We Can’t Fix it: Supporting Someone Who is Grieving

“Sadness is treated with human connection.” ~Pauline Boss

Many of us never learn how to support someone in their grief. It can be very uncomfortable to be unable to take away someone’s pain. The truth is that we cannot fix someone who is grieving. As much as we wish we could, we are unable to change the situation.

The only thing we can do when someone is experiencing grief is to come alongside and hold space for them.

In her book It’s Ok That You’re Not Ok: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand (2018), Megan Devine says:

The reality of grief is far different from what others see from the outside. There is pain in this world that you can’t be cheered out of. You don’t need solutions. You don’t need to move on from your grief. You need someone to see your grief, to acknowledge it. You need someone to hold your hands while you stand there in blinking horror, staring at the hole that was your life. Some things cannot be fixed. They can only be carried.

We can feel helpless and lost when we are supporting someone who is grieving.

That sense of helplessness can sometimes fuel a felt need within us to do something to alleviate the person’s suffering. This desperation within us can cause us to say things that come from a good place but can be hurtful and dismissive to the person experiencing grief.

Most people tend to be quite uncomfortable with pain. We can especially have a very hard time sitting with someone else’s pain. We want to fix it, provide some relief for them. As a result of our discomfort, we find ourselves trying to push people along in their grief before they are ready. We can feel a desire to be a “cheerleader.” Being a cheerleader means that we aren’t necessarily engaged with the person, but instead are focused on cheering them up, or cheering them on from the sidelines, like an observer. We can find ourselves offering platitudes, thinking that we are supporting someone to move forward. However, when we are honest with ourselves, the desire to fix comes from a need to ease our own discomfort. Sharing a platitude like “everything happens for a reason” does more to dismiss someone’s pain, than to alleviate it or support them through it. The truth is that pain from grief and loss is not fixable by someone else, especially from someone simply cheering another person on. Some pain is just not fixable, and we need to do our own work to deal with that discomfort.

All we can do is be a support to someone. Don’t try to fix that which can’t be fixed. Don’t try to cheer someone out of a grief that must be felt and processed.

It is essential that we deal with our own discomfort around pain and let go of our desire to fix someone’s pain.

We must also realize that different cultures, and religions might have a different approach to grief and loss that what you are familiar with. Some of the customs surrounding grief and mourning might feel uncomfortable for you. However, we must take a culturally humble approach to supporting someone who is grieving.

A cultural humility mindset is also very important when supporting someone in grief. Many cultures and religions have specific traditions and practices around grief and loss.

We must humbly respect those practices.

If you want to learn about another person’s cultural traditions around mourning and grief, simply ask them in a humble way whether they want to share. Let them know that they don’t have to respond if they’d prefer not to.

 For Reflection:

  • Can you remember a time when someone tried to support you with a “cheerleader” approach? How did that make you feel?
  • What are some ways you can support someone without trying to fix them? (Refer to our Life Application Story)
  • Do you have any cultural traditions around grief and loss?
  • Do a little online research around how some cultures grieve. Write one or two things you learned about three different cultures below:

Avoiding Platitudes

Cambridge dictionary defines platitudes this way:

a remark or statement that may be true but is boring and has no meaning because it has been said so many times before.

It’s easy to let a platitude roll off our tongue. We have all heard them a million times before. The thing is that platitudes are quite dismissive and leave someone feeling unheard. Let’s unpack this a little:

Things to avoid saying Why we should avoid these statements
“Everything happens for a reason.” This is trite. The truth is that sometimes bad things just happen. We believe in hope and that we can all get through hard things but saying “everything happens for a reason” negates the person’s pain.

Instead, we can say something like, “I see how much is hurting. I want you to know that I am here.”

“Your person is in a better place.” “But they are not here…with me, right now.”

This can be felt as dismissive. It can make the person feel ashamed for feeling sad. Comments like this can keep people from doing the important work of processing their pain.

Instead we can say something like, “I’m so sorry you have to go through this.”

“Your person would want you to move on.” As we covered in this module, grief has no time limits. When this is said to someone, they can hear it as this: “your grief is taking a long time…you need to get over this.”
“I know that things will get better for you.” You don’t actually know that. You can be holding hope for someone, but you don’t have a crystal ball.

Consider some other ways you can share hope with them, rather than a platitude. What can you do to share hope?

“God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” We don’t know what someone’s religious beliefs are. Also, this makes no logical or theological sense. Horrific things happen to good people.
“At least you had some good times with that person. Treasure those moments.” Again, this negates their pain. Instead say, “tell me about your person? Tell me a story.”

Many people, but not everyone, love talking about their loved ones who they have lost. For some people it can keep the memory alive. Follow the person’s lead with this. Don’t push them to talk if they don’t want to.

“I know how you feel.” Everyone’s experience of loss is different.

Instead, “I don’t know what you are feeling, but know that I am here.”

“Cheer up!” This again, negates someone’s feelings.

However, continue to be invitational. Invite someone to go for a walk, out for coffee or out to see a movie. Be ok if they say no, but never stop asking.



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Post-Secondary Peer Support Training Curriculum Copyright © 2022 by Jenn Cusick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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