The Journey - Your Newsletter

When to Say Nothing At All
How to Talk to a Friend Who Is Grieving
By Julia Englund Strait, Ph.D.
On a 98-degree Texas summer day, I sat outside with a friend who had lost her teenage daughter the week before. A few months earlier, I had stared at my phone trying to figure out how to call another friend who was five months  pregnant  when her husband was killed in a car crash. As I write, I have just learned via text message that yet another friend lost the baby she’s been trying to make for years.

And these past two weeks, as demonstrations against institutional racism have raged on, I have sat awkwardly silent next to friends of color, wanting to say something worthwhile but coming up short.

"What can I say in these moments
when there are no words?"

Every day as a psychologist, I sit quietly and listen as new tragedy tumbles forth from my patients’ mouths, squirming with my own uncertainty about what to say, about whether I can really help them.

I am learning, very slowly, that the words are not important.

I am not choosing to remain silent—far from it. I am learning to speak with my presence. To show up. Bear witness. To simply hold a space--a container--as  early psychodynamic thinkers  would have called it, for others to experience their pain.

When a friend comes to us in dire emotional pain, we usually feel a strong  "righting reflex,"  an urge to fix it. Our brains see a problem, and we want to solve it.
Resist the "righting" reflex--trying to fix your friend's pain.
Resist the urge to take control yourself by turning emotional pain into a more manageable, tangible problem with an identifiable solution. Or by comparing it to your own experiences (now is not the time).
Tens of thousands of years ago, as we roamed the Savanna, survival depended on our ability to kick it up a notch at the first sign that something wasn’t quite right. This has shaped our brains into what Russ Harris calls  problem-solving machines .

How do you get rid of problems? Easy, you solve them. And so, the logic goes, you get rid of pain by finding the source and smashing it.

But how often have you come home from work, still ruminating on some off-hand comment or sticky interaction, and complained to a partner or friend about the predicament…only to experience total outrage at their suggestions? Many arguments in my home end this way: “I don’t want you to fix it! I just want you to listen!” Tears, apologies, more tears. And eventually, a hug, or silence. Which is all I probably wanted in the first place.

Offering solutions and resources is called  instrumental support . Sometimes it’s definitely needed. Donations need coordinating, meals planned, funeral preparations made. And of course, when there is injustice, we have no choice but to act.

"And in addition, sometimes your friend
just needs you to be there."

This is emotional support, and it's an essential ingredient for improving the well-being of both giver and receiver. In fact, studies show that even instrumental support should be accompanied by emotional engagement  in order to be effective  for the receiver. Further, instrumental support may yield much of its positive effects  because it communicates emotional meaning .

Given these facts, these are the things I’m learning to do as I sit with people in their pain:

1. Show up—any way you can.

Just be present, physically (or electronically). I have had multiple patients tell me about  dreams  in which unidentified others simply sat next to them in a room, and it brought an unexplained sense of calm. We are  social creatures . Presence is everything.

How do we make our presence known, particularly from afar? If circumstances warrant at least a few words, make the first move: Ask how it’s going, shoot a simple text, or set up a video chat. It doesn’t have to be in the same room, and it doesn’t have to be fancy. You don’t even have to mention the elephant in the room, the tragedy. Just say, “Hi. I’m here” in whatever way you can.

Be honest about your intention ("I want to help") and confusion ("I don’t know what to say"). In my experience, people appreciate transparency much more than false  confidence .

2. Resist the  righting reflex.

Resist the urge to take control yourself by turning emotional pain into a more manageable, tangible problem with an identifiable solution. Or by comparing it to your own experiences (now is not the time).

These urges come from our need as helpers to feel control over uncertainty. We want to make pain concrete so that we can visualize more predictable outcomes. We want to smash that pesky heartache just as badly as they do, because it makes us both squirm. You have to be willing to sit with your own discomfort if you want to help absorb someone else’s.

3. Learn to (really) listen.

Deeply, respectfully listen,  with your mind hovering over what seems important to your friend —not leaping forward to what it means, how to solve it, what brilliant suggestion you’ll give next, or otherwise.

Instead of advice, listening might be followed by reflecting, validating, and normalizing feelings. Feelings are always understandable, given the circumstances, even if the events that caused them are not. This sentiment is at the core of real  empathy . A simple, “I can totally understand why you feel that way” can go a long way in making someone feel less “crazy” or alone.

And although “validation” has become something of a cliché in pop psychology, sending the message that it’s okay to feel what you’re feeling is the very heart of human connection. Trying to problem-solve or force happy onto someone is, likewise, the quickest route to making them feel misunderstood and alone.

On that sweltering Texas morning, as I sat with my friend who had lost her daughter, in a courtyard full of people all blissfully unaware, something deep within me started to settle. The longer I drew out the uncomfortable silences, the more she sobbed, and the more she was able to speak, to give words to her pain.

We may have been there for a few minutes, or several hours. I do not know, because for once in my otherwise selfish life, I was able to simply sit. To clear a space and a time for pain to unfold on its own terms. And to be—a human  being , not a human doing. To be present for someone else.


Meet Julia Englund Strait, Ph.D.
Julia Englund Strait, Ph.D. is a psychologist and educator in Houston, Texas. She specializes in treating young women with emotional difficulties related to depression, mood swings, anxiety, and trauma. Dr. Strait is a Nationally Certified Trauma-Focused Behavior Therapy (TF-CBT) Therapist and has specialized training in mindfulness, mindful self-compassion, intuitive eating, and other treatment modalities specific to trauma and mood issues.

You can find her private practice here  

and her Psychology Today blog here

Follow her on Instagram @drjuliatx\\\\
“We’re All Anxious, Sweetie.”
A Touching Covid Story
By Elaine Voci, Ph.D.
The sign said, “Keep your windows rolled up. Pull up slowly to the first table, put your car in park, and wait for instructions.” A masked and energetic man came to the driver’s side of my car and held a printed sign up to my window which read: “Please call me on this number and I will give you instructions.” I called and he began, “Hold your printed registration form up to the window please,” followed by a few questions that required yes or no responses. Then, he tied a strip of pink plastic on my side mirror to identify me as having been registered to proceed in the long line of cars inching their way toward the testing area. On a rainy Thursday in Indianapolis, I became one of thousands of volunteers to be tested for the presence of the virus using nasal swabs.

The entire process was well organized, and each stop on the way was staffed by people wearing masks whose eyes showed them to be caring, concerned professionals working to ensure that everything would go smoothly. When I made the turn into the testing area, it was like coming upon a small, remote village of people heavily dressed in bulky layers of personal protective equipment, with large, bubble-domed helmets trailing hoses down their backs that swayed as they moved, making them look like science-fiction creatures. They were aided by watchful and masked police who, in deadly earnest, were keeping the lines of cars moving carefully through the test area. I began to feel overwhelmed seeing just how thoroughly the testers needed to protect themselves from this lethal virus, and from those of us in our cars. The gravitas of their mission, and my role in it, hit home, and I felt anxiety creeping up into my chest. The space inside my car suddenly felt tight and confining.
Her Manner Was Kind
“Thank you for your service. I don’t know why but I felt so anxious coming here today.” With kind eyes, she quietly responded, “We are all anxious, sweetie. You have a blessed day” and withdrew, returning to her table as I restarted my car and drove out into the rain.
A policeman waved at me to pull up to a marked line and then gestured for me to stop, turn off the car’s engine, and wait to be approached. A fully garbed tester came from behind a row of tables and walked over, signaling for me to lower my window. She reached inside to hand me a brightly colored paper describing how to get my test results, and another outlining a description of the study, and two tissues “because the swab might make your eyes water.” Her manner was kind, compassionate, and professional. In quick movements, she instructed me to lean my head back, and then swabbed both nostrils vigorously. She withdrew the swabs, placed them into a tube and then into a large plastic bag that she sealed. She said, “There, we’re done. I hope it wasn’t too uncomfortable.” I replied, “Compared to what the doctors and nurses are going through, it was no trouble at all.” A faint smile crossed her face, and I felt encouraged to add, “Thank you for your service. I don’t know why but I felt so anxious coming here today.” With kind eyes, she quietly responded, “We are all anxious, sweetie. You have a blessed day” and withdrew, returning to her table as I restarted my car and drove out into the rain.

"I am reminded of the words of President Franklin D. Roosevelt:
'Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the
assessment that something else is more important than fear.' "

A sense of weary release, and gratitude for her kindness and compassion, swept over me, and I began to weep. “This virus is deadly”, I thought, “but she overcomes her daily fear in order to collect these vital nasal samples while not forgetting her humanity.” In the brief moment we shared, I felt seen by this kind stranger, and deeply touched by the profound experience of witnessing love in action. I needed to cry, and I reached out to a dear friend who is a nurse I met when we went through hospice volunteer training together. I knew she would understand the mix of my emotions, and would say comforting things to help me process my feelings; by the time I arrived home, I felt tired but cared for.

The experience may not have been designed to help volunteers deal with the grief that we are all going through during this pandemic, but in my case, it was beneficial in that way. I am a life coach, a celebrant, and a writer. In each of these roles I deal with grief frequently, including my own. We are all grieving so many losses that have unfolded since January; losses that have come unbidden, including the losses of loved ones, of personal freedom, of income, and the loss of our most basic human needs to hug, touch, and hold one another. 
How best can we help one another?
At a time when all of us are experiencing high levels of stress and anxiety, science gives us a simple and effective way to strengthen our emotional well-being: to help ourselves, the best place to begin is by helping others.

The research on resilience shows that when we have a sense of clear purpose and give support to others, we increase our ability to bounce back from adversity. There is something called a “helper’s high” identified in research that shows volunteering, donating money, or just thinking about donating time or money, can release feel-good chemicals to stimulate the part of the brain that produces pleasure.
Being in the study was a way of letting go of some of my stress, and the ongoing sense of helplessness that I have felt in the face of the virus. It provided a way for me to do something concrete, something more than worry, or simply talk about, a disease that is causing so much fear, despair, and suffering. So, I am grateful that I could participate. I am grateful that the brave woman who tested me had not lost her sense of humanity in spite of a pandemic. In this meaningful experience, I am reminded of the words of President Franklin D. Roosevelt: “Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the assessment that something else is more important than fear.”

At a time when all of us are experiencing high levels of stress and anxiety, science gives us a simple and effective way to strengthen our emotional well-being: to help ourselves, the best place to begin is by helping others.

The research on resilience shows that when we have a sense of clear purpose and give support to others, we increase our ability to bounce back from adversity. There is something called a “helper’s high” identified in research that shows volunteering, donating money, or just thinking about donating time or money, can release feel-good chemicals to stimulate the part of the brain that produces pleasure. Volunteers have been shown to have a lower level of the stress hormone, cortisol, on those days when they donate their time and talent. Lastly, feeling responsible for other people, having what is called a “felt obligation” to sacrifice for others, acts as a protective factor in life and buffers our bodies against the detrimental physical effects of distressing conditions and events.

In a time of social distancing, we might wonder how best can we help one another? The good news is that you don’t have to take big steps, or sweeping actions; small gestures and support can be helpful to the giver and receiver. Donating money; making masks; calling our elderly neighbors to see if they are doing okay; giving advice, or lending a listening ear, all of these actions can contribute and make a difference in the lives of others. Just getting outside of ourselves, and finding meaning and purpose in something that is greater than us, can bring a deep sense of comfort, a sense of control, and help us manage our own emotions.

In closing, I hope you stay well, do good, and don’t forget to wash your hands!
Meet Elaine Voci, Ph.D.
Elaine is a Life Coach in private practice in Carmel, IN, and a published author of eleven books, including Resilience Art: A Grief Coloring Book (For more information and to  order:  https://elainevoci.com/resilience-art/ )
and The Five Most Harmful Myths About Grief.
To order, contact Elaine directly at  elainevoci@elainevoci.com
She is also a Certified Life Cycle Celebrant and provides individuals and families in the greater Indianapolis area with funerals, celebrations of life, and other ceremonies that mark life’s important transitions. 

 For more information visit Elaine at her website  www.elainevoci.com
Open/drop-in group information online at griefHaven.org or call 310-459-1789 or email hope@griefHaven.org
OUR ONLINE GROUPS ARE SPECIAL

DURING THIS COVID-19 PERIOD,
we provide two different types
of support groups:

Closed/Private Groups by Losses
Open/Drop-In Groups For All Losses


Private/closed groups by losses include:
CHILD LOSS
SPOUSAL LOSS
SIBLING, PARENT LOSS
(for more, write hope@griefHaven.org about joining a private/closed group)
Order a free Packet of Hope for yourself or someone you care about.

Order Here: Packet of Hope
Our beautiful documentary film, Portraits of Hope: The Parent's Journey , will help parents who have lost a child, as well as their families, those who want to know how to support them, and those who work in the grief arena.

Order Here: Documentary
GRIEF PINS
Being Worn All Over the World

For the person who is grieving.
Makes a loving gift for someone.

In loving memory, this symbolic pin is worn upside-down to represent you have lost someone you love. Read about the symbology of each part by clicking below.

What to Say; What Not to Say
to Someone Who Is Grieving

Not sure what to say to someone who has lost a loved one? That's okay. We've got you covered. Watch this for some guidelines.



Would Love to Have
You Visit Us
www.griefHaven.org
Questions? Please Call or Email
(310) 459-1789
griefHaven | 310-459-1789 | hope@griefHaven.org | www.griefHaven.org