Have you ever helped an animal in distress and ended up getting bit for it?
An interesting thing happens to an animal when it is hurt, trapped, or otherwise in distress. It doesn’t matter how much that animal normally trusts you or the bond he has with you, his response to your attempts to help him are likely to result in you getting hurt too. It’s not that the animal wants to hurt you, but their fight or flight response has been engaged and they are terrified. The more bonded the animal is to you, the more likely he is to be upset by the fact that he lashed out at you.
We’re not animals, you and I, but we do something similar when we are grieving. Loss throws us off kilter. And it usually results in at least a mild engagement of our autonomic reflexes which control fight or flight. They’re our fear responses.
Because of our cultural familiarity with the “stages of grief” concept, we tend to overlook fear as a normal response to grief. But anyone who has experienced the crushing weight of loss understands the feeling of being trapped by that grief. The inability to breathe, the difficulty in making simple decisions. Throw a bunch of responsibility on that emotional mountain and suddenly the desire to escape grows exponentially. There can be a lot of circumstances which add to the sense of being trapped, but no matter the situation, those helping the bereaved must be aware that there may be a bit of lashing out.
This doesn’t just happen to those who are visibly shaken by loss. The most mild-mannered, put together person can explode when someone steps in to help them in any way. The look of horror that crosses the face of the one who experiences the lashing out is nothing compared to the horror of the one who lashed out. You may not see it, but it is there.
Sometimes it’s easy to recognize that someone is afraid. We see the signs of anxiety and we know to approach with caution. Often, though, anxiety during times of grief is masked. It can be mistaken as myriad other emotions because of the number of emotions we unconsciously associate with grief. Again, the stages of grief has a lot to do with this. Denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and acceptance are the oft thought of emotional responses of people who are grieving. There is some acknowledgement that these may not occur in the order laid out by Kubler-Ross and Kessler, but we seem to automatically assume that these are the emotions of grief without understanding that others exist.
Any one of those emotions, as well as many others, may mask the presence of fear or may be the misunderstood result of fear. Often brewing beneath any of these is a cauldron of worries that don’t surface until they spew out like a previously dormant volcano.
So what is the person who wishes to help to do?
First of all, understanding that fear may be an underlying factor will help you approach the hurting person in a way that will be non-threatening. Often when a frightened animal needs outside assistance, the one who helps offers a distraction and/or covers the animal’s eyes. Again, I know we aren’t animals, but I think the analogy fits. Popping right in and saying, “I see you’re struggling,” probably isn’t going to help a whole lot. Now, I do know people who will breathe a sigh of relief if you are that forward with them, but unless you are absolutely certain this is one of those people, I do not recommend this approach. A better approach would be to offer to go for a walk, a cup of coffee, even on a weekend retreat (for example if your church has an upcoming retreat already planned). Get them out of their context and talk about anything other than the grief unless they bring it up. If they do, follow their lead. Your approach should not be subterfuge, but often what a grieving person needs more than anything is a distraction. They need something other than funeral plans, legal headaches, and sorting through belongings to occupy their minds. If they need to talk about their hurt, often they will be more comfortable doing it in a relaxed setting anyway, especially if no one is forcing them to do it.
Additionally, understand that even if the hurting person doesn’t lash out, you are most likely not going to come out of this situation unscathed. Taking on someone else’s pain is rarely a clean business. Be prepared for what this is going to do to you as well. If you think you can walk in, take on their pain, and not somehow be touched by it, you’re probably going to portray a cavalier attitude toward their pain that is going to cause them to withdraw rather than allow you access. If you know going in that it might hurt, even if it doesn’t end up dramatically changing you, you are far more likely to be gentle with the person you are trying to help. Your calm, gentle approach is very likely to soothe their fears enough that they can let you help.
Lastly, if you aren’t willing to address the fear, you probably aren’t going to be able to address the grief. Reaching into a situation without de-escalating it only amplifies the problem. A wounded animal isn’t going to let you near their wound until they know you aren’t going to hurt them more. If you barely know someone and interject yourself into their pain, it doesn’t matter how good your intentions are, they are going to fight you more than if they know you. Even if you know each other well, there is likely still going to be some level of fear that they are going to lose you too. You may think they’re emotionally bleeding out and that it’s such an emergency you need to charge in. Be willing to respond counter-intuitively and take your time. If they aren’t ready to let you in, you’re pushing is just going to cause more hurt and more blood loss. Figure out what they need to help them feel less like you are intruding and more like you are partnering with them. They will eventually be able to let someone in, and it may not be you. You may just be paving the way for someone else to get to the wound; accept that. You still helped even if you never talked about the grief.
Grief feels like being trapped; responding to someone’s pain with that understanding makes you more effective at helping them and also sets a good example for others who will eventually need to help someone else.