Last week, a friend whose mother is dying called me. She is experiencing intense anticipatory grief. On our call, she expressed sadness and feelings of powerlessness. I listened to her, acknowledged the sadness of the situation, and reassured her that her feelings were normal. Our call ended with her still feeling very sad. She thanked me for listening.
I did something very simple on that call but it is something it has taken me years to learn how to do: I listened without trying to fix anything. Nothing about her situation can be fixed; her mom will die. Watching her mom dwindle away will hurt intensely. There was nothing I could do to change the outcome or make her hurt less. All I could do was listen—and yet, by simply listening, I was able to make her feel less alone and help her face her feelings rather than turn away from them.
Listening without trying to fix is something I’ve had to learn how to do, and maybe you need to learn it, too.
Many people think that trying to fix things is an issue for men but not for women, and it may be more of an issue for men than for women, but since my husband’s stroke and death, I’ve had plenty of women as well as men try to “fix” my grief. Perhaps we have so much trouble accepting grief as normal and healthy that even women fall into fixing mode when faced with it. Whenever someone says, “How can I cheer you up?” or launches into explaining to me what worked for them when they were grieving—that’s fixing.
And it’s not helpful.
Grief is not a problem to fix or an obstacle to overcome. It hurts and is messy and may be painful to watch, but it is also a completely normal response to loss. Focusing on making the grief go away misses the point that grief is how we process loss.
Many times since my husband died, I have wanted to share my complicated thoughts, fears, and emotions with others. I have felt the truth of Maya Angelou‘s statement that “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.” Talking about my grief helps me make sense out of it. When I am sharing my grief with someone else, I am looking for connection and acknowledgment. It can be helpful for someone to paraphrase back to me what I’ve said or point out patterns. To do that, the person I’m talking to needs to really listen, not just hear.
When I first began taking listening seriously, I found it very difficult to stay present. My mind wandered, much like it does sometimes during meditation. Sometimes my mind wandered to possible solutions for the person speaking. But just like when I’m meditating, I can notice the wandering and bring my mind back to the present. I can notice solutions or judgments rising up in my mind and let them go without giving them voice.
When you’re listening to someone who is grieving, you may wonder what to say if you’re not trying to fix the situation. You can say, “If you want to talk, I’m happy to listen, but I’m also ok sitting here in silence with you.” You can say, “It totally sucks that your person died.” You can say, “I’m right here. You’re not alone.” You can ask questions about how they feel, how they want to feel, or what they want or need from you.
If you want to offer advice, ask first. You can say something like, “I have an idea of how I might approach this situation. Are you interested in hearing it?” And if they say no, shut up.
I think the urge to fix grows out of a desire to “do something.” When we are quietly listening, we can feel like we aren’t doing anything. It can take some time to learn to be ok with that.
Grief is hard. Listening is hard. Not trying to fix things is hard.