If you want to help people in transition—cultural, geographic, and vocational transition—then you’ll need to deal with the grief that comes with their losses. Here’s a great resource for that, A LifeCare Guide to Helping Others Cope with Grief. (LifeCare is a leading provider of “work-life services.”) While this publication is aimed at comforting people who have lost a loved one, the advice it gives can be applied to those with cross-cultural transitional loss as well.
It opens with the second half of this quotation from Henri Nouwen, from Out of Solitude: Three Meditations on the Christian Life:
[W]hen we honestly ask ourselves which persons in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving much advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a gentle and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief or bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.
Here are eleven tips from Helping Others Cope with Grief to guide us in being that “friend who cares.” Each one is followed by a short excerpt to help explain the idea. I have, when necessary, replaced some words (in brackets) in order to to apply the advice to people experiencing loss due to cross-cultural transition—a group including all cross-cultural workers, their parents and family left back “home,” Third Culture Kids, expats, and repats:
- Mention the [lost relationships, places, and things], and acknowledge your awareness of the loss.
. . . . Many people avoid mentioning the [loss], fearing it will remind the grieving person of his or her pain. . . . [B]ut behaving as if you don’t remember or are unaware of your [friend’s] pain often leaves him or her feeling very alone.
- Listen to your [friend].
. . . . The most important thing you can offer someone who is grieving is your ability to listen without judgment. A good rule to follow is to listen 80 percent of the time and talk 20 percent. . . .
- Insist that your [friend] see a doctor if he or she exhibits signs of depression.
Intense grief can lead to depression. If your friend seems unusually depressed or withdrawn, suggest that he or she seek professional help. . . .
- Encourage your [friend] to make wise choices.
Urge the person who is grieving to pay attention to his or her own needs, and make choices accordingly. . . .
- Offer practical help; don’t wait to be asked.
. . . . Make specific offers several times, and encourage your friend to take you up on your offers. Avoid phrases such as, “Let me know if I can help.” Usually, he or she won’t let you know for fear of imposing on you. . . .
- Remember that grieving is a long process.
The person you care about may be grieving for a long time. Several months or more after the transition, he or she may actually be feeling the loss more acutely, and much of his or her support system will have backed off. . . .
- Offer your companionship.
Your presence can be comforting to a grieving [friend]; you don’t have to do anything special. Often, grieving people just do not want to be alone.
- Don’t minimize the loss.
Be careful not to say, “I know exactly how you feel.” . . . Instead, use statements such as, “I know this is difficult,” . . . or some other statement that is heartfelt and accurate, but leaves room for the uniqueness of your [friend’s] experience.
- Encourage your [friend] to share his or her feelings.
Avoid saying things like, “Be strong for…” or “Don’t cry.” This sends the message that you are uncomfortable with your [friend’s] intense feelings and, therefore, you will leave him or her emotionally alone. . . . Instead, encourage your [friend] by saying, “It’s okay to cry,” or “You don’t have to be so strong.”
- Help your [friend] create new traditions/rituals/activities.
. . . . Holidays and other events filled with tradition can . . . be especially hard to deal with; try to help your [friend] discover new ways to experience these events. At the same time, he or she should be encouraged to cherish the memories and/or traditions associated with the [people and places no longer close by].
- Give advice cautiously.
Avoid offering advice with phrases such as, “You should…” or “You need to….” . . . . Instead, give advice that encourages the grieving person to trust him or herself and make choices based on his or her needs, rather than on what others think he or she should be doing or feeling.
(A LifeCare Guide to Helping Others Cope with Grief, LifeCare, 2001)
[photo: “B,” by Eugene’s Likeness, used under a Creative Commons license]