The practice of yoga invites us to sit with discomfort, even asking pain to tell us its story so we can better respond and heal. But what happens when the discomfort isn’t in your body, but in the mind and heart of someone you love?
Here’s the truth: Grief and loss are a large part of our lives. They show up with the friend who had a miscarriage, the colleague whose parent just died, or when a chronic illness changes your family’s life. And it’s not just grief in your personal life that you’ll have to face; with so much loss and heartbreak in the news, we are increasingly asked to respond skillfully to the pain of the world. The practice of showing up for what hurts is part of a yogic relationship with the world, even if it doesn’t involve asana.
The problem is, most of us don’t really talk about grief—so it’s common to feel ill-equipped to know what to do when someone in your world is in a dark place. Western culture is stuck in a decades’ old model of grief that isn’t in line with what we know about healthy interpersonal relationships. Cheering people up, telling them to look on the bright side, and even encouraging them to find the gift inside their pain—none of this works. If we’re going to get better at supporting each other and have a shot at getting at what we all really want—to love and be loved inside our deepest pain—we need to talk about what isn’t working and what really helps.
What I hear from my students and clients is that what they most want is to be acknowledged in their grief, not encouraged out of it. It seems counterintuitive, but the way to make someone feel better is to let them be in pain. It’s actually a radical act to let things hurt. And because it’s so radical, it’s not always easy. It might feel awkward or uncomfortable to simply let pain exist. Breaking the habit of giving advice or cheering someone up can feel strange at first. But that awkward feeling is a good sign. It means you’re moving in a new direction.
To help you get even better at supporting a grieving friend or family member, here are eight basic ground rules. Paired with classic yogic teachings on the power of presence and being comfortable with discomfort, these simple guidelines can help you be the friend you most want to be to your loved ones, students, colleagues, and anyone else in your life who are most in need.
When someone you love is grieving, you might want to try to “fix” things or cheer that person up. Yet much of the advice and “help” given to the grieving person tells them they should be doing this differently, or feeling differently than they do. Grief is a very personal experience, one which belongs entirely to the person experiencing it.
You may believe you would do things differently if loss like this ever happens to you, but this grief belongs to your friend. So, follow her lead. Keep your suggestions and corrections to yourself, unless your friend asks for advice.
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It’s tempting to make statements about the past or the future when someone’s present holds so much pain. Yet you can’t know what the future will be, for yourself or for your friend. What’s more, the fact that your friend’s life was good in the past is not a fair trade for the pain of now. Stay present with your friend, even when the present is full of pain.
You might also be inclined to make generalized statements about the situation in an attempt to soothe your friend. However, you cannot know that your friend’s loved one “finished their work here” or that they are in a “better place.” These future-based, omniscient, generalized platitudes aren’t helpful. Stick with the truth: “This hurts. I love you. I’m here for you.”
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When someone’s grieving, try not to say something like, “Call me if you need anything,” because there’s a good chance your friend will not call—not because they don’t need anything, but because identifying a need, figuring out who might fill that need, and then making a phone call to ask is likely light years beyond their energy levels, capacity, or interest. Instead, make concrete offers: “I will be there at 4 p.m. on Thursday to bring your recycling to the curb,” or “I will stop by each morning on my way to work and give the dog a quick walk.”
One caveat here: Don’t do anything that is irreversible unless you check with your friend first. That empty soda bottle beside the couch may look like trash, but it may have been left there by your friend’s deceased husband just the other day; the dirty laundry may be the last thing your friend has that smells like her mother. See where I’m going here?
See also Healing Heartbreak: A Yoga Practice to Get Through Grief
To the new griever (or the person living with a chronic illness, or sudden devastating life change), the influx of people who want to show their support can be overwhelming. What is an intensely personal and private time can begin to feel like living in a fish bowl. There might be ways you can shield and shelter your friend by setting yourself up as the designated point person—the one who relays information to the outside world, or organizes well-wishers. Showing up as a gatekeeper can be really helpful.
See also 10 Ways to be Fearless in the Face of Grief and Loss
You may find that other friends, family members, and casual acquaintances ask for information about your friend. You can, in this capacity, be a great educator—albeit subtly. You can normalize grief with responses like, “She has better moments and worse moments and will for quite some time. An intense loss changes every detail of your life.” If someone asks you about your friend a little further down the road, you might say things like, “Grief never really stops. It is something you carry with you in different ways.
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In a culture that believes grief should be over and done within six months (a year, if we’re feeling gracious), most grieving people feel like the outside world abandons them once they’ve passed that one-year mark. The truth, however, is that grief itself is often harder in year two than it is in year one. Once the shock begins to wear off, the long hard work of living without a loved one begins to settle in. Just about the time everyone else has moved on is when your friend most needs your companionship. Let your friend know—through your words and your actions—that you’re there for her for the long haul.
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Above all, show your love. Show up. Say something. Do something. Be willing to stand beside the gaping hole that has opened in your friend’s life, without flinching or turning away. Be willing to not have any answers. Listen. Be there. Be present. Be a friend. Be love. Love is the thing that lasts.
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