One of the things I try to be is helpful. A hand if you need one, a shoulder, an ear, a hug, my thoughts. Basically lending body parts to support people in whatever way they need.
This is especially true when it comes to my kids, whose survival and well-being were my responsibility for so many years. But now that they are in their 20s, my job has evolved to helping them help themselves rather than doing the helping myself.
The evolution from a parent-child relationship to one that’s more adult-to-adult is gradual and uneven.
Sometimes they need me more than others.
And I occasionally still feel like swooping in with various kinds of support, especially when they experience something new and difficult.
That is what happened last weekend, when my daughter and her boyfriend lost one of their closest friends to suicide.
This has to be one of the worst things your child (or anyone) can experience; it has devastated them.
We were together when it happened, on a family holiday, so the rest of us were able to offer hugs and sympathy and tissues and words of love and compassion—and even some distraction—for the first couple of days. Then the two of them went back home.
Over the past week, as they braved the wake and the funeral and have been in deep grieving, they wanted to process on their own, without the pressure of phone conversations. I get it.
Being me, though, it’s been hard not to help more. So it has been an opportunity to stretch and grow as a parent: to trust in their capacity to know what they need and to do the hard work themselves.
To let them be in the pain that is normal under the circumstances, and to be adults, even when adulting is so hard.
I’ve also had my own emotional work to do: trying not to over-empathize with their pain and even that of their friend’s parents.
As someone who rates highly on the empath scale, I genuinely ache for their ache. But not only is this unhelpful to people who are suffering, it can a) make it harder to offer the kind of loving but unattached support they need, and b) make them feel like they need to comfort me on top of all the other emotional burdens they’re carrying right now.
(I read long ago that feeling responsible for their parents’ feelings is one of the most stressful things in a child’s life.)
So here are four helpful things I have done this week and that you can do, too, if you’re ever the witness to someone else’s emotional pain:
1. Ask what would be most helpful
Ask what they need. Maybe they want to talk about it, maybe they don’t. Maybe they’d love you to be there, or maybe they want their own space. Maybe supportive text messages like, “Thinking of you and sending love” feel good, maybe they don’t. Just ask, and then honor their wishes.
2. Trust in everyone’s resilience, unless you see it isn’t working
Process your own thoughts and emotions and trust the other person to be able to do the same. That said, if anyone involved finds themselves stuck in deep pain or in a stage of grief (particularly depression) and unable to move on, get support—anything from a grief coach to a trained therapist to a suicide hotline.
3. Practice compassion and self-compassion
Be loving and compassionate, and encourage them to be compassionate to themselves, too. One suggestion I did make to the kids this week was this: “Say to yourself, “Of course you feel ___________ (sad, awful, shocked, disbelief, pain, [even angry], etc.). Anyone in your situation would feel the same. It’s natural that you would feel this way. And I’m here to give you comfort whenever you need it.”
It might seem odd speaking to yourself in the second person, but this taps into the part of us that is unshakable. There is always part of us that is okay, and this helps us activate it. It also gives us a little space from those thoughts and emotions—a tiny light in the darkness. A gentle breeze for the soul.
Here’s how I used this for myself this week: “Of course you feel achy and want to do all you can to help. You wish there were something you could do to take away their pain. That’s what love does.” It truly helped.
4. Be patient
Give it time. We can’t rush through grief.
Someday, possibly soon, my daughter and her boyfriend will be ready for more outside support. And when they do, I’ll be there with all my helpful body parts. But for now, I’ll do my best to follow my own good advice.
If emotional pain is tough, get in touch with me, and let’s find your courage and bring more joy to life.
Get in touch.