When People Talk, Great Things Happen
Americans seem to prefer “doing” rather than “being.” When someone dies, we feel that we have to “do” something for the bereaved, not “be” something. Wait: think. Just sit and listen. That’s better. That’s “being.” The gift of self is greater than the effort to act, and action too often minimizes the grief of the bereaved. It surrenders to an impulse to turn away from death and grief pain. It tends to deny death. Doing tends to minimize grief and maximize denial.
That is exactly the opposite of what the bereaved person needs and wants most. His first and primary response to loss is always a sense of aloneness. This is a simple law of gravity. His greatest need is connection with others. The greatest need is to be with others who will listen and hold a hand and try to understand the pain of loss. To be heard is to be respected and valued because it affirms life, health and growth. It is a small candle of light into a future that temporarily appears dim.
For the listener, looking inward is healthier than the impulse to run away. The easy way is not always the best way. Following the impulse is the easy way. Insight is harder to achieve. “Sometimes we make a difference less by what we do than what we are” (Stacks 2005). What we do for the bereaved person matters less than who we are. Sometimes it takes courage to be insightful. Sometimes it is a struggle because death is frightening for everyone. Fighting that fear takes willpower. Insight achieved might be necessary in order to stop “doing” and listen carefully, compassionately, and patiently to the bereaved person. Listening matters. Taking time to listen matters. Time is vitally important. Take time to talk. Talking is renewable energy. Listening and talking make a difference to the bereaved and to the listener as well.
It is clear that active listening will point the way to “doing.” First, we must know the bereaved person’s special and unique thoughts and needs of the moment. We must know who he is, right then and there. Only when we know his place in the grief work can we begin to consider what actions might be most helpful. Knowing takes listening. Listening takes time.
Making prior assumptions about “doing” will usually rob the bereaved of his/her sense of uniqueness and being understood, and exceptions must exist. For example, grief support groups can be lifesavers. The rule remains: prior assumptions about “doing” are often misguided and hurtful. “Doing” is a consequence of “being.”
Our society has it backwards. Being comes first, and then doing. However, perhaps the best “doing” is being there, with time to listen and talk. Listening is also a very special action, one that fully recognizes the mourner’s pain of loss and grief. The circle is unbroken, but let’s be sure that we change ourselves first. Gandhi was wise: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”
* Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, PhD. To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility, New York: Schocken Books, 2005, p. 239