Words and image by Rachel Tenpenny
In 2008, my baby daughters died a few weeks after they were born and I found myself navigating an unwanted and overwhelming season of grief. I didn’t know where to begin the long, winding road to healing. I remember looking at myself in the mirror on the day of my daughters’ funerals and wondering what in the world I was going to do now. What was even more disappointing was that no one else seemed to know what to do either.
I searched for other women who had gone before me but they were nowhere to be found. I asked for advice but the little I got was vague, generic, or downright nonsensical. It was hard for me to imagine that in 2008, such a lack of understanding still existed, but it did. I promised myself that when I got to the other side of grief I’d come alongside those just beginning with real support. I would offer helpful advice cultivated from my experience of healing, despite the lack of support I’d received from a confused and unprepared culture. Even more importantly, I didn’t want anyone to feel as lonely as I felt if I could help it.
Over the last decade, I’ve learned more than I ever imagined about what it means to take responsibility for my own heart. I’ve experienced deep healing without demanding society or others to make things easier for me. However, even with this understanding of my responsibility to myself, the support of others has played a powerful role in my healing journey. Those who showed up well for me provided indescribable comfort to my aching heart during the most difficult time of my life.
I’ve learned that one of the hardest experiences in life aside from our own emotional suffering is watching someone we love suffer, especially when we are not sure how to help them. Life doesn’t automatically prepare us to know what to do for others as they face innumerable variations of loss and grief. Watching a best friend go through a divorce, a sister lose a baby, or a child reel from trauma can leave us feeling confused and powerless. This sense of inadequacy can cause us to withhold the help our loved ones need, or do well-intentioned yet unhelpful (even harmful) things out of a lack of understanding or knowledge. There is, unfortunately, a lot of misinformation out there that can cause us to heap pain on pain when our good intentions miss the mark. The good news is it's not too late. By educating ourselves, we can show up better.
Here are three simple things anyone can do to offer support that matters during a season of crisis:
1. Embrace silence; avoid platitudes and cliches.
The first thing that comes to mind is all of the well-intentioned, but deeply hurtful, things people said to me after Aubrey and Ellie died. What do you tell a mom who just buried her babies? Well, I can tell you that less words are more. Just being there helped my broken heart tremendously. Don’t feel pressure to say anything. You can convey more love and support in your silence than you may realize. Especially refrain from platitudes and cliches. Phrases like time heals all wounds, everything happens for a reason, or what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, just made me want to scream. I didn’t feel loved or supported by those vague and impersonal phrases; I felt invalidated and patronized.
It's hard to sit with someone in pain. Our natural human instinct is to try to relieve the pain, but those who are most effective in their support know that not only is that not the goal, it isn’t possible. The silent presence of others became a gift to me. Ironically, it offered what is usually the intent behind a cliche or platitude: real comfort during one of the hardest times of my life. When you find yourself at a loss for words or unsure if what you want to say will hurt or help, choose silence. Silence speaks volumes to broken hearts. Hurting people don’t need to be pep-talked, told to keep a gratitude journal, or admonished to think positively. Cliches and platitudes have no benefit in times of emotional pain. Instead, just be there. Be the safe and silent friend who will walk alongside them in solidarity instead of coaching or cheerleading from the sidelines.
2. Hang around for longer than six weeks.
I’m not sure why this is, but there is this six-week window of time after something hard happens where people show up to bring meals, cards, hugs, and support. They call to check in. They make their way to you when they see you in church or in town just to ask how you are. They keep you on their radar. Unfortunately, after six weeks it all comes to an end. I don’t have a scientific explanation for this mysterious six week time frame, but nonetheless, it is true. What is also true is that grievers need more than six weeks of support. I certainly did.
If you really want to show up well for a hurting person in your life, stick around. You don’t have to bombard or smother them, but be there well beyond six weeks. Depending on the situation, they may need love and support for years. Don’t expect them to reach out to you and ask if they need anything. Grieving people often feel like a burden to others and don’t ask for help. Take it upon yourself to call and check in. Keep them on your radar. Keep letting them know you have them on your heart and mind. They need you. They need to know you still see them and you still care. Broken hearts don’t heal according to other people’s timelines. Losses are not processed in specific, convenient amounts of time. Your devotion to their timeline and your dedication to their unique process will be an immeasurable support on their healing journey.
3. Make self-care a priority.
Walking with someone through their toughest seasons in life requires unbelievable courage and strength. To really show up well, especially for any length of time, will require intentional self-care on your part. If you don’t get the emotional support you need to be there for someone else, you’ll burn out. You don’t have superpowers. You are just as human as the one you are trying to support. Part of the reason we struggle to love others well in seasons of pain is because we don’t even know how to love ourselves well. Activities like regular exercise, healthy eating, and rest are essential. Adopting a daily tea ritual and journaling may also be restorative. Find someone you can talk to and build the support system you need as well. Your ability to love others is directly proportionate to your ability to love yourself. It isn’t selfish to make yourself a priority. As a matter of fact, it's the wisest thing you can do while walking with someone through grief. Having someone to talk to and building your own support system will enable you to pour from a full cup into the life of a hurting friend. Self-care is not selfish. It’s the wisest thing you can do if you want to offer support that matters.
About the Author:
Rachel Tenpenny is a Certified Grief Recovery Specialist and co-founder of Teamotions, a company devoted to emotional healing. She created a line of teas blended with adaptogen herbs for emotional well-being and stress support. She currently lives in Virginia with her two sons, Dustin and Colton, and enjoys cooking, road-tripping, and doing hot yoga when she isn’t writing or speaking about healing after loss.