is a therapist specializing in complex trauma, an international play therapy teacher and a published writer of multiple play therapy chapters.  Jen is the creator of the original 2017 Play Therapy Summit and many other innovative programs for mental health professionals.  Jen uses writing therapy, play therapy and expressive arts for her clients and for other mental health professionals so they can lead more joyful and meaningful lives.  Jen encourages people to try new things and create daily habits that allow for incremental progress towards previously unimaginable results.   Jen is a travel enthusiast, an avid reader, and a girl who lifts weights and runs for fun.  

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