In the series “Light After Loss,” Modern Loss’s Rebecca Soffer discusses ways to navigate the long arc of grief and loss.
Many of us spent most of 2020 — and a good part of 2021 — in various stages of isolation. Now, as we slowly begin to emerge from quarantine and rejoin the world, we will surely find ourselves in conversations that inevitably touch upon the different types of tough times we’ve faced throughout the pandemic.
In a recent “Light After Loss” Facebook Live episode, Modern Loss’ Rebecca Soffer and empathy expert Colter Ray had a conversation on practical ways to show — and ask for — empathy as we become “in person” people again.
Here are some key takeaways from their chat:
What exactly is empathy?
Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and try to understand what they’re going through. If you can really manage to do that, you can feel like you are going through it with them and make them feel seen and validated.
Why do we need empathy in the world?
Empathy can be a great tool that allows us to build bridges with people all over the world. When utilized well, it can help someone to feel less alone in a difficult situation, because they will feel like someone else is willing to sit with them in it, if even for a few minutes.
It’s a great practice to engage in reframing and really think about what other people are going through. Being empathetic can allow you to see where you are in the world and help you to contextualize your own experiences.
How can we start to socialize in a meaningful way?
It’s easy to just envision the first five minutes of interactions with the people we see — the hugs, smiles, and “I’ve missed you so much!” sentiments. But there will be a lot of heavy conversations about the various types of grieving we’ve endured: for lost loved ones, lost jobs, lost roles, and more. So it’s important to learn these three simple rules for being a good listener:
- Stop talking. If a friend starts talking about a person in their life who died or another very difficult experience, try to stop yourself from speaking and make the effort to be fully present with the feelings they’re expressing.
- Don’t think about how to respond. This might seem counterintuitive, but when someone starts sharing an experience that’s heavy, our brains start to focus on how we can respond in the perfect way. Unfortunately by then, we’ve completely stopped paying attention. Try not to worry about what you’ll say. It will help you to pay attention to what they are saying, what they look like, what their bodies are doing, and how they sound.
- Allow a few seconds of silence. Even when someone has stopped talking, give them a bit of silence before you say anything. This gives them some comfortable space to continue sharing — it can take people time to feel comfortable opening up, so they often hold back a little bit of information that might end up being the most meaningful to them. It is important to you as a supporter to hear the whole story.
For more helpful tips from Modern Loss on how to be a mindful listener, check out this article.
What are some helpful empathy starters?
Remember: There isn’t one perfect thing to say. There are some easy ways to make people feel you care, though. The worst option is to say is nothing at all because you’re uncomfortable, scared, or nervous that you’ll say the wrong thing. Here are some ways to communicate with empathy:
- Ask someone how they are doing today or with this right now. When you ask someone a yes or no question or “How are you?” it can really stop the conversation, because they feel pressured to say that they’re fine. If you connect the question with this moment in time, though, you give them permission to open up a little more and share what’s really going on (“Today’s been a tough day because of x and x,” for example, or “Today I’m actually doing a little better, though overall I’m still struggling). The grief process will last months or even years, so giving people a way to share a sliver of that experience is important to their healing and to your connection with them.
- Start off by saying “I’m sorry this has happened to you.” Before you say anything else, take a breath and say this. It’s so important for someone to hear it, and it can go a very long way toward validating what they’ve gone through.
This article was written by ModernLoss.com, which offers a candid conversation about grief and meaningful community throughout the long arc of loss.